The dark side of modern Britain is obvious: the July 7 terrorists were home-grown. It’s clear that in some pockets of this country, Muslim youth are lethally alienated from the mainstream. This country has a serious problem on its hands.
Are British leaders wise enough to approach this problem constructively? Before I sing Britain’s praise, I need to note some evidence for pessimism.
London’s mayor claimed that: “Only one approach can bring together our enormous and diverse city. Provided you do not interfere with anyone else’s right to live their life as they wish, you may live your life as you wish … keep doing what makes London so brilliant … keep shopping in the West End, keep going to the great concentration of theatres and cinemas and galleries, keep eating in the best selection of restaurants in the world.”
J.S. Mill could not have said it better, but higher doses of individualism and epicurean leisure are not going to knit this country back together. Bin Laden’s foot soldiers will only sneer.
But there are also some more hopeful things being said, and there is one strand of British rhetoric in recent days which I hope Americans will notice.
Consider, for instance Prime Minister Blair’s speech on Saturday: “It is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas…. This is the battle that must be won, a battle not just about the terrorist methods but their views. Not just their barbaric acts, but their barbaric ideas.”
Although the imagery of this perspective may be martial, the underlying premise is not militaristic. The distinction is crucial.
I am an American who has lived in London for the last five years, and two of the bombs were in my neighborhood. In the hours and days since the attacks, nobody among my acquaintances (or in the media that I noticed) seemed vengeful. Grief, panic, shock, fear, anxiety, and stern resolve were and are much in evidence–but, perhaps surprisingly, I discerned no relish for war.
In other words, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many Britons seemed to frame their response in terms of crime and policing, and to avoid the rhetoric of war and apocalyptic struggle.
Now, in Saturday’s speech, Blair has upped the ante–“what we are confronting here is an evil ideology”–putting the London attacks on the grander scale which they require. But still, note that he is not framing the issue in terms of nationalism or war. The words “war on terrorism” do not appear in his speech.
A Tory member of Parliament published an essay the day before Blair’s speech in the Spectator, one of Britain’s leading conservative magazines. He wrote:
“The question is what action we take now to solve the problem in our own country, and what language we should use to describe such action. The first step, as we swaddle London and Yorkshire with Police/Do Not Cross tape, is to ban the phrase ‘war on terror,’ as repeatedly used by G.W. Bush, most recently on 7 July in Edinburgh…. If we use the vocabulary of war, it gives the maniacs all the more excuse to wage war on us. When Bush said, ‘If you are not with us, you are against us,’ and then invaded Iraq on charges that were frankly trumped-up, he co-opted tens of millions of Muslims into the camp of his enemies, even though they might loathe Saddam. They had nowhere else to go.”
As the Spectator author also observed, when Bush spoke about the “war on terror,” Blair was standing in the background nodding. Blair may be doing less than he should to distinguish himself from Bush’s way of speaking.
But Saturday’s speech is a clue that Blair has something new to offer. Blair and the Spectator would disagree on countless things, but they seem to share a similar disinclination for the rhetoric which is so familiar on the lips of President Bush.
To understand how significant the Spectator article is, to appreciate how different the British rhetorical environment is, try to imagine an American Republican Congressman repudiating the “war on terror” in the National Review or the Weekly Standard. He or she might get away with it once, but it wouldn’t help his prospects for promotion.
In America, speeches about the “war on terror” are easily made into rallies for patriotism. Words like “liberty,” “freedom” and “democracy” are often used in political speeches as if they were American products and exports. Listen to the way an American uses those words, and we can all tell where that American stands in our national culture wars.
In Britain, these words are relatively free of such burdens and guilt by association. In British political-speak, the words are more likely to allude to the 18th century Enlightenment, or even occasionally to the way several centuries of Christianity have modified classical Greek ideals across Europe.
Given this broader, denationalized history, no political party or country can plausibly claim our ideals for itself. As a bystander in British politics, it seems to me that at least some of the political rhetoric over here has a flexibility and an openness which we lack in America. When Brits debate how to defend themselves, nobody’s patriotism is being contested; no single nation is presuming pride of place. The whole conversation is a notch less fraught and hysterical. It is deeply reassuring.
Yes, modern Britain can also be disturbingly secular and commercial; I find the mayor’s mentality chilling. But there is also something healthier happening in British public life, and I wish I could bottle it for export back home.
Chris Roberts, son of a retired Baptist pastor from Baltimore, completed his Ph.D. at Kings College, University of London, July 6 and begins teaching at Villanova University in January.