Was there any time in history when the present and the future didn't look shaky? When Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities with the famous line "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," he may have been optimistic. Or so it sometimes seems. Things don't look so good, but I've always believed the glass was at least half full. Here's what's going on.
Our sceptered isle is on a diet. An emergency national budget has thrown the United Kingdom into a public sector austerity not known since World War II. Next year, Britain's adjustment to meet the huge national spending spree under 12 years of Labour government will cost each average British household between £400-500 in VAT tax increase alone. Over the next four years spending cuts of 25 per cent will impact almost every government ministry and markedly decrease public employment. Child benefits will be means tested, public welfare curtailed and disability claims subject to reexamination.
Not since the early days of Margaret Thatcher has the gate so been barred against the treasury door. It's not expected that every corner of British society will go equally gentle into that good night. I don't anticipate either that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is going to find it easy to weather the coming social clamor. The bonhomie with which this noble experiment in political alliance began is already wearing thin, and the back benchers and ideologues of both parties are becoming restless. There will be interesting months ahead in British politics.
Meanwhile, images of Muslim radicals taunting the funeral parades of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan rightly disturb all of Western Civilization. And the national dialog over the identity of Middle England, and even of Britain itself, continues in the background, like the ambient simmer of a tea kettle.
Admittedly, most of us who are Anglophiles are Romantics in some way. We may well be Classical, too, but it is our heart that is stirred by Britannia and her history. We might not agree on what it is exactly that defines it, after all there are both Whigs and Tories amongst us, but it is that Middle England that we love - and we hate to see it having faded over the last two generations.
It's not easy being an Anglophile these days. The Britain of our imagination, with which we identify, seems to have been slowly slipping away.
Alas, that Middle England, real and imagined, is far removed from Britain's population centers, the streets of Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Glasgow, and from Greater London itself - where 20 per cent of Britain's population resides.
Most of the island's largely urban population have never visited a peer's ancestral home, a National Trust garden or had a ploughman's lunch at a country pub. Yet the populist urban weight dictates rural land use, agricultural and social policy. Provincial Britain isn't represented by the media, either; the BBC, ITV, Sky, etc., as well as all the national papers are focused to appeal, well, to city folks, because that is their popular audience.
And, the reality is that the urban population is not an indigenously English or British people. For almost half a century, British immigration policy allowed easy access for Commonwealth citizens to the United Kingdom, and to its jobs and social services. In all Great Britain's large metropolitan areas, and a number of midsized provincial cities, there are significant ethnic communities of recent and second generation émigrés from the West Indies, India, the Far East, Pakistan and colonial Africa - not to mention those newer communities of EU immigrants, predominantly from Eastern Europe. In many or most of these cities, the "native" English working and middle classes are a minority. Social policy under successive Governments has encouraged these affinity groups to maintain and foster their group identity, with public grants to the cultural, religious and community organizations of these ethnic neighborhoods. It's little wonder that Britain is collectively scratching its head in search of identity.
Then, there's Big Brother. There's a reason for the Brits' collective griping over the intrusion of the Nanny State. Over the last decades, health and safety concerns, security concerns and political correctness have all taken their toll on the national culture and heritage of a hard-fought history - CCTV cameras everywhere, churches locked, centuries-old village customs and traditions disallowed. And post offices, village shops and pubs closing at an alarming rate. And, yes, that I can't smoke my pipe in the pub any more is part of the reason they're closing.
No wonder it's hard to be an Anglophile these days. We long for the England of Barchester Towers, Meryton and Mr. Pickwick; the Scotland of Rob Roy and Robert Louis Stevenson; the Wales of Milk Wood and How Green Was My Valley. Our hearts walk the Malvern Hills with Elgar and the Casterbridge of Thomas Hardy. We relish the manor and the market square, the British pride in local history, the unwritten rules, timeless customs and local celebrations that give a character to a people.
I really do hate to join the jeremiad, but I fear it is true. The Britain of today is neither populated nor administrated by a people who share the American Anglophile's ideal of Middle England. The characteristics of the English identity that devolved as a society from the time of the Norman Conquest will indeed continue to disappear - at whatever rate. In some sense, though, that is true of any society, and increasingly in our globalized world on societies built on tribal and ethnic identity. That's cold comfort, isn't it?
Catch Great Britain while you can, though, because it is still there. To be sure, you can still find that incandescent Britain in provincial market towns and in the city centers of the medieval cathedral cities. The Isle of Wight and Winchester, Hexham, Oakham, Lincoln and Norwich.
You can still find it in the villages, in Mousehole, Castle Combe and Jane Austen's own Chawton, in Ambleside, Senghenydd and Llanarmon-yn-Ial.
And between the National Trust, English Heritage and the efforts of countless trusts, benefactors and volunteers, Great Britain preserves its jewels of history, its treasure houses, abbeys, castles and ancient monuments, better than anywhere else on earth.
The incomparable landscapes are there, too, changing every 50 miles or so, richly textured and incredibly varied: the New Forest and the Norfolk Broads, the Western Highlands and the Yorkshire Moors, the South Downs and Snowdonia, the fells of the Lake District and the Peaks.
The local pubs are still there, too, and that's where the people gather. I learned long ago that the pub was absolutely the best place to meet people and to strike up conversation with local folk. The county people gather, too, on market days, and at church and village fetes and local agricultural shows, and at a cornucopia of festivals that market the calendar of every market town. They would be delighted to have you share the day. Slow down your travels and just be part of a place for a day or two.
In the meantime, it's true. Britain's financial woes have meant the continued weakness of the pound against the dollar, with the present rate seemingly stable for the time at just under $1.50 to the pound sterling. That means Britain is cheaper for travel (and shopping) than it has been since the mid-80s. The bad news is that the days of inexpensive airfare seem to be behind us; transatlantic flights are dearer than ever, and likely to stay high. If you can get there, though, now's the time to go. Live the history while the cultural context in which it was built is still most alive.
Yes, it's a hard thing to be an Anglophile these days, but it's still a joy.
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