“English institutions” you might say, “the rule of law, and all that.” Well, yes, but why were the English peculiarly, almost, let’s face it, uniquely, prominent among the bearers of that beneficence? Again, I do not have an explanation. It has something to do, I feel sure, with the habit of liberty, the contagious temperament of freedom.
It’s a trait that has been widely noticed. The Czech writer Karel Čapek visited England in the 1920s. Writing about the country a few years later, he observed that the Englishman “stays in England all the time even when he happens to be somewhere else, say, Naples or Tibet. . . . England is not just a certain territory; England is a particular environment habitually surrounding Englishmen.” Santayana registered something similar in his essay on “The British Character” in Soliloquies in England (1922). “What governs the Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul.”
Instinctively the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror. He prefers the country to the town, and home to foreign parts. He is rather glad and relieved if only natives will remain natives and strangers strangers, and at a comfortable distance from himself. Yet outwardly he is most hospitable and accepts almost anybody for the time being; he travels and conquers without a settled design, because he has the instinct of exploration. His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind. Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.
“Scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics”: I see them all about us. And you do as well. The question is whether Santayana’s agreeable observations should be filed under the rubric “As We Were,” like A. C. Benson’s nostalgic look back at a vanished Victorian heyday. The alarming possibility that recent history has presented us with is that the assault of Santayana’s “scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics” may come as much from within the Anglosphere as from outside it. “Civilizations,” observed the political philosopher James Burnham “die, in truth, only by suicide.” What have we been doing to ourselves?
To what extent have the epicenters of the Anglosphere—Britain, North America, Australia—abandoned their allegiance to the core values Alan Macfarlane descried in English society three-quarters of a millennium past: individual liberty and its political correlative, limited government? Take Britain. In a melancholy passage, the critic Anthony Daniels writes that
The huge change in British society, from a free and orderly but very unequal society to a highly regulated but disorderly and rather more equal society, came about because the ruling political passions and desiderata, particularly among the ever-more important intelligentsia, changed from freedom and equality before the law to equality of outcome and physical well-being and comfort. If freedom failed to result in the latter, so much the worse for freedom: very few people in Britain now give a fig for it. The loss of their double-glazing would mean more to them than the loss of their right to say what they like.
A sobering contingency. Is it really as bad as that?