Thursday, 25 October 2012

What is England's secret? Freedom. Hah.

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And what is [England's] secret? Freedom, ordered freedom, within the law, with force in the background and not in the foreground: a society in which authority and freedom are blended in due proportion, in which state and citizen are both ends and means. It is an empire organised for peace and for the free development of the individual in and through an infinite variety of voluntary associations. It neither deifies the state nor its rulers.
So said Stanley Baldwin in his last speech as Prime Minister in 1937, when we were considered the most important and even the most progressive country in the world. When I was growing up he was loathed for letting Germany rearm and the second hand bookshops groaned with collections of his speeches on the theme of England's greatness. Only I bought and read them. 

Then they seemed charming but banal. Now reading him is desperately sad-making. His praise of the British race seems like something from an extremist right wing group, his praise of the Empire almost as subversive. He extolled horse-drawn ploughs in the English countryside just as the countryside was collapsing into ever deeper depression and the cinema was bringing global culture to the small towns and villages. His premiership coincided with the building of hideous ribbon development that ruined much of the landscape and his government authorised the building of pylons over the fields he eulogised: putting the wires underground was judged to be too expensive.

As for freedom, I used to think of England as a very free country when I came in 1998 to live in Romania. Now when I go back as I did last weekend it feels like a very agreeable police state, patrolled by armed police who are increasingly unpopular. People are gaoled for offensive tweets and for saying homosexual acts are sins. Evangelical street preachers are moved on by the police for handing out pamphlets 'in a Muslim area'. Someone was sent down for revving his car in a racist manner and an Oxford undergraduate spent a night in the cells for telling a policeman his horse was gay. And the list of stories would fill half of cyberspace. 

People in England who wanted to be stroppy used to say 'It's a free country' if you asked if you could sit at their table in a pub or in similar situations. It is impossible to imagine them using the expression any more, except ironically.

Post-Communist Romania is very much freer. How much has changed in both countries since the Revolution of 1989.

4 comments:

  1. That is now sadly ended. You can no longer even speak your mind in England without danger of being charged with hate speech.

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  2. I too have always been struck about the inconsistencies in the Baldwin Weltanschauung - the twee and I believe sincere eulogies of the countryside, as they were undergoing revolutionary transformation

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  3. Jeremy Janson
    Certainly that is part of it, however it is not only freedom from the legal standpoint, but what it is one of many products of: valuing the individual. The Song Dynasty in China in many ways had ordered freedom as well, but never achieved anywhere near as much. The Magna Carta was written less out of love of freedom and more out of the respect and value that the individuals involved were due.

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  4. Baldwin was an honest politician and his books shine forth as a true patriot. He saw the dangers ahead and wanted to re-arm, but the Labour Party voted against this and at every motion until 1938.

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