The terrorist attacks of 7 July, as the ludicrous BBC refuses to call them, have raised many questions. We might ask what turned ordinary Muslim youths into mass murderers. Or we might wonder how a religion of peace can inspire people to terrorism across the world.
A more pressing question, however, is: why Britain? Not why was Britain attacked, because the list of countries targeted by Islamist terrorism is growing so fast it will soon be quicker to list those unaffected. But rather: why did Britain become the first country in the developed world to produce its own suicide bombers? Why is Britain just about the only country in the world to have produced suicide bombers who sought to kill not another people but their fellow citizens? Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland were all part of the war on Iraq, and have not produced suicide bombers. The US and Spain had to import their terrorists. For those who think that Muslims in Britain are particularly oppressed and poor, try visiting Muslims in France or Italy.
For all our concern about Islam, Britain is one of the least Islamic countries in Western Europe. There are more Muslims, as a percentage of the population, in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. It is true that Britain, more cursed with political correctness than most, has shown a joyfully optimistic tolerance of Islamic extremists. The BBC, the Guardian and the Metropolitan Police promote groups like the Muslim Association of Britain, even though it openly supports terrorism (just not in Britain).
No, the real answer to why Britain spawned people fuelled with maniacal hate for their country is that Britain hates itself. In hating Britain, these British suicide bombers were as British as a police warning for flying the union flag.
Britain’s self-loathing is deep, pervasive and lethally dangerous. We get bombed, and we say it’s all our own fault. Schools refuse to teach history that risks making pupils proud, and use it instead as a means of instilling liberal guilt. The government and the BBC gush over ‘the other’, but recoil at the merest hint of British culture. The only thing we are licensed to be proud of is London’s internationalism — in other words, that there is little British left about it.
It wasn’t always like this. The Great Exhibition in 1851 and the Festival of Britain a century later both unashamedly celebrated Britain’s achievements, fuelling an infectious sense of pride in being British. But then the Left and the multiculturalists waged an intolerant war of attrition against British identity and social cohesion, culminating in a report by New Labour’s Lord Parekh calling for Britain to become a ‘community of communities’. By 2000, the best Britain could come up with for the Millennium Dome was an embarrassing display of giant lice in giant pubic hair.
But self-loathing in a nation, like self-loathing in an individual, is alienating. Someone who despises himself inspires greater contempt than affection, and a country that hates itself cannot expect its newcomers to want to belong.
Only in the last few years has it dawned on the government how dangerous the Left’s war on Britishness really is. Labour ministers now queue up to declare that we need a new sense of British identity. But the ability to learn a few sentences in English and a knowledge of how to claim benefits do not create a national allegiance.
What is needed is something to make the people who live in these islands feel good about being British, but the war on Britishness has imposed a nationwide amnesia about our national story.
The historian Simon Schama wrote that ‘to collude in the minimisation of British history on the grounds of its imagined irrelevance to our rebranded national future, or from a suspicion that it does no more than recycle patriotic pieties unsuited to a global marketplace, would be an act of appallingly self-inflicted collective memory loss’. And as the American philosopher George Santayana warned, ‘A country without a memory is a country of madmen.’
Britain is one of the few countries where it is a source of pride to despise your country. We are all repeatedly taught the things to be ashamed of about Britain, but what about the things to be proud of? The truth is that Britain’s self-loathing is as unique as it is unwarranted. Britain really is great. These small rainswept isles off the western end of the vast Eurasian landmass have contributed far more to the well-being of the rest of humanity than any other country, bar none.
Sometimes it takes a foreigner to open your eyes. A Norwegian diplomat told me long ago that he was taught at school, as British kids aren’t, that Britain gave the world industrialisation, democracy and football — its economic system, its political system and its fun. That is just the start of it. It is true Britain gave the world its most popular sport — football — which emerged in the 13th century in the north of England as a holy day game, and was given the modern rules in 1848 by undergraduates at Cambridge University. But Britain has also given the world almost every other internationally played sport. If you can score points by hitting or kicking something, it was almost certainly invented by Britain’s leisured classes, keen on exercise, team spirit and clear rules.
Golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century. Cricket emerged 700 years ago, and evolved into the game we have today. The French may have invented the nearly obsolete real tennis, but the Victorians created modern tennis. Britain’s rain prompted indoor tennis, and table tennis was born. Harrow School gave the world squash; Rugby School gave the world rugby; the Duke of Beaufort copied the game poona from the Indians and gave the world badminton; the Marquess of Queensberry took bare-knuckle pugilism and turned it into modern boxing, complete with gloves. Every time people play table tennis in China, football in Brazil, cricket in Pakistan or golf in Japan, they are enjoying Britain’s gifts to the world. Any other country which gave organised sport to the world would enjoy it as a proud part of their national identity; but not Britain.
The one thing we do say about ourselves is that we are a nation of inventors, but few of us realise just to what extent. A recent survey by the Science Museum complained that 58 per cent of Britons didn’t realise we invented trains, and 77 per cent didn’t realise we invented jet engines. In fact, we didn’t just invent railways, but our engineers helped revolutionise the world by building them across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. In 1698 the military engineer Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine (later improved by James Watt), while in 1821 Michael Faraday invented the electric motor. In 1876 the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone; 50 years later John Logie Baird demonstrated television; and in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet.
And so it goes on and on — the traffic light, the electromagnet, the underground train (which first ran near the site of the Edgware Road bomb), light bulbs, the pneumatic tyre (thanks, Mr Dunlop), radar, the steel-ribbed umbrella, the Thermos flask, the pocket calculator (thanks, Sir Clive), vaccination, penicillin and cloning (thanks, Dolly).
Britain’s scientists have done more to unravel the mysteries of nature than any others. Of the four main forces of nature, Brits unravelled the mysteries of two — Newton with gravity and James Clerk Maxwell with electromagnetic radiation. Darwin discovered evolution by natural selection, while Watson and Crick unpicked DNA. Of the three planets unknown to the ancients, two were discovered by the British. Sir William Herschel discovered Uranu
s in 1781, while in 1841 the Cambridge maths undergraduate John Adams, using orbit calculations, discovered Neptune (beating a French rival by a few months). Britain is second only to the US in the number of Nobel prizes it has won — twice as many as France and seven times as many as Italy and Japan.
Britain didn’t just give the world industrialisation, but the belief in economic and political liberty, in free markets and democracy, leading to the modern world’s unprecedented affluence and freedom. Adam Smith, John Locke and John Stuart Mill won the arguments, and Britain’s global influence spread them. Britain didn’t invent democracy, but matured it over centuries and ensured that it became dominant.
Britain’s greatest creations are the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all stable, affluent, successful liberal democracies which have for more than a century been a magnet to the rest of the world. No other European country ever managed such an achievement. All stayed free of the tyrannies of fascism, communism and military dictatorship that benighted almost everywhere else. In the dark days of the second world war, Britain and its former colonies were just about the only democracies in existence; now democracy embraces much of humanity. Of the G8 countries, all but Russia (and arguably even she) owe their current status as free-market democracies to Britain and its former colonies. The English-speaking economies amount to more than a third of world GDP.
With just 1 per cent of the world’s population, Britain has united the world with a truly global language, allowing people to speak unto people for the first time in history (French was little more than a language for elites). These islands make up less than a fifth of 1 per cent of the world’s land area, and yet their capital dictates to the rest of the world its time zones and degrees of east and west.
Britain’s cultural influence is far smaller that its scientific and political influence, but in the written word it is unrivalled. Molière and Goethe cannot challenge Shakespeare as the world’s most important writer. More recently, British musicians from The Beatles to Dido have a global audience unmatched by those of any country other than its former colony, the US. Our TV producers increasingly enjoy a similar status — is there any country that hasn’t yet suffered Big Brother or Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Our national story is the most extraordinary there is. The patriotic French are obsessed with ‘les Anglo-Saxons’ because they see our achievements far more clearly than we do ourselves. As Luigi Barzini asked in The Europeans, ‘How …did a peripheral island rise from primitive squalor to world domination?’ Thomas Sowell, the leading African-American intellectual, wrote in his epic Conquests and Cultures, ‘Much of the world today, including the United States, is still living in the social, cultural, and political aftermath of Britain’s cultural achievements, its industrial revolution, its government of checks and balances, and its conquests around the world.’
The problem for Britain is not that it has too little to be proud of, but too much. Multiculturalists warn that history excludes newcomers, but Britain’s national story is a continuing one that anyone can join, just as immigrants have joined it in the past, and as newcomers to the US today get infected by its self-belief. Through the so-called voluntary assumption of history, when an immigrant starts thinking of his fellow countrymen as ‘we’ rather than ‘you’, he takes on his country’s history as his own.
After helping free Europe from fascism, Winston Churchill finally published his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a book with so little self-loathing that it is now utterly unfashionable. Churchill explained, ‘It is in the hope that the contemplation of the trials and tribulations of our forefathers may not only fortify the English-speaking peoples of today, but also play some small part in uniting the whole world, that I present this account.’ Today, the need for such a self-confident national story is as great as ever. We have tried the alternative, and seen its deadly consequences.
Anthony Browne is the Times’s Europe correspondent.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 23, 2005