Neither Greece Nor Rome


Some time ago, back at the dawn of that Golden Age which will be known to historians as the Biden Administration, your humble correspondent penned an article outlining the societal challenges facing America which had led some to predict a range of outcomes from mass civil unrest to full-scale Civil War. But something nagged at the back of his mind. For all the things which can be said about America can be said about Britain and, in some cases, even more so. So, why do we think America is becoming more divided while luxuriating in our own perceived stability? Are we like the proverbial frog, unaware that the temperature in the pot is steadily rising?

To briefly recap the argument, America increasingly lacks a shared mythos – an inspiring story it tells itself about its history – and a shared ethos – a common agreement on what makes a good life. The country that once saw itself as the great defender of liberty now spends more time flagellating itself over its role in slavery. Belief in Christianity, the traditional anchor of American morality, is declining and successor ideologies such as Intersectionality, undermine the Constitutionally vital notion that all are equal by ascribing sin to immutable characteristics rather than actions. Added to demographic factors such as the over-production of graduates and the population splitting into geographical camps based on political ideology, America has many of the characteristics seen in states such as Yugoslavia before the Civil War.

But, as over there, so over here.

Britain’s historical narrative has undergone several shifts, reflecting the political situation of the time. During the Empire, it was the Great Power, risen to glory through the might of its arms and the genius of its industry, so successful that, to some on the fringes, it was the unique recipient of Divine Favour as the Lost Tribe of Israel. As the Empire declined, the Second World War took its place as the inspiring story of the island nation which stood alone against tyranny.

As the War recedes in time, however, echoing the turn in American historiography, attention has turned less to the glory of the Empire, and more to its costs. No longer is it a sign of Divine Favour, now it is an almost unique purveyor of misery, based on mass enslavement and oppression. Any trace of it whether a statue (Edward Colston in Bristol), a memorial (Tobias Rustat in Jesus College, Cambridge) or a building (David Hume Tower at Edinburgh University) must be torn down as unclean or renamed before the New Jerusalem can be built.

That there are thought to be 40mn enslaved people in the world today, that it was a feature of human history from the earliest times, that Britain was unique in ending the slave trade, incurring significant costs to do so, and that it made it a condition of any treaty signed in the 19th century that the other party undertook to end the practice escapes this account. As does the fact that well into the second half of the 20th century a slave who touched the flag-pole in a British diplomatic post would be deemed to be free and entitled to British protection. What is important is that Britain was involved in the slave trade and is, therefore, condemned. History, once a source of pride, is increasingly a cause of shame.

The iconoclasm and religious fervour of this campaign is all the more notable coming, as it does, in a country which is increasingly secular. In the twelve years to 2019, Christian belief in America declined from 78% of the population, to 65%. By contrast, only 45% of Britons admit to any religious belief according to Yougov, compared to 78% who believed in a “Higher Power” in 1957. There has been no shortage of belief systems stepping into the breach to cater to those who describe themselves as “Spiritual but not Religious” but none of them reaches anything approaching majority acceptance. Political systems at heart are vehicles for allowing people to pursue the good life as they see it. It is not obvious that one designed for Christians should work for an increasingly non-Christian people or that any successor will be able to inspire the restraint which Christianity fosters and which is essential for liberal democracy to function.

Similar to America, as the importance of Christianity has declined, that of politics has increased as the way in which Britons understand and display their personal morality. Unlike the States, however, where 25% of Democrats and Republicans describe their opponents as “evil”, this is less a matter of partisan affiliation and more of one’s Brexit stance. As recently as last year, a study by Encompass found that 78% of people think there is still a “fair amount” of tension between Leavers and Remainers while 29% of the latter still find it hard to be friends with the former. Britain may have avoided a January 6-style insurrection/riot/minor outbreak of public disorder but it remains deeply split along referendum lines. The 18% rise found by Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy in those expressing “dissatisfaction” with democracy between 1995 and 2020 may not compare with America’s 34%, but it is hardly encouraging.

Nor does Britain lack the tinder which has often burst into social strife. Revolutions have often followed periods of “Elite Overproduction” when society has more people with a claim to high status than positions which will allow them to achieve it. 50% of youths may now go to university, but 20% of them will end up worse off than if they had never gone according to the IFS, while for many more, the financial benefits will be marginal. Soaring property prices have led the average age of a first house purchase to rise by 8 years since 1997. For electoral reasons, government policy seems to benefit the elderly over the young leading to the not unjustifiable belief that they are being farmed through National Insurance increases and rising student loan repayments to fund previous generations. Small wonder that an Ipsos Mori poll in 2014 found 40% of young Britons expect to be worse off than their parents. Large cohorts who have no stake in society, and little prospect of gaining one are not likely to promote the status quo.

One advantage the country has over America is its smaller geography. Historically, those who, like the Pilgrim Fathers, found conditions in the country unsupportable left, while in America they, like the Mormons, just moved to a different part of it. This has created an increasing geographical segmentation between the two halves of the population. 58% of counties in 2020 were won by a landslide (defined as a 20% gap between the candidates) and 42% of Biden supporters reported having no friends who voted for the other candidate. Britain’s smaller geography makes this much harder. While Remain may have been concentrated in the cities, even in London, 40% of the vote went for Brexit. By contrast, only 12% of Manhattanites backed Trump. Psychology’s Contact Thesis, whereby spending time with the other side reduces inter-group tensions, is much more likely to be effective in Britain than America.

But if Britain has an advantage through its geography, it also has a flaw in being composed of distinct nations, ready-made units for secession. Scots and, to a lesser extent, the Welsh can point to historic predecessor kingdoms as an argument for separation in a way which any putative New Hampshire independence campaign cannot.

If historiography has recently focused on the difficulties of the imperial legacy, this has been confounded by a linguistic jiu jitsu north of the border where it has come to be seen as the English Empire in which the Scots were, at the very worst, unwilling participants. This would, of course, surprise the Scots Greys who charged at Waterloo, Perthshire’s William Farquhar, the first Resident at Singapore who did the hard work of founding the colony or indeed the Scots William Jardine and James Matheson, founders of the eponymous Hong Kong trading firm, to protect whose drug dealing Lord Palmerston launched the First Opium War.

Nor is it hard to perceive that, rightly or wrongly, many Scots believe they have a different ethos to their Southern neighbours. Like many small, powerless nations, Scottish politicians find it congenial to portray themselves as representing a moral if not an actual super-power, one which would, if only it could finally shrug off the English yoke, be a shining light of goodness to the world. For Scots are, in this telling, just better people than the morally deformed English. Like teenage vegans, however, they rarely dwell on the question of who is funding their moral posturing.

For while Scotland is too rich not to want to be independent, it is too poor to pull it off without considerable pain. 63% of Scots may have told the 2011 census that they were “Scottish only” (a figure which may have risen when Scotland’s Census gets round to releasing the most recent results) but there is no reasonable plan yet available for independence which does not involve major economic dislocation. Like a couple in a loveless marriage with a house in negative equity, Scotland and the rest of the UK will probably have to stay together for want of an affordable alternative.

Britain’s other advantage over its erstwhile colony is that many of its institutions are explicitly apolitical and can, therefore, serve as points around which all tribes can rally. The losing side in both of the most recent Presidential elections have cast doubt on the result, seeing the victor as being in some way illegitimate. Supreme Court nominations are inherently political events, usually attracting much rancour from the minority party. If, as is possible, Roe v. Wade is overturned either in part or in full by the Republican majority, it is unlikely this will be accepted by Democrat activists.

The Queen, by contrast, is scrupulously apolitical and her succession will not be fought over at the ballot box, while Supreme Court Justices emerge through a mysterious process of limited transparency. Given the number of times they rule against the government, however, it seems doubtful there is much thought of partisan advantage given to their selection.

These institutions, however, can only serve as neutral rallying points if they are believed to be genuinely neutral. Once they start to take positions, they cease to function. The Queen has been very successful at saying nothing over the course of her reign, so all sides can ascribe to her the beliefs they choose. Some may remember the minor referendum skirmish over whether she was pro- or anti-Brexit which was never resolved. Her heirs, however, find it far harder to see a passing band-wagon without attempting to jump on it. Charles and William have been vocal both in their interest in climate change, and in their support for a particular set of policy remedies to it. Having staked out their positions so clearly, how can they be seen as neutral figureheads who represent the whole nation?

The Church of England provides a cautionary tale. Although still the Established Church, it now commands the allegiance of only 12% of the country and, according to the Religion Media Centre, just over 1% of Britons attend a service every week. Membership has declined between 15 and 20% over the past decade. While it is impossible to disentangle the causes of this, it is notable that the Church has taken a number of public positions which have put it at odds with its membership. Justin Welby has spoken out against the government’s welfare policies, Universal Credit and its approach to refugees. He was against Brexit, as were all but one of the bishops. 66% of their flock voted for it. Are they to consider themselves sinful or are they, like several former bishops, to transfer their loyalties to another church? If you behave like the provisional wing of the Liberal Democrats, you may end up with similarly small levels of support.

At least the Church of England’s flock has a choice. Equally, an American who finds their present government uncongenial knows that it can be replaced in merely four years and, over time, the composition of the Supreme Court altered. What can one do if one feels that all of the organs of the state are arrayed on the other side? If there are no truly neutral institutions, and no way to bring about change since the mainstream parties are, in George Galloway’s immortal phrase, “Two cheeks of the same arse”, why should one want the system to continue? In France, where a large number feel the state is not on their side, protests and riots are an everyday event and just the three best-known extremists took 50% in the first round of les Presidentielles.

Harold Macmillan wanted us to be the Greece to America’s Rome, the guiding light which the upstart colonial power aspired to follow. It would not take much for us to become a cautionary tale instead.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.