What the English have learned

October 14 2006

Not to pursue territorial ambitions on the continent, to prefer liberty to logic, and to leave a place before being thrown out.

I think my own countrymen, the English, have perhaps been unusual in taking to heart the lessons of past national mistakes. I will give three instances of this. First of all, Joan of Arc cured the English of their medieval ambition to make conquests on the Continent. In the eleventh century a continental power, Normandy, had conquered Britain, and, as a result, Britain had come to be linked politically, for a century and a half, with considerable parts of France. When the English Crown lost those French possessions, the English tried again and again to reconquer parts of France. Since our experience with Joan of Arc, we have never tried to do that again.

Secondly, England was the first West European country in modem times to make a violent anti-monarchical revolution. In the seventeenth century we waged a civil war, and the victors in that war cut off the King’s head. The consequence was a military dictatorship. Cromwell divided the country up into a number of military districts, each of them under a major-general, and the English did not like that. So, after Cromwell’s death, they quickly re-established the monarchy, though now with only limited powers. When Charles I’s second successor, his son, James II, seemed to be trying to revert to absolutism, the English deposed him, but they took great care not to put him to death. He was running away and a fisherman caught him and handed him over to the Government, expecting that he would get a reward. What he got was a scolding, and the Government shut their eyes while James II ran away again, this time to safety. He was a nuisance as an exile, but as a martyr, like his father Charles I, he would have been far more of a nuisance, and the English had learned enough by then to realize this.

Instead, we had the constitutional compromise of the Glorious Revolution.

Thirdly, the English lost their North American colonies by refusing to give them the amount of self-government for which they asked. Since then, we have usually taken care to give independence to other parts of the former British Empire – for instance, to Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan, Malaya – before they have seized independence by force, and our rather humiliating eviction from Cyprus and from Aden in recent years shows that we had learned the right lesson and that, when we did not act on our lesson, we were courting the defeat and humiliation that we had suffered in North America in the eighteenth century.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

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