I am an anglophile. For some reason that I could not explain but which I will try to now, I have loved the idea of England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. What started as a mild childhood obsession with learning about the American Revolution led to a fascination with the British Empire and its military prowess. Here was a small, wet, and, in comparison to the rest of Europe, strange island that went on to conquer the world and birth some of the most advanced countries of today. Now I have come to realize that there was so much more to the British than their military and imperial might. Britons literally destroyed the old world and created the new one. Everyone across the globe is indebted to these odd, innovative, and industrious islanders who don’t quite fit into Europe, but create a category all their own. We should all be awestruck by what people from this island have done, and what they have achieved for humanity. To be sure, this is not a nationalist outpouring of the some supposed British superiority, rather it is just a piece remarking on several “gifts” that I believe the world received either from British customs, or from some Briton in history.
Upon visiting, learning about, or engaging with the people of Great Britain one will quickly get the idea that they don’t consider themselves European. And when you take a deeper look you will just as quickly realize that this is absolutely correct. It is more than just the 20 miles of ocean that lies between the island and the continent, and more than the differences in breakfast or driving which leads to this conclusion. The people of England, and Britain as a whole, have had a historically different path than that of mainland Europe. Relative to other areas of the world during concurring time periods, the British have always embodied a greater degree of individual autonomy and what I will generally call libertarianism. This was clear from early on. French and continental Feudalism never had quite the same flavor as it did in the many other parts of Europe. Though William the Conqueror did indeed establish Feudalism in England, the Baron revolts of the 13th century which led to the signing of Magna Carta and establishment of Parliaments are characteristic of the English ideas of sharing power and holding the monarch accountable and ensured that the transition out of Feudalism did not lead to the same degree of absolutism as it did in France and elsewhere. The medieval period planted the seeds of individual rights that would come to flourish in later centuries. So as early as the Middle Ages the Britons offer the world their first gifts—namely that of holding even the most powerful among us to at least similar standards, and the idea that a king cannot rule alone without the financial and advisory support of at least the other powerful segments of society. These are hugely important concepts as they both laid the groundwork for further decentralization of power.
In addition to the Magna Carta and the idea of a monarch sharing power with a council or legislature, Medieval England saw the development and strengthening of common law. Put simply, common law is sort of a laissez-faire approach to the establishment of law. It is essentially customs and practices developing over time as new situations present new problems and as people learn which solutions or rectifications work or do not work through trial and error. This allows, through testing and innovation, laws, punishments, and victim restitution to change over time based on the changing and differing needs of society. Common law rests upon past precedents and judicial decisions rather than the codified and relatively unchanging statutes and ordinances of civil law systems. Through most of history common law systems embodied decentralization and adaptation and were able to better serve the needs of different and changing communities. Common law (also called English law) practices form the basis of most former British Empire countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
So hopefully we have established that people from the island of Britain have given to the world the hugely beneficial concepts of limits on royal power and decentralized common law based largely on past precedents. Next on the list is their utter destruction of the centuries old idea of divine right. By removing King Charles I from power, executing him, and then later reinstating his son 11 years later, the English Parliament proved that monarchs were simply of flesh and blood. The restoration of the monarchy is the most interesting here because that act showed once again that rulers are the result of human institutions, and are ultimately only as powerful as their subjects allow them to be. The Parliament proved that it had the power to remove and reinstate kings as it saw fit and this forever broke the back of the monarchy in Britain and removed the mythical idea of monarchs being ordained by God. Charles II was clearly ordained by humans.
So, in a time of increasing absolutism in France, in Great Britain power was being more and more decentralized. It is then, towards the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, that the idea of individual sovereignty was truly born. John Locke planted the idea that all people, not just parliamentary lords, are the power behind government. Though imaginary social contract ideas are things of myth and a bit childish, Locke furthered the idea that state apparatuses are human creations and only have power at the expense of individual sovereignty. Perhaps his greatest contribution was that of explaining how that personal sovereignty extends to the fruits of our labor. In other words, he laid out and explained the origin and necessity of property rights—arguably the right from which all other natural rights extend. The Brits living in America at the end of the 18th century then went on the write about and put into practice the idea that government is subordinate to the individual, unlawful governments must be overthrown, and that political secession, or the act of taking back your individual sovereignty, goes hand in hand with liberty.
Ok we are almost there! Only two more British gifts of awesomeness. The next treasure bestowed upon the world was abolitionism. Though the British were long active members of the Columbian Slave Trade, their outlawing of the international slave trade (along with the United States) in 1807, and their persistent naval actions to enforce the abolition of the trade thereafter, are worthy of recognition. Slavery had existed everywhere and for all time before the British abolitionist movement began in the late 18th century. A world without slavery could scarcely be imagined by the majority of people before this time (much the same as how people today cannot imagine a world free from state coercion) and it was British abolitionists who brought this idea to the fore. This first truly libertarian movement culminated in the abolition of slavery throughout the whole British Empire in 1833—making Great Britain the first major power to do so. The British abolitionist movement brought the idea of ending slavery out of the radical fringe elements of society and politics and made it truly mainstream for the first time in all of human history.
We have seen that the people of Britain bear huge responsibility for the increasing political rights and freedoms throughout history. Their final contribution to humanity, and in my view the most important, is the Industrial Revolution. This revolution radically changed the face of the world and started the chain reaction that brought unparalleled advancement and prosperity, lifting millions out of poverty and offering true opportunities for a better life for the first time in human history. Still continuing to this day in different forms (where ever freedom is allowed to endure), the Industrial Revolution took absolute, soul-crushing poverty from being a fact of life for 99 percent of the population down to a phenomena affecting around 10 to 15 percent of the world’s population. And this all started in the workshops and coal mines of Great Britain. Beginning in the mid-18th century with the development of mechanized textile production techniques, new metallurgy techniques, and the invention of the steam engine, this new technological lifestyle took hold of Britain making workers vastly more productive thus increasing the wealth in society exponentially. This wealth was then spread throughout the world by the free trade policies of Britain during that time. By the mid-19th century this revolution spread to continental Europe and North America as well as key parts of the British Empire such as India leading to the most significant change in the way humans lived since the advent of agriculture in Neolithic Revolution.
So from top to bottom this piece illustrates about seven different developments or concepts that began in England/Great Britain/United Kingdom (depending on time period) and proliferated around the globe thus ushering in the modern world as we know it today. They limited Royal power, forced kings to share power, developed common law, proved kings were of this world and not of the divine, introduced the idea of individual sovereignty and that sovereignty extending to the fruits of our labor, modern abolitionism, and the Industrial Revolution. Though all of these things started in what we now call the United Kingdom, the “country” did nothing. These accomplishments, like everything else in this world, were the results of the tireless efforts of individuals. The common theme of all of these developments, and the reason they all originally emanated from Britain, is that of freedom. For reasons requiring deeper insights than the intended scope of this paper, Britons have always enjoyed comparatively higher amount of freedom than the rest of the world. And when people are left free to innovate, invent, try, fail, succeed, then that little freedom becomes more freedom. Just as new inventions lead to even newer inventions because the former makes what was previously thought impossible possible for the inventor of the latter, so does a little freedom lead to more freedom which leads to more freedom. Though the United Kingdom of today has seemingly strayed from its path and lost its way having bowed to more and more state power since the Second World War, it has a long history of constantly increasing condition of freedom. And from chopping a king’s head off to creating the steam engine, it is because of that condition that they were able to advance the world by leaps and bounds. The people of the world all owe the historic tinkerers, innovators, inventors, and thinkers of that little island an enormous debt, but we cannot forget that it was nothing inherent about the British people which allowed them to change the world again and again—it was the condition of human freedom which was allowed to prevail.
- Locke, John. Second Treatise on Government.
- Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence.