Over the past half millennium no people have left a deeper mark on the affairs of this planet than have the British. They have given the world the closest thing to a global language. The Greenwich meridian is the world basis for measuring time and geographic loacation. The farflung British Empire, still flourishing as recently as World War II, will probably prove to have at least as lasting an impact on human history as did the Roman Empire in the earliest days of Christendom.
And again as recently as World War II, Britain held the pass alone for a year against a vicious tyranny which had brought most of the rest of Europe under its cruel boot.
Yet for all this splendid record, Britain is today in graver trouble than at any time since the first Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada.
Britain, so long the epitome of a nonviolent, orderly, and courteous society, has just come through its ninth successive night of urban riots -- raising the question of whether this so-long secure island people are threatened with broader civil strife. For Britons, scourged already by more than a decade of murder, violence, and brutality in the maverick province of Northern Ireland, this is a bleak and cruel prospect.
They may have saved Europe in the early 1940s, but today they have to come to terms with the fact that their sometime threatening European rivals -- France and West Germany -- now have greater political and economic clout in the world. Many outsiders ask whether Britain is not in fact a nation in decline without anybody on the horizon capable of saving it.
For a time after her accession to the premiership, Margaret Thatcher was seen as a candidate for that role. But the race and class divisiveness brought to the surface in the violence and looting of the past nine nights -- from Liverpool's Merseyside and Yorkshire in the north through Derby, Leicester, and wolverhampton in the Midlands down to the slum areas of London and the channel port of Southampton in the south -- may well have challenged the idea that Britain would be saved by its first woman prime minister.
What then has gone wrong to bring the British in four short decades, from their finest hour (as Churchill called it in World War II) to the grim brink on which they hover today?
It hurt at the time, but US Secretary of State Dean Acheson was right over a quarter of a century ago when he said the British had lost an empire but had yet to find a new role. That is still their plight.
Of course Britain is still a civilized and mainly lovely land that cannot be robbed of its rich heritage -- from Magna Carta, Shakespeare, the mother of parliaments, to the King James Version of the Bible. Few things are more sweetly evocative to this British writer (because of personal association) than the never-changing beauty of the Cotswolds or the majesty of King's College Chapel seen from the Backs in Cambridge. Yet having said that, it is hard to see the British today -- in social and political terms -- as anything but emperors without clothes.
What is it that they refuse to admit about themselves that may well be essential for either the societal changes or the near-superhuman effort needed to keep Britain great?
In a word, it is their changed status in the world. That changed status has forced them to retreat into their island homeland and into an occasional blinkered tribalism. The consequent pressures have exaggerated certain components in the British character that were always there -- and which are by no means peculiar to or particularly egregious in the British. These are:
* A wasteful class consciousness cosmeticized by social grace and courtesy, which has preserved an outmoded educational system and proven a roadblock to the kind of essential upward mobility in society that in the last resort gives the United States its overall internal health and vigor.
* A subtle racism, tolerant of different cultures yet fiercely exclusive if what is perceived as alien tries to asserts itself as inherently part of British society itself. Exclusive clubs in outposts of empire in the days of Queen Victoria have been suceeded by mental roadblocks in Britain that make it impossible for many Britons to recognize second- and third-generation British-born Asians and West Indians as anything but "immigrants."
* A sometimes touching yet restrictive patriotism that persuades most Britons that there is little to learn from others. This writer has visited Britain every year for the past two decades. He recalls how at the height of the civil rights disturbances in the US in the 1960s, well-meaning Britons implicitly believed "it could never happen here." Now they see otherwise. At the same time , it is this writer's considered opinion that the British -- and more particularly the British establishment -- are still way behind Americans and the US establishment in their level of understanding of race relations. The Britons are even further behind in doing anything effective to improve race relations in their homeland.
Asian, Caribbean, and African component in the British population has risen from virtually zero before World War II to 2 million-plus today. The two biggest groups are those from the Indian subcontinent (mainly India and Pakistan) and the Caribbean. The former outnumber the latter by about 2 to 1 and generally establish themselves more successfully than the latter in British society -- even if still denied full acceptance. For the British, the really tough, hard core of the problem is West Indian youth, unemployed and largely unemployable, mainly because of their said educational record, but also because of white society's rejection of them. And this at a time when overall unemployment in Britain is higher than at any time in 50 years and is expected to continue to rise.
But ominously in some ways, the violence of the past nine nights has not been exclusively racial. Occasionally young white racist "skinheads" have attacked nonwhites. But a more common theme -- in addition to arson, vandalism, and looting -- has been the uniting of the black, brown, and white poor against the almost exclusively white police.
It is perhaps not so much that the British bobby has ceased to be a decent fellow as that authority has given him no special training in how to deal with his nonwhite fellow British citizens -- who tend to be "nonpersons" until there is an outbreak of violence. Three vignettes from the TV screen remind this writer of the dangers inherent in the present situation. One is of a white British working-class woman in a riot-torn area insisting that the problem was class not race.
A second is of the Lord Mayor of Liverpool inspecting riot damage from his Rolls-Royce. And the third is of Prime Minister Thatcher and Conservative members of Parliament rushing in to put all the emphasis on what they called the thuggery and criminality of what has happened.
Not that Labour politicians would necessarily be more sensitive -- but the diagnosis and the cure are so much more complicated and demand considerably more understanding and effort than bald denunciation.
They key, surely, is creating a sense of national unity toward an agreed goal that embraces the privileged and the alienated in a common purpose.