How the English-Speaking Peoples Saved Civilization — and Will Do It Again


I
f you read reviews no further than the first paragraph, you need read only this: Buy this book, read it, keep it, set it as required reading for your children. Andrew Roberts has penned a splendid, episodic account of the triumph of the English-speaking peoples in the 20th century, charting not only their political and military victories over Prussian militarism, Nazi tyranny, and blood-stained Bolshevism, but their victories over disease and poverty, their successes in science and technology, and their inherent creativeness, love of liberty, and economic dynamism. It is an inspiring story.

 
Andrew Roberts, HarperCollins, $35, 752 pages
 
If you read reviews no further than the first paragraph, you need read only this: Buy this book, read it, keep it, set it as required reading for your children. Andrew Roberts has penned a splendid, episodic account of the triumph of the English-speaking peoples in the 20th century, charting not only their political and military victories over Prussian militarism, Nazi tyranny, and blood-stained Bolshevism, but their victories over disease and poverty, their successes in science and technology, and their inherent creativeness, love of liberty, and economic dynamism. It is an inspiring story.
 
There are brilliant set-piece battles, such as the heroic, unequal struggle between HMS Exeter and the Graf Spee (which I read aloud to my boys), flashes of dry wit that punctuate paragraphs, and a narrative momentum that—even when tramping over the well-trodden ground of the last century’s history—makes reading 648 pages (more with the notes) an unmitigated pleasure.
 
This is history as John Bull might have written it: defending British conduct in the Boer War, General Dyer of Amritsar, the World War II bombing of Dresden, and the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War. But Roberts is also spiritedly pro-American, indulgent about our faults (including our catastrophic error of not supporting Britain at Suez in 1956), mocking of those who think America has fallen prey to some new philosophical disease called "neo-conservatism" (he points out that the English-speaking peoples have always believed in spreading democracy and in the necessity, occasionally, of preemptive war), and a deft eviscerator of the lamentable anti-Americanism and inexcusable pro-communism of leftist bien pensants. He takes a pretty firm hand against opponents of the Iraq war, too.
 
And it’s not just America and Britain that he celebrates, but Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well, along with a rare look-in from the British West Indies. On a different path, he acknowledges, are the Irish and the Québécois—neither of whom, it must be said, comes off terribly well, save in the Irish case when they respond to their better selves and don’t embrace what Kipling called their second religion of "hate" (a hate that motivated Ireland’s pro-Hitler neutrality during the Second World War).
 
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 is, then, essentially a history of the "White Dominions" minus South Africa but plus the United States. And suffice it to say, it is a patriotic history. But it’s a wonderfully told, honest, and fair-minded one, too. In explaining what unites the English-speaking peoples (aside from the ethnicity of the White Dominions), Roberts refers to what he calls "the Ur-text of this book," Winston Churchill’s speech at Harvard in 1943, during which the great man said: "Law, language, literature—these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern commitment to impartial justice, and above all a love of personal freedom . . . these are the common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples."
 
There is also, of course, Protestantism, which Roberts affirms as part of what makes the English-speaking peoples who they are. But he is careful not to push this point to excess, knowing, as he does, that Catholic countries "have been successful at capitalism, and it is anyhow impossible to predict whether had Mary Tudor had any Catholic descendants, they might not also have presided over the expansion of England to just the same extent as Elizabeth I’s Protestant successors." Indeed—and nor can one deny that the qualities that make one "English" come from unmistakable Catholic roots, whether it be the tradition of English law (Magna Carta), education (Oxford and Cambridge), literature (Chaucer and, it seems likely, Shakespeare), or character (up through St. Thomas More and St. Edmund Campion).
 
But what did set England apart was the "Protestant national messianism" (to use Michael Burleigh’s phrase) that became part of the English national character after King Henry VIII. Such patriotism-as-religion could take the benign form it took among the English-speaking peoples, or it could take the rather more dangerous form that it took in "progressive" and militarist Prussia, which the English-speaking peoples had to fight in the 20th century.  {mospagebreak}
 
Roberts’s canvas is for the most part high politics—and is all the better for that—with occasional celebrations of the English-speaking peoples’ technological inventiveness (including the Anglo-American domination of aerospace and the winning of Nobel Prizes) and economic power (with 7.5 percent of the world’s population, the English-speaking peoples produce more than one-third of the globe’s gross domestic product). Little space is devoted to culture or social change, and when it is, it is generally absorbed into the issues with which Roberts is more comfortable.
 
For instance, when it comes to women’s "emancipation" in the 20th century, to which he devotes a couple of pages, he embraces it because it has brought women into the job market, "increased productivity, driven down wage-inflation and unleashed creativity . . . . Co-opting the female half of the population into the English-speaking peoples’ consumer revolution proved a secret weapon of genius." Well, perhaps, but wouldn’t a better secret weapon of genius have been shoring up the family and retaining laws against pornography, abortion, homosexuality, and easy divorce, and not treating contraception as an unqualified good? The British economy is less at risk these days than is Britain’s Christian culture (though I reckon Roberts is an optimist on its eventual restoration; as Lady Thatcher, whom he admires, once said, "The facts of life are Tory").
 
And then comes the obvious question: Having defeated Kaiser Wilhelm’s nationalist aggression, Adolf Hitler’s national socialism, and international communism, can we defeat what Roberts calls the "fourth assault" against the English-speaking peoples, Islamic terrorism? The answer is almost assuredly yes. The answer will be no only if we fail to realize the truth of what Churchill said in 1958:
 
The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has established firm influence and shown that it would maintain its will. Your friends must be supported with every vigour and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all better recognise it. At present our friendship is not valued and our enmity is not feared.
 
The greatest hurdle to accepting and acting on this sad truth is not economic or military weakness, but the cultural corrosion of anti-Americanism (and similar moral defeatism among the rest of the English-speaking peoples) that saps our civilizational faith. While anti-Americanism has a long pedigree, since the Iraq war, as Roberts points out, it more closely resembles "attacks of Tourette’s Syndrome than rational criticism," and he treats such outbursts with appropriate contempt.
 
Britain’s torch has passed to us, and as long as the English-speaking peoples remain united, it will, indeed, be a very good thing not only for us but for the world. Roberts closes his book with these words: "Only when another power—such as China—holds sway, will the human race come to mourn the passing of this most decent, honest, generous, fair-minded and self-sacrificing imperium." If we and our statesmen absorb the message of Roberts’s book, we can push the date of our decline over the hills and far away.
 

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