London Taking It: Will There Always Be an England?

Winter sees London at its most traditional: early-morning mist over the Thames, rain and sleet lashing against windowpanes, and red double-decker buses trundling through the damp streets as darkness falls at teatime. Uglier aspects of the place fade a bit—drunken rowdies tend to remain indoors rather than gather in scowling groups on street corners.

The July 2005 bombings of the London Underground have not hallmarked London as September 11 has New York. Although it is generally assumed that “there’ll be more—it isn’t over yet,” in practical terms last summer’s events have already receded in the public memory, despite the reality that Britain’s relationship with Islam is an ever-present topic, and the political and social fall-out from the bombings continues.

A slogan for the past few months has been on billboards around the city and the suburbs and flashed up on screens at the big railway stations: “7 Million Londoners: 1 London.” It’s a message from Ken Livingstone, the official mayor of London, designed to boost morale and emphasize people’s unity in the face of terrorist attacks. But Livingstone is no Giuliani. His political ideas are in the mainstream of the Left: He entered politics as “Red Ken”, has always operated with a steady agenda combining the standard slogans of peace, gay rights, women’s issues, etc.; and his overtures to Islamic preachers are endured as a sort of joke (he claimed that one supporter of suicide bombers was really a moderate and likened him to Pope John XXIII). Livingstone is no icon for the city or its people. His posters—clear propaganda—aren’t even necessary: London is not in a state of panic.

True, there are police in uncomfortable-looking bullet-proof jackets outside major public buildings, sometimes brandishing weaponry that would have seemed very sinister a couple of decades ago, but with rising crime and previous terrorist attacks from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the sight is not such an unfamiliar one. There are searches of bags and luggage at places like the BBC headquarters in Portland Place, but these are fairly perfunctory and there are none at Underground stations where some 2 million passengers still throng daily.

On the whole, Londoners are simply getting on with their normal lives. Many were slightly embarrassed by the over-emotional references to World War II and the “blitz spirit” in the mass media during the immediate aftermath of the July bombings. Older people were quick to point out that the incidents really were not the same as the aerial bombardments of whole districts 60 years ago. Days after the July events, tube stations were open again, and the Londoners’ sense of downbeat humor began to assert itself: There was some cynicism over Mayor Livingstone’s denunciation of the bombers for attacking “ordinary working-class Londoners,” causing people to speculate whether it would thus have been acceptable to bomb, for example, eccentric upper-class Londoners or ambitious working-class ones with middle-class aspirations. In any case, many victims were not actually Londoners—they were tourists, or traveling from other parts of Britain on business—and few would probably have defined themselves as “working class.”

But the real discussions currently taking place—and they are quite anguished—concern the nature of British society itself, following the revelation that the suicide bombers were British-born and raised in Yorkshire, played cricket, and attended mainstream British schools.

Large-scale immigration to Britain from the Indian subcontinent has been widespread since the 1960s, and any criticism of the policy was denounced as racist and effectively silenced. The true figures were not revealed at the time, but when, a couple of years ago, it was admitted that the published figures had been false and that the real numbers were much higher, there was little public reaction, as it was recognized that nothing could be done about it. Britain now has a substantial Islamic population that is steadily growing, through natural increase and through continued immigration. The latter occurs either illegally or—more usually—through admission on the grounds of political asylum.

For Catholics, the issue is an anguished one. Bishops have been quick to affirm that Islam itself teaches peace and respect for human life and have joined calls for community goodwill and opposition to any outburst of anti-Islamic feeling. Most Catholics feel they get on well enough with their Islamic neighbors and work colleagues and certainly would resist any attempt to stir up religious or racial hatred. Perhaps a folk-memory of anti-Catholic bigotry helps here: It was not so very long ago that cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool reverberated with regular anti-Catholic rantings and slogans suggesting that Catholics were unreliable citizens whose allegiance to the pope meant that they were automatic allies of a foreign power.

But none of this disperses a general feeling of uneasiness since the discovery that, within Britain, a subculture with religious and cultural allegiances exists that is wholly at variance to the religion and culture that has shaped the nation for centuries. And, more importantly, that most of those who live in modern Britain have no common language with which to address this subculture because they have no faith allegiance of their own and no sense of God’s place in their lives or in their worldview.

Perhaps Catholics will be the people who can address the topic of Islam on its own terms, as a faith that is a living reality for those who follow it. For many people in Britain, this concept is something baffling: They can nearly grasp the notion of a religious belief that is, as it were, tacked on to the edges of life—a private hobby, a personal whim, something that makes life a bit more interesting or makes a person feel special from time to time—but nothing more. The idea of an absolute truth—much less one revealed by God—is alien to them.

This in turn makes for a deeper concern—one which a few commentators in the mainstream media are starting to explore: How can a nation have a sense of culture and identity when it has no cult, no belief system? For centuries, the beliefs of British people centered on Christianity, on an incarnate God whose Son dwelt on this earth, suffered human experiences including pain and sorrow, taught us how to pray and how to love and serve one another, proved His divinity by miracles, died for our sins and rose again, and invites us to share eternal life with Him in heaven. It was not a small or privatized set of beliefs: Christianity underpinned our laws; imposed a structure on the shape of our towns, villages, and cities centered around our churches; fostered art and music and literature; created our universities and hospitals and schools; and nurtured our family lives. Today, we are expected to believe that all of this can be consigned to history, and that a post-Christian society can survive and thrive with everything intact but the inner core absent.

Thus, when we are called upon to stand firm as Londoners and affirm our “way of life” in the face of terrorist attacks, no one knows quite what this means. A way of life that includes widespread crime? Londoners are much more likely to be attacked and robbed on the way home, or have their houses burgled or their cars stolen, than they are to be victims of a terrorist bomb. A way of life that involves teenagers who are routinely involved in sexual activity, with contraceptives provided through schools and youth groups? Twelve- and 13-year-olds can now obtain a “c-card,” qualifying them for free contraceptives, through an officially funded scheme. A way of life that, humanly speaking,. has very little long-term future since, in common with the rest of Europe, our birth rate is now below replacement level and our population steadily aging? Or simply the daily normality of a steadily rising divorce rate, the normalizing of homosexual activity (legalized “civil unions” came into effect last month), a continuing drug-addiction problem, rising numbers of suicides among the young, and a pornography industry that makes millions?

There is a sense of disquiet, a general recognition among Christians and non-believers alike, that a nation ought to believe in something. A number of commentators—and politicians—have cast envious eyes across the Atlantic to America, where flags routinely wave from flagpoles outside suburban homes and school days often start with a pledge of allegiance. But could this work in Britain? Our very different history has produced a patriotism that is largely unspoken—except for patriotic songs on the last night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and hearty cheering on royal occasions.

Many of our national icons—including, of course, the royal family—have taken something of a battering in recent years: Parliament often seems sidelined when lawmaking is initiated with the European Union in Brussels; the armed forces remain a focus of praise but are caught up in an unpopular war in Iraq; and even our famous police, with their reputation as friendly British bobbies, have been reworked with politically correct slogans (they now routinely have to undergo “homophobia awareness training,” for example), carry arms, and are trained to kill. We don’t like the feeling that they operate like TV-cops in a third-rate series. The tragic death of a young Brazilian, shot by police in a tube station in the days after the July bombing, a wholly innocent bystander whose funeral Mass at Westminster Cathedral attracted a large crowd of sympathetic mourners, brought voices of concern that crossed left-right divisions and drew on a deep-felt sense of unease.

In any comparison with America, talk will turn to the very different religious traditions in the two countries. Someone is always bound to point out that “Of course, in America, over 40 percent of people go to church!” The tone in which this is said is more of baffled comment than praise. Then someone else is almost certain to murmur about fanatical right-wing evangelicals in plate-glass mega-churches praying to become richer, and then there will be some smug reference to the general awfulness of life for poorer people in America (Hurricane Katrina will probably get a mention here), and a vague sense of superiority will ooze—well, we’re British, and things are so much nicer here, aren’t they?

Are they? Of course, this is still in so many ways a great country in which to live, as the uncounted numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, that pour in annually actually testify. Millions of the hungry and impoverished in Africa and Asia cast glances of envy in our direction. But in terms of our history, our culture, the influence we once had in the world, and our past achievements in more than a thousand years of recorded history, somehow today’s Britain offers a sad picture. Surveys consistently show that few children in Britain know the names of our great heroes, the Ten Commandments, basic prayers such as the Our Father, the names of kings and queens, our patron saints, old songs, or even nursery rhymes and traditional folk stories. They show how comparatively few children live in homes with two parents married to each other, with a common surname and sense of family heritage, and with the prospect of creating a similar home of their own in due course.

All of which means that when American newspapers, reporting on the bombing incidents back in the summer, drew on images from 1939 to 1945 with headlines like “London Can Take It,” many of us winced. This is a very different Britain, a different London, from the one that stood up to Hitler 60 years ago. We remain proud of that heritage, and it was extraordinary timing that saw the wartime anniversary commemoration—parades, a fly-past, the royals appearing to deafening cheers on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, greeted by a sea of Union Jacks and children borne aloft by granddads wearing glittering medals—just a few days after the July terrorist bombings.

But the wartime songs—”The White Cliffs of Dover,” “There’ll Always Be an England”—no longer quite ring true. While this island itself will not disappear, its people, uncertain of themselves, are not quite sure anymore of what they represent as a nation. Being British, they aren’t panicking about it. They are sure something will work itself out. In the meantime, morale doesn’t need boosting by slogans. But some nurturing of real values at the very heart of things might be useful. How to go about that is a matter that Christians need to ponder with some urgency.

  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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