It wasn’t so long ago when they were saying that the sun never set on the British Empire. Of course, two great wars later and a century of social revolution, the British are still reeling from their loss of global influence. The sad thing is, while reeling, they’re missing the tell-tale signs of the sun setting once again and this time on the British nation. Once the greatest power in the world, rivaling even the Roman Empire in its influence on culture and politics, Britain is now struggling to keep its own culture alive in an age where globalization and financial crises call for the sort of assimilation and uniformity of modern democracies. The facets of particularly British culture are barely shadows of what they used to be: brilliantly glinting sides of this jewel of Western civilization. The land of the Magna Carta is now the land of an almost defunct parliamentary system under the almost nominal authority of a dying monarchy, which, like a star, is exploding in tremendous fashion. The country once known for Cathedrals, Colleges, and Palaces now sees its historic rivers lined with dirty, dilapidated condominiums and flats. Even Norman Foster with his glass erections has failed to bring any amount of self-reflection to the British people. In cities where martyrs gave witness to something higher, scientific discoveries were made, philosophical breakthroughs were developed, and the common folk lived and died, tourists roam the streets, buying cheap reminders of a country that once was.
I passed Buckingham Palace that day. I had been on my feet for hours having been back and forth across western London. At that moment, I realized I was looking on possibly the last fading years of the greatest monarchy in human history. Elizabeth II Regina is just about to celebrate her 60th Anniversary as Queen and still seems to be kicking strong. It is an illusion. She may have years ahead of her, but she inhabits a shell. She who once was Supreme Head of a church now mostly sits aside while the Archbishop of Canterbury effectively rules the Anglican Communion. Of course, being a Catholic, I can’t mourn too much that the act that definitively split the English Church from the Roman has almost expired. The fact that the power of the Church is instead in the hands of a schismatic see, however, is little comfort. This is just one sign that the Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain is letting go of all that makes her what she is. The ideal of the Western world is, politically, democracy, as if we can somehow adapt the principles of the Greek city-states to our own globalized world. Because of this, it is by a thread, and a golden one, that the monarchs of England are holding onto their place in the political world. The Queen makes no policy, enacts no laws, welcomes no ambassadors but in name only. It is an honor to be greeted by the Queen, but it is to Downing Street that the world’s leaders really turn. She may declare the laws to be in effect as the ruler of a nation, but it is Parliament that votes, as a good democratic system does. The monarchy, once the symbol of a nation, is now merely a bumper sticker to be bought on your way through London-town, a sight for tourists where it should be a sign for the loyal British subjects. The pomp of court and the honor endowed on the Royal Family is now no more than a waste of money, a flashy symbol of a city overrun with foreigners. What does it then mean to be British to the normal subject of the British Crown? Is it still fashionable to pray for “her majesty the Queen?” Shall God indeed save the Queen? Or will the Crown fall with Elizabeth’s children, who care no more for religion than for a gnat flying in the ear, and who seem to prefer activism to authority. With William we might have a chance, with Charles never. If it is the “will of the people,” will Parliament abolish the monarchy? Will Charles abolish it himself? What then will distinguish Great Britain from the many other European countries that have lost their monarch? And perhaps there are those who do not want to be so very different from the other European countries. It is, after all, part of Europe, is it not? But if there is no longer anything to identify it as Britain, what sort of identity will its people have? They will forget their history or worse, learn to despise it. They shall learn to despise their monarchy even as the French have. They will send their identity to the guillotine just as surely as the French sent their nobles and King.
Will Britain, then, become like France, a land of Eiffel Towers and ineffectual politicians? Already London has become little more than landmarks. “See London” say the signs: “Harrod’s Madam Toussad’s, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar, St. Paul’s.” Is that London? Is it a place to live or merely a city of hotels, department stores, and tourist destinations? When the business is tourism, the rest of the city can go to rot. This is what I saw as I walked through London. Moments of majestic beauty in a sea of increasingly pervasive ugliness and monotony. For there is nothing quite as ugly as monotony. I would wager that Hell is, above all else, monotonous. Across the river that was once the gateway to exploration and trade, stand stacks and stacks of flats that, besides the ill use of their building site, contrast so starkly with the near side of the river so as to be almost a different city. It might send a message; architecture often does. Don’t cross the river. Nothing here. No shops to explore, no parks to relax in, nothing but dirt, grime, and aluminum. This is, of course, a lie. There are parks including the Thames river-walk. There are shops and life, if you choose to look beyond the face that London has chosen for itself. Why has London chosen this? Why should it wish to hide its better self? Why should it divide itself? One may very well ask, “isn’t the Thames a natural division and hasn’t it always been? Wasn’t Southwark notorious for being nothing less than a den of thieves and murderers?” I commend the questioner for even paying attention to history, but a point is missed. A river may divide or it may be a seam that connects two complementary parts of a city. Southwark may well have a reputation, but must it be so? History does not beg us to repeat it, merely to learn from it, both its successes and its failures. Has London fallen into such cynicism that it does not believe in itself? Is there truly “no England now,” as some native Londoners sang even 40 years ago? Perhaps not, and perhaps they are cynical for good reason.
Around every corner is a restaurant or pub advertising a “traditional English breakfast.” Funny, isn’t it? If it were the English they were appealing to, the English would scoff in their faces and go home and cook themselves some bacon from Sainsbury or Marks and Spencer. No, it is the tourist to whom they call. It is about the “experience” of London, as if a traditional English breakfast was eaten in a cafe off Hyde Park. No wonder London does not believe in itself. It has sold itself out and replaced its piping hot sausage with what might be called a “bread and soya bean” mentality. C.S. Lewis, from whom this phrase comes, might also note the lack of the “homely” or ordinary, everyday experience. Where is the Banks family, flying their kite? Where is the Matchman, the Sweep, the sidewalk artist? One can hardly see the native walking his dog for the throng of tourists coming to see the Royal Albert Hall. And yet, the London of the world of Mary Poppins is the very London that now masks its life. Edwardian England has destroyed London. Everything is white colonnades and identical townhouse façades. There is no Admiral Boom; he was released from service when the Empire fell. After a destruction as deadly to culture as the Blitz was to the city itself, a mere shell of this life remains, but the people have closed themselves off from the city, and why? Likely we all would if our lives were to become congested with tourists and the miserable excuses for a London experience. If you live in one of the Edwardian townhouses, will you want a plastic Bobby helmet? Just the phrase itself brings with it a sense of the third-rate quality that pervades the London gift shops. And so, the tourist wanders the street where the citizen dare not tread.
And yet, this disease that is slowly choking a nation to death is not a pervasive virus. Once outside the city centre of London, one can find relief. Indeed, outside of all the great cities of England is a life that might be called underground if that did not conjure up images of metal cars and dark tunnels. For every Manchester, there is a Bolton, a Swinton, a Kearsley. Outside of the grime of industry and the pathetic appeal to the tourist there is still room for a pint at your local, a walk on the green, a morning at the market. Some cities have avoided the inevitable and chosen to close their doors to the supposed progress of the tourist industry. Cambridge is certainly no stranger to tourists, and yet it boasts greens, markets, and pubs that are still frequented by locals. It allows tourists in while not groveling at their feet for economic stimulus. Cambridge has maintained its local architectural tradition, both heroic and humble. Its colleges not only have provided the world with some of its best minds, but are also enduring structures that amaze the mind. No wonder the tourist comes. It has not, like London, however, created a divide between the local and the tourist, the heroic and the humble, the attractive and the unattractive. Across from King’s College is a row of shops that could be called anything but heroic. There is no sudden change from city centre to suburb, but rather a seamless continuity that connects community to community.
If England is to be saved, its people--specifically its rulers--must look to these models of community and balance. London has sold itself and created for itself a hell, but not so in Cambridge! Manchester, always an industrial city, has planted itself with hideous constructions of cheap metal and glass, but not so in Bolton (and I would wager they are happier in Bolton). But are the corporate gurus, the government leaders, and the social planners concerned with happiness, or merely commodity and utility? We may never know, but certainly their current course of action suggests that they do not care if the British nation rots from within.
What does Britain mean to its subjects and what does Britain mean to the rest of the world? To the world, it is like a quirky uncle, a nation caught up in itself and its former glories, unwilling to commit fully to union and to what is expected of it. It is a nation that holds not to its guns and religion, but to its measuring systems and currency. It is a nation that prides itself with being a cut above the rest. Britain will not dirty itself in the low-brow dealings of the European crisis. No wonder it will not be allowed to exist. They call for it to conform and it will not, and so it will die a slow and painful death.
To its subjects, it can only seem like a great show of things for nothing. A grand parliament building to house a bunch of bickering men, a Royal Family that costs money and does precious little else. All flashy expression and no interior meaning. If the people themselves believe this, who can blame them for wanting to do away with such a nation? Britain is slowly committing suicide, for it has reached the end; there is no going on. And when Britain is dead, they will look back and see what they did. When it has become another France, Germany, or Belgium, they will regret it, but it is too late, for even the Cambridges and Boltons will be gone, sacrificed to the idol of progress, globalization, and industry.