The British Culture (Part I)
by Anwar Shaikh
Destiny is not predestination
but the product of culture. A person or a nation, as a general rule, reaps
what it sows. The English history is a glaring Froof of this fact.
Britain, until late in the Mesolithic Age, formed
a part of the continental land-mass enabling easy access to all those who
sought migration into this land, but during 6000-5000 B.C., disappeared
the land-bridge imposing an insular character on Britain. It amounted to
an act of natural segregation because the Britons of that era were culturally
cut off from the rest of the world. There were not many individuals who
had the courage to dominate the daunting waves of the sea to seek entry
which promised no delight, distinction or dignity. The Britain of that
era stood at the periphery of civilisation, replete with its cultural history
of backwardness, illiteracy and superstition, reinforced by its people's
will to remain isolated for the sheer enjoyment of bliss that ignorance
It was during the 8th century B.C., that the expansion
of the continental Urnfield and Hallsatt culture brought into this country
the Celts who bore many cultural similarities with the people of India
by way of customs and religious rites. These were the people who believed
in free will, and were the most advanced in the use of iron - the two hallmarks
of their Indian origin. Along with Celtic system of farming, grew the comparatively
sophisticated forms of hill-forts needing reinforcement by sword which
replaced dagger. After a period of some four hundred years, that is, from
the third century, there emerged the British version of what is called
La Tene Celtic art. Since survival was the greatest concern, this art appeared
in the shape of scabbards, shields, and helmets. As life refuses to be
basic in its outlook all the time, these cultural vicissitudes brought
with them bronze, mirrors and domestic pottery. By 200 B.C. Britain had
developed an insular character which was mainly Celtic and was especially
visible in the south-east, that is, in Kent and north of the Thames. The
people used coins, potter's wheel, cremated their dead and could forge
better equipment for exploiting their land and forests.
The great lover and general, known to history
as Julius Caesar, invaded Britain during 55 or 54 B.C., injecting this
country with the zest of the Continental culture. The conquest was complete
by 78 but Scotland escaped the Roman colonial net for shortage of manpower.
Thus the Scottish culture developed differently from the rest of Britain
and the variance became more pronounced by the erection of the Hadrian
Wall during 122-130 A.D.
By 407, as the Roman authority dwindled in Britain,
it was the local tyrants who gained political eminence. Chief among them
was Vortigern (c. 425). He was a Celt. As a defensive measure against the
constant threat of Pictish raids, he invited Saxons to settle and garrison
strategic areas of the east coast as well as provide defence against the
sea-borne raids of the Picts. These Saxons who were later classified in
Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People as Angles, Saxons and
Jutes, now commonly known as Anglo-Saxons, came to Britain as invitees
and not invaders. In fact, their imperial history, which was to touch the
apex of political grandeur, gaiety and greatness, was as a general rule,
an extension of non-aggression despite the bloody battles they fought everywhere
sometime with sternness and sometime with stratagem.
By 425 A.D., Christianity had made a considerable
headway in Britain. Against the Christian waves of brainwashing, there
stood a Welsh monk who preached the doctrine of free will against the Biblical
concept of predestination. A cold current of disgust pierced through his
body when he noticed the moral degredation of the Roman clergy. Being convinced
that it was the result of the Christian belief in the wickedness of human
nature, requiring divine grace for salvation, he declared that such faith
imperilled the moral law, which means cne reaps what one sows. Though he
was opposed by his fellow-Christians in Rome who had been influenced by
Augustine of Hippo, he was considered a spiritual director by both clergy
and laymen owing to his exemplary asceticism. His doctrine that man possessed
a basically good moral nature and was to be rewarded according to his deeds,
brought him in direct conflict with the ecclesiastical authority which
propogated grace to gain easy conversion and control their weal, wealth
and wisdom through the pretence of possessing intercessory powers. When
he was in Palestine, c.412, he was accused of heresy at the synod of Jerusalem
in 415 but he succeeded in clearing his name. De libero arbitrio ("On Free
Will"), he wrote in response to further accusations of heresy, yet he was
not deterred by the wrath of the self-seekers. He suffered with dignity.
It is his philosophy of self-reliance and dignity of deeds, which was to
form an integral part of the English character, giving it eventually international
Of all rules, free will is the best; but no matter
how great a doctrine, it yields no benefit until it becomes an integral
part of an individual's or nation's character. The English suffered the
agony of a very hot crucible for nearly three centuries to make this rule
as their individual and national characteristic. How did this happen?
"From the fury of Norsemen, deliver us, O Lord,"
prayed the Englishmen, instead af asking protection against hell and other
celestial evils. To understand this puzzle, I ought to refer to an accidental
happening of 1880, when a Norwegian worker uncovered the sad face of early
English history lying under the frozen clay of a barley field near Hauksgard.
As his spade struck the ground, it sparked off the old memories associated
with geld and gratification. Underneath the surface lay a large flat stone
with deeply carved letters in a Norse tongue which read:
"Hauk was west in England with Ragner.
It was not a vain boast because as the stone was
lifted, there appeared a small treasure of English silver coins, which
Hauk (and Ragner) had collected during the Danish campaigns of plunder
in Northumbria around 850 A.D. Hauk and Ragner belonged to that fierce,
frightening and fearless race known to history as the Vikings, who specialised
in butchery, barbarity and brutality for sheer joy of rape and geld- gathering.
Persecution, pitilessness and perfidy in pursuit of plunder, were their
national recreations. Neither sternness nor supplication prevailed against
them. Convinced of their invincibility, these hardy, hard-headed men versed
in the art of head-bashing sailed from the Scandinavian fiords with wolfish
esurience to twist, tear and torture whatever came their way. They first
raided the English shores during the last years of the 8th century and
kept up their fierce tempo well into the middle of the 11th century with
ever-increasing plunderous zeal. It is this fear that they had struck into
the English hearts, which made them pray:
He gathered much geld there ..."
"From the fury of Norsemen, deliver, us O Lord."
This Viking plunder, rape and torture of the English
went on for nearly three hundred years. It is possibly the longest continuous
period of persecution that any nation has suffered in history. This event
is unusual not only in terms of cruelty but also the response it provoked.
Of course, geld (danegeld) describes the payments which began in 991 to
buy off the Danes instead of fighting them, but this practice proved repugnant
to the English character. While they prayed to the Lord for His mercy,
they did not 1ay down their swords; they fought back with determination,
dare and devotion, and eventually, under the leadership or Alfred, the
Great, regained their respect and national dignity. One fact of the early
English history, however, remains obscure. They must have been a rich nation,
otherwise, they would not have been an object of plunder for centuries.
It is only the wealthy who are robbed; the paupers have nothing to fear
from the plunderers.
It is this persistent drill in self-care, self-discipline
and self-sacrifice, which made the English, the practitioners of free will,
which is the fountain of freedom, and of human rights because a freeman
is the one who loves the concept of freedom and thus cares for the freedom
of his fellow-beings.
Since the English had suffered from the Viking-instinct
of tax-gathering, they developed an unusual attitude towards taxation.
It was this English attitude which was to blossom into Parliamentary System,
making democracy the way of life nearly throughout the world during the
twentieth century. Stated bluntly, the modern free international way ot
life is an offshoot of the British culture. At this point, I should clarify
the possible confusion that I am using the word: "English" instead of British
because the English way or life happens to be the dominant element of the
British culture, and thus sets its character.
In 1066 yet another disaster struck England in
the form of the Norman conquest, which subjected this country to the yoke
of the Norman aristocracy. It is unkind to say that it was a happy occasion
but in a way it was, for being the last political calamity ever to visit
England during the last 1000 years. This long period of stability, barring
the years of the War of the Roses, testifies to the steadiness of the English
character which gradually attained maturity through a gruelling test of
plunder, carnage and hardship, matched by a will to be free and more forward,
instead of shedding tears over what had happened in the past.
We do hear of the "ancient English liberties"
Whether they really existed or it was a figment of the English imagination,
pining for freedom is not clear from the study of history. However, one
fact is evident that after the preliminary humiliation brought about by
the Norman Conquest, the English became conscious of their liberties. Henry
I, the ablest son of William, the Conqueror, at his coronation on August
5, 1100, had to issue a charter which restricted the Crown's powers in
certain fields such as exploiting the church vacancies, and a declaration
for returning to the Anglo-Saxon practices which had been suppressed by
his father and William II (Rufus). It is these old Anglo-Saxon traditions
which have been referred to as "Ancient English liberties."
As the wheel of history rolls into the period
of King John (1199-1216), the English free will asserts itself with a zeal
not noticed by mankind ever before. This, I have no doubt, was brought
about by the English aversion to abject taxation, which turns free men
into slaves, though tactfully.
King John was no fool but his tendency to wage
abortive wars and habitual indulgence in seductive romances, kept him needy,
and he resorted to extortionate taxation. Having lost their patience, the
rebellious barons met John on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede on the Thames
near Windsor, and presented him with what is called the Articles of the
Barons. One ought to pause and note that by then the English had developed
a superb sense of reasoning. Though willing fighters they were, they did
not want to fight if an issue could be resolved with the force of argument.
It was a moral accomplishment not to be found elsewhere during that period
of history. Neither they wanted to depose their king nor they had any desire
to harm him. They simply wanted him to act according to a law which would
confine his conduct to a reasonable pattern acknowledging tne human rights
of people. And so he did; King John retained his throne, and his subjects
gained something which equally benefited the entire mankind for centuries
to come. This event which materialised as Magna Carta, has acted since
then as the mightiest wave which has been surging ahead, washing away the
rocks of injustice and despotism with its magical spell.
In view of the effects of Magna Carta which turned
out to be the fountain of human rights and civil liberties both at home
and internationally, thus affecting the world civilisation I am inclined
to, discuss it in detail, bearing in mind that this Charter also contains
the germs of the English parliamentary democracy, which has become the
international political guideline in modern times:
1. The major recognition by Magna Calta is the
Thus government is obviously a legal contract between
the rulers and the people; it deprives the state of its omnipotence by
subjecting it to strict ryles which guard people's rights. In this respect,
the legal right of people's rebellion is revealing, radical and revolutionary;
it opens a new chapter in the human culture. Who had ever heard of a legal
rebellion before? The rebellion against the ruler (state) has always been
held as a treason, irrespective of the causes. This type of political contract
was certainly different from what was envisaged by thinkers like Hobbe
a. people have certain fundamental rights, and
if they are transgressed by the state.
b. people are entitled to resort to an armed rebellion
to secure their rights, but
c. as soon as the grievances are redressed, people
must obey the law.
2. A significant way of disciplining the state
is by subjecting its vital actions to strict procedures, supervised by
the public representatives:
What I have said, refers to the Magna Carta issued
by King John, and it contained 63 clauses. From the point of view of a
despot, it is an anti-ruler document because it recognises people's rights
by restricting the state powers. It was natural for John's successor either
to forget its presence or to represent it in a curtailed form. In fact,
this great charter of liberty was reissued in 1216 and 1217. The charter
of 1216 contained only 42 clauses. It was reissued once again in 1225 by
Henry III after he had been declared of age by the pope. This version of
the original charter of 1215, known as the Great Charter of Henry III,
is the one which is considered as the Magna Carta of English law and history.
a. Magna Carta set a limit of forty days for the
redress of public grievances, and if the state did not, the people became
entitled to an uprising.
b. The chief complaint had been about the nature,
size and methods of tax collection. Magna Carta laid down that, except
for ransoming the King, making the eldest son of the king a knight and
marrying his eldest daughter, the King would levy reasonable taxes (aid)
with the common counsel of the kingdom which was to consist of the archbishops,
bishops, abbots, earls and greater barons.
The common counsel of the kingdom was to assess
the nature and size of the aid (tax demanded). To do so the government
must adhere to a strict procedure. It must issue letters of summons stating
the cause of attendance, as well as the date and place of meeting. It is
this type of assembly, which over a period of time, rose to become a parliament.
3. Magna Carta acknowledges the "ancient liberties
and free customs" of the people.
4. It is Magna Carta which grants right, to both
ruler and the ruled. These rights are extended to every free man and not
just the elite, and they are "for ever."
5. Some of the rights that Magna Carta bestowed
on its people nearly eight hundred years ago are not available to many
nations even today:
a. Clause 20 states that no free man shall be
punished for a trivial offence, and the punishment shall be according to
the gravity of the crime. Yet a person punished thus shall be saved his
way of living. It means that the tool of a convicted workman cannot be
confiscated and the same is true about the stock-in-trade of a merchant.
Even a villain who was not a free man, must be treated likewise without
any reference to his social status.
Again, no judge could impose amercement on his
own. It could be done "on oath of good men of the neighbourhood" only.
This is a reference to the jury system.
b. Magna Carta sought to subject life to a legal
discipline. Clause 39 lays down that no free man can be arrested nor imprisoned
without the due process of law.
c. To emphasise the significance of law, clause
40 states that justice is neither saleable nor shall it be refused or delayed
The English had suffered most terribly by the
tax-gathering sallies of the Vikings. However, it is not the Vikings but
the extortionate taxation they came to hate. Since unfair taxation was
held to be the bane of liberty, individual freedom could not be protected
without systematising taxation and subjecting it to people's supervision.
Henry III, son of King John, proved to be an incompetent ruler owing to
his financial mismanagement. He wanted to raise taxes to pay for his follies;
bul Magna Carta had prescribed a body called "The Common Counsel of the
Kingdom" to give it consent and assess the imposition of taxation. A despot
is a despot only when he can raise taxes at will. Magna Carta had provided
an effective remedy against this evil in the form of the common counsel
of the kingdom which gave birth to the concept of the community of realm.
Originally, this phrase meant the totality of baronage but by 1237 this
notion came to include the man-in-the-street, too. It is because in a writ
of that year for tax collection, the earls, barons, knights and freemen
were said to have "acted for themselves and their villeins."
In 1258, when Henry III asked for a grant of 135,000
marks, it led to a crisis, and the king had to agree to the appointment
of a joint committee which would comprise his supporters and the dissidents.
This body drew up a document of 24 Clauses, called The Provisions of Oxford.
Had they been enforced effectively, the king would have become a constitutional
monarch. However, the English had to wage a much longer struggle to aohieve
this goal. The immediate effect of the Provisions of Oxford, was the outbreak
of an armed struggle led by Simon de Montfort, the king's brother- in-law.
During April, 1264, in a battle near Lewes, Simon captured the king, his
son Edward and all his chiefs. The English glory, commonly known as the
British Parliamentary Democracy emanates from the consequence of this incident.
The king was forced to agree that he would govern according to Magna Carta
and Provisions of Oxford. It is at this occasion that an assembly was summoned
in the king's name. This was the first English parliament in which four
knights from each shire participated with a view to setting up a new form
of government to control the royal conduct. In the earlier part of 1265,
Simon called the second parliament but this included representative burgesses
boroughs as well as knights of the shire. Since the second parliament
represented the both high and low it was a realisation of the concept:
communiry of realm which also contained the germs of the English nationhood
by including everybody in the community and equating it with the whole
Though Simon himself perished in the ensuing battle,
the spirit of Magna Carta, which sought to legalise the state conduct tihrough
people's suoervision, persisted. It shows the English awakening and love
for liberty. They were not ready to part with their hard-won rights, nothing
could persuade them to be ruled by any other method. Liberty had become
an integral part of the English culture and this is what constituted the
real strength of the parliamentary democracy.
When writing about liberty, one cannot ignore
the heroic role of Holland but it has got to be the second best for its
failure to establish an effective empire of a global size and its premature
political collapse. Edward gave impetus to the parliamentary growth by
calling no fewer than forty-five parliaments during his reign. His parliament
of 1295 was named as the Model Parliament by the older historians because
it contained the elements that a parliament should have.
Stated briefly, parliamentary democracy is a child
of Magna Carta, which itself is manifestation of the English love of liberty
denoted by man's free will. In cultural terms Magna Carta is no less important
than the Bible and the Koran. It has influenced the human mind more deeply
and positively. Whereas these Holy Scriptures preached the glory of God
at the expense of human dignity Magna Carta stressed the glory of man by
acting as the ambassador of human rights.
The English went abroad for two reasons: one group
can be termed as entrepreneurs and another as settlers. The entrepreneurs
or commercial adventurers were the fortune hunters; they were not colonists
but were allured into colonialism by the conditions in those countries
at that time. The settlers were the people whose free attitudes posed a
threat to their national rulers who made their lives difficult and they
had to emigrate. Whether they left as entrepreneurs or emigrants, the net
result was the same; wherever they went, they carried Magna Carta, which
represented their way of life. Whenever their liberties were in jeopardy,
Magna Carta became their battle cry against oppression. Their first defence
was always the argumentative power of the Magna Carta; their retaliatory
might always operated to reinforce the former. We find the English drawing
inspiration from the Charter against their own monarch Charles I when parliamentary
democracy came into direct conflict with despotism. Clause 39 of Magna
Carta which says: "To no one we sell, deny or delay right of justice" lies
in the Petition of Rights, 1628, and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 expresses
the same spirit proudly.
What is true at home, is even more conspicuous
abroad. During the 17th century America, when the English colonists rebelled
against their motherland, they were crying: "No taxation without representation"
the same way as their forefathers had done in England against King John.
It is not surprising that the very words of Magna Carta have been worked
into the individual states of the American colonies. This trend continued
as late as 1868 when the 14th amendment was introduced in the American
Constitution. In view of these facts, it seems desirable to give a fuller
coverage of the influence of Magna Carta on the world cultural attitudes.
It ought to be borne in mind that Magna Carta
was a creation of the English character signifying its love for free will
which comes to base one's life-style on free choice, the true form of liberty.
Of course, the late 18th century has been described as a continuous revolution
in the western world owing to the political upheavals in Holland, Belgium,
France and America. Scholars have given various reasons for it but to my
mind it was the spirit of Magna Carta which had become restless to gain
As described earlier, the English had secured
sufficient maturity of mind to turn Henry III into a constitutional monarch
to create a government of law, whose purpose could be nothing but to defend
equality of rights, enabling everyone to live his own life within the bounds
of law. This English spirit which had temporarily lost its way during the
War of the Roses, reasserted itself during the Tudor period never to become
dormant again. An episode from the reign of Mary demonstrates the fact
which I am trying to narrate: As the fever of Reformation gripped England,
Mary declared Catholicism as the creed of the country. Among several hundred
martyrs, of equal dignity, were sixty-six years old Cranmer, sixty-five
years old Ridley and eighty-years old Latimer. Having failed to make them
relinquish their faith through trial, torture and tyranny, the court pronounced
death sentence on them. As the flames of their pyre rose, so did their
courage of conviction. Together, they knelt to pray, without uttering a
word of complaint against fate or predestination. Like animals, they were
bound with chain, to an iron post, each having a bag of gun powder tied
around his neck. As the fire was about to envelop them, Latimer shouted
in a most affectionate and determined tone: "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley
... be the man that you are; we shall this day light such a candle, by
God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
How right he was! That candle is still aflame
with its intended righteousness and glow. In fact, it has burnt with greater
ardour, audacity and aspiration than Latimer could have imagined. His fellowmen,
when tortured by their own government for freedom of expression, decided
to emigrate to the American colonies instead of surrendering their free
will. With them, they took all the traditions of the English liberties
which were to flourish there with an even greater zeal than at home. This
was the time of some unusual social experiments in England.
There was a group of people called Levellers,
which belonged to the New Model Army in 1647 and 1648. They were republicans
who formed a democratic political party. The concept of liberty, they believe
in, advocated that it is a part of free grace of God which is offered to
all men in Christ. They put forward a programme of social and economic
reforms, and insisted on manhood suffrage. They also demanded annual or
biennial sessions of parliament. They were the veterans of the Civil War
who had fought for the parliamentary cause in the name of liberty, yet
they received no encouragement from the parliament itself. Their demand
for a written constitution for a new state, though debated, was turned
down. Their leader, Lilburne, along with other prominent men of the party,
was imprisoned, thus weakening them as a political force.
Diggers were yet another party of Agrarian Communists
who appeared in England during 1649-50. They were led by Gerrard Winstanley
and William Everard. This group came into being when in April, 1649, about
twenty penniless men gathered at St. George's Hill, Surrey, and began to
cultivate the common land. They were not anarchist: their action was based
on reason though not quite convincing. They held that the Civil War had
been fougbt against the king and the great landowners. As they had been
defeated, land should be made available to the poorest men of the nation
to cultivate it. They were suppressed by court actions and mob violence
though they themselves never retaliated physically. Their dream was that
their example would be followed by the people who would seize the wastelands
for communal cultivation.
Even though one may not support their philosophy,
their rational outlook is admirable. They argued frorn the legal precedents
and used Biblical authority to support their case. Their force of reasoning
did have some influence on Quakers i.e. the Society of Friends led by Ceorge
Fox (1624-91). They aimed at the abolition of popery along with its rituals
such as ministers, sacraments and liturgy. They held extreme Puritanical
views, and were persecuted in England for not paying tithes. Their assertions
were so fearless, fantastic and frightening, that they were held as heretics.
James Nayler, one of the quakers, was meted out an exemplary punishment;
his tongue was bored with a burning iron, yet he would not budge an inch
from his belief; he was whipped twice and imprisoned for two years with
One can see that England was a melting pot of
ideas whose effervescence was longing for an overspill, and so it did through
the British colonialism. William Penn, on March 4, 1681, received from
Charles II, a charter for a colony in American which came to be known as
Pennsylvania. Penn was a quaker. There he built Philadelpnia, the city
of brotherly love, in accordance with the Christian traditions. Penn's
ambition and hope was to provide refuge for the Quakers and all the prisoners
of conscience, who had suffered persecution for their beliefs. He called
it a "Holy Experiment," and Holy Experiment it did prove because all the
persecuted Europeans flocked to Pennsylvania owing to its religious tolerance.
In the political field, he drew the frame of government which "left no
chance of mischief to himself and his successors." No one man was to be
allowed to play with the good of the whole country for his personal satisfaction.
In 1701, he promulgated a revised constitution known as the Charter of
Privilege, which concentrated legislative power in a single-chamber assembly.
Penn was not the wisest of men but he was one
of the most liberal people of his age who believed in liberty as a practical
value, and not a cult of the mind. He not only granted the liberty of conscience
to the members of his community but also empowered them to change the system
if they chose to do so. Because of the respect he earned as a champion
of liberties, he emerged as spokesman for the continued indepepdence of
the American colonies. Pennsylvania came to be known for cultural diversity,
respect for human rights and republicanism. When considering the Frame
of Government, he asked his assembly to adopt the great Law which guaranteed
freedom of conscience in the colony. Pennsylvania was the first state ever
to grant such a religious liberty on earth. It was, indeed, a holy experiment
which indicated the direction that the British mind had chosen to follow.