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Are the British misunderstood? 
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Post Are the British misunderstood?
In this column in the New York Post (which is not usually, I realize, confused with the NYT as a paragon of journalism excellence), the writer makes this assertion:

New York Post wrote:
The alliance that Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt crafted to win World War Two was more than just good strategy. They forged it in order to assert and defend an ideal which had fallen on hard times in the dark days of 1941, that of individual human liberty.

Originally born in Britain, this common ideal holds that human beings have a God-given natural right to arrange their lives as they see fit without interference from any authority, whether pope or king or government bureaucrat. The belief has always been America's most precious historical legacy, and the rock on which our friendship with Great Britain is built.

It was that ideal which the Founding Fathers inherited from Britain, expressed as the rights of freeborn Englishmen. Our founders fought and nearly lost a war of independence against the British crown, and devised their own Constitution, to preserve the same ideal.

That's news to me. I always thought the philosophy that underlies the commonly referred to "Rights of Man" was sort of a co-production of the revolutionary National Assembly of France and the American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Am I wrong? If so, and the Brits actually invented this philosophy, what was the reason for the American Revolution? Why did the Irish rebel, time after time, until finally gaining a measure of freedom for part of their nation in the 20th century?

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Mon Mar 09, 2009 8:16 am
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Maybe I'm rushing through it, but I have trouble making that quote add up sensibly. My mushy-thinking detector is rattling.

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Mon Mar 09, 2009 8:42 am
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Heck yes, the British are misunderstood. I'm constantly being asked on the telephone to spell my first and last names, and... oh wait, that's not what you meant.

I think the precedent you are looking for is the Magna Carta. I've made the point here at least once that the British, Canadians, Australians, etc have freedoms damn near indistinguishable from the ones Americans have, and I can cite a few they have that USAians don't. They just don't have the compelling history and story behind those rights or have them wrapped up in a nice modern document. The meme that the USA has a monopoly on freedom is incredibly persistent.


Mon Mar 09, 2009 1:36 pm
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Jack Kelly wrote:
In this column in the New York Post (which is not usually, I realize, confused with the NYT as a paragon of journalism excellence), the writer makes this assertion:

New York Post wrote:
The alliance that Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt crafted to win World War Two was more than just good strategy. They forged it in order to assert and defend an ideal which had fallen on hard times in the dark days of 1941, that of individual human liberty.

Originally born in Britain, this common ideal holds that human beings have a God-given natural right to arrange their lives as they see fit without interference from any authority, whether pope or king or government bureaucrat. The belief has always been America's most precious historical legacy, and the rock on which our friendship with Great Britain is built.

It was that ideal which the Founding Fathers inherited from Britain, expressed as the rights of freeborn Englishmen. Our founders fought and nearly lost a war of independence against the British crown, and devised their own Constitution, to preserve the same ideal.

That's news to me. I always thought the philosophy that underlies the commonly referred to "Rights of Man" was sort of a co-production of the revolutionary National Assembly of France and the American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Am I wrong? If so, and the Brits actually invented this philosophy, what was the reason for the American Revolution? Why did the Irish rebel, time after time, until finally gaining a measure of freedom for part of their nation in the 20th century?


There is a sense in which the idea expressed is true. While class always shadowed life in Great Britain there were tendencies toward individual rights in England that were not widespread on the continent before the French Revolution. The colonists originally rebelled, after all, for the "rights of Englishmen."


Mon Mar 09, 2009 3:49 pm
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Peter Scott wrote:
Heck yes, the British are misunderstood. I'm constantly being asked on the telephone to spell my first and last names, and... oh wait, that's not what you meant.

I think the precedent you are looking for is the Magna Carta. I've made the point here at least once that the British, Canadians, Australians, etc have freedoms damn near indistinguishable from the ones Americans have, and I can cite a few they have that USAians don't. They just don't have the compelling history and story behind those rights or have them wrapped up in a nice modern document. The meme that the USA has a monopoly on freedom is incredibly persistent.


Yes, of course the British, Canadians, Australians, Dutch, etc. etc. all have a great deal of personal freedom for their citizens NOW. Although (and I know it's mostly theoretical these days), the British subject (not citizen but commoner) is not sovereign, right? I mean, sovereignty still resides in the monarch.

And I know the Magna Carta is a foundation document of the rule of law as opposed to royal decree, although at the time it had very limited scope, applying only to lesser royals and not to commoners.

However, AFAIK, the French and American revolutionaries pretty much were the first to put into practice the notion that citizens are sovereign, with inherent rights that don't come from an Earthly ruler.

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Mon Mar 09, 2009 4:26 pm
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Jack Kelly wrote:
However, AFAIK, the French and American revolutionaries pretty much were the first to put into practice the notion that citizens are sovereign, with inherent rights that don't come from an Earthly ruler.

I think that nails it. The Magna Carta, IIRC, merely establishes that the sovereign is answerable to the people but does not change the fundamental notion of who's really in charge.

I wouldn't disagree with Peter that there is a longstanding meme that Americans invented freedom, and that it can get tiresome in its sweeping absoluteness.

But, um, I'd argue that there's some truth to it.

As Jack says, many nations NOW have something very much like what we had THEN - and I'd question that, even. Nearly every nation has a constitution (or something like it) that contains much the same language as ours... but most third-world nations and not a few above them have trapdoor or booby-trap clauses that allow the government to easily negate any or all of the lovely language. While the last administration has shaken the notion to the core, I don't believe it is common, even in closely aligned nations like that big one to the north, for a citizen to have an absolute right to stand on the terms of the Constitution and be heard to the highest levels. England's common law is so diffuse (as ours may be if we survive a thousand years from our Constitution) that absolute rights must be ferreted out and argued as part of many cases - and can be ruled against.

Official Secrets Act, Peter? The US never had anything like that until its shadow showed up in the Bush era.

I'm no blind patriot/chauvinist but I do believe the American model brought something new to the world and has inspired nearly every other civilized nation to meet its lofty ideals... and that no other nation has *quite* got there.

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Mon Mar 09, 2009 5:06 pm
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
James Gifford wrote:
Official Secrets Act, Peter? The US never had anything like that until its shadow showed up in the Bush era.


Well, I thought you had something there, until I went and read the summary of the Act (at, naturally, the most reliable source). I parsed the dickens out of it and I can't find anything that's radically beyond what I believe to be true in the USA, although I think I must be missing something. I am familiar with the terms of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) of the US, and those certainly cover a lot of territory similar to the OSA. And they have been around since before the previous administration. It's amazing that any US business manages to collaborate with international partners at all. I know that a lot of research is migrating overseas because of how hard it is to do in the US now.

This is one of those things where I wonder about the meme, because I believe as you do that there is a fundamental difference, yet when I poke at it I can't find anything specific. I think that the British can suppress certain things from appearing in the press, like certain details during some court trials. Never seemed truly heinous though. OTOH, the British do seem to enjoy rather more freedom to publish pictures of nekkid women in their tabloids. And any comparison of first amendment rights should take note of A Clockwork Orange.

Don't get me started on the Patriot act.


Mon Mar 09, 2009 8:31 pm
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Peter Scott wrote:
...I believe as you do that there is a fundamental difference, yet when I poke at it I can't find anything specific.

Allowing that much watering down and diffusion have taken place in 220 years, I think it begins and ends with the US Constitution's notion that the individual and the people are superior to the state. As much as many other nations have copied the superficial gist of that, all - AFAIK - weasel-word things so that the state (or sovereign, or choose-your-deity) is still the superior of the citizen.

Whether that notion came from the citizenry of the eastern corner of the middle part of North America in the end of the eighteenth or whether some small cabal forced the ideas onto the greater populace, it's part of the ingrained rock of American self-identity. I am no expert, but I can't think of any other national identity and attitude that includes such a large helping of the idea.

Even Australia - and my perception, in many ways, is that Oz is to the US as the US is to England - tugs its forelock in Lizzie's direction.

As for the OSA, I'd have to do some digging to support my notions, but I recall being horrified that the British administration could unilaterally squelch things, with no recourse and dire consequences to any fool who unsquelched.

(One of my favorite bits from Robin Williams, playing himself at age 90: "Remember me? I used to play an alien on TV... 'Ninny-nanoo...' ... Then the real aliens landed and it wasn't funny any more." The latter has been a catchphrase around here for a long time.)

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Don't get me started on the Patriot act.

...and it wasn't funny any more.


Tue Mar 10, 2009 7:50 am
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
James Gifford wrote:
Allowing that much watering down and diffusion have taken place in 220 years, I think it begins and ends with the US Constitution's notion that the individual and the people are superior to the state.


Yes, but that is principle. Now show me one effect of it in practice. Without a concrete example of how it results in a nontrivial freedom Americans have that the British don't, the difference is at best hypothetical.


Tue Mar 10, 2009 9:32 pm
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Post Re: Are the British misunderstood?
Peter Scott wrote:
James Gifford wrote:
Allowing that much watering down and diffusion have taken place in 220 years, I think it begins and ends with the US Constitution's notion that the individual and the people are superior to the state.


Yes, but that is principle. Now show me one effect of it in practice. Without a concrete example of how it results in a nontrivial freedom Americans have that the British don't, the difference is at best hypothetical.


I don't think in practical terms there is a great deal of difference between the personal freedoms that American and British citizens enjoy. That wasn't my point. My main contention was with this particular statement in the piece:

New York Post wrote:
Originally born in Britain, this common ideal holds that human beings have a God-given natural right to arrange their lives as they see fit without interference from any authority, whether pope or king or government bureaucrat.


I'm not aware of any of the various laws or traditions that comprise the British "Constitution" that hold that "human beings have a God-given natural right" to do anything. I know that the tradition in Britain in recent times has been the individuals have the right to do anything that is not expressly forbidden by law, but that is different than the philosophy that individuals have inherent rights and that the Government is beholden to the people, no matter how it works out in practice.

Until Parliament passed the Human Rights Act about a decade ago, incorporating into British law the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, the British "Constitution" hardly recognized that individuals have any "inherent" rights at all. This omission left open the possibility, however remote, of Parliamentary tyranny. Moreover, the British judiciary is not an equal branch of government, so the protections that are available to citizens in the US are not as robust in Britain. The British High Court cannot overturn Acts of Parliament, but can only issue "advisory" opinions.

So, are there huge differences in practice? No, but without the underlying principles, there certainly might be someday.

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