Once upon a golden autumn 20 years ago, my wife and I spent the Michaelmas term in the English college town of Oxford. What a pleasure it was dipping into the classes, lectures, and libraries of Oxford’s storied halls. The setting was lovely, the conversations brilliant, the memories still strong of that “sweet city with her dreaming spires,” as the poet Matthew Arnold called it.
Oxford is special not just because of its considerable charm, however. It special because in its ancient colleges, on its greens, and around the tables of its coffeehouses, the Enlightenment was born and raised. Human thought was let loose, superstition shunned, reason embraced. That gave birth to the science and freedom on which our world is built.
As Sara Miller Llana reports in a Monitor cover story (read it here), a downsized United Kingdom could result from a Scottish independence vote on Sept. 18. That could lead to Great Britain becoming defined by Little England, a self-doubting, inward-facing remnant of what it once was.
That is one outcome.
Here’s what should emerge instead: the spirit of a people that wrote the Magna Carta, embraced Shakespeare, demystified the Bible, and encouraged and celebrated curiosity about the world around us. That spirit is needed well beyond the sceptered isles. The Age of Empire is over, but the Age of Enlightenment remains a work in progress in a world struggling still with intolerance, superstition, fear, and aggression.
Britain – like the United States and every other nation, with the possible exceptions of Iceland and Botswana – has a checkered history. But Britain has a lettered legacy, too – the freedom of thought that Queen Elizabeth I defended and John Stuart Mill articulated, the freedom from oppression that Winston Churchill and tens of thousands of Britons and their allies fought to protect. Britain has given rise to Amnesty International, Oxfam, and hundreds of other organizations and individuals working for a better world.
Britain once was great, but England – romantic as Oxford’s spires but also smart, practical, and open to new ideas – is its essence. English has in recent centuries been the language of enlightenment, of resistance to dogma, of science and human rights. Sure those concepts exist universally, but until not long ago they were almost exclusively nurtured and propagated by English-speakers. That isn’t meant to sound chauvinistic. Speakers of Hindi, Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, and hundreds of other tongues can and should support progress and have done so in the past. But England’s enduring gift to the world was and remains its midwifing of the Enlightenment.
There might not always be a United Kingdom. There must always be an England. Even if it no longer rules a terrestrial empire, the spirit of England can be the mental fire for an empire of human rights, science, the rule of law, and common sense. Bricks, mortar, and territory are less important in an age when (despite throwbacks still trying to grab land or close the minds of men and women) ideas, values, and progress matter most.
If Britannia no longer rules, its best ideas -- reason and independence of thought -- still should.
John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at email@example.com.