It has been rankling me that the righteous-right have claimed nationalism for their own. I am just as proud of my country and heritage as they are; but for me it is liberalism and the fight for liberalism that has made this country great. Yet in the face of their fierce brand of isolationist-nationalist fervour aerated by self-serving media monopolies, it is hard to find a strong counter-argument that a Liberal United Kingdom at the heart of Europe that is open, tolerant and progressive is an authentic and compelling future for this country.
But today I believe I had an epiphany that reached right out of the bowels of our collective identity: a rallying call that all British people will intuitively understand.
However, before I get carried away with this, it seems prudent to share this with the great agglomeration of cynical minds that you all are, as it is possible I am in my own little Narnia…
I was at our local Remembrance service on Sunday. I am a conscientious-agnostic; therefore not a Christian. However, many of my core values do stem from Christianity, such as treating others as I expect to be treated, and in general these values form the moral back-bone of our society.
As part of the service we sang one of the classics: ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
Sir Cecil Spring Rice’s words are of course very evocative and I suspect most Brits feel some inner stirring on hearing the instantly recognisable Gustav Holst tune. Something that is interesting about the hymn is the lack of direct Christian references: there is no mention of Christ and only an intimation of God and heaven.
As I have been thinking a great deal about liberalism recently, I suspect sub-consciously something clicked. I felt a resonance with what I am and what I suspect a lot of us are now doing; metamorphosing from living a liberal life to being a Liberal Activist.
So I re-read the words and gave it some thought. I think I then had the epiphany: if the Christian context is replaced with liberalism, this hymn encapsulates British Liberalism.
Liberalism is the dream of a better life, borne out of ancient innate ambitions. As Aristotle said, ‘Of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved’ (he from that other country so long ago).
Liberalism is the axiom that is most dear and great to me; one that I love and one that is at the heart of who I am, how I see the World and how I live my life. For me liberalism is living life how we choose, without oppression, coercion or harm, but also without causing oppression, coercion or harm to others. Without armies or a King, Liberalism is the way of gentleness and peace and like all the most profound ideas, it just requires a faithful heart to hold and fortify it.
For most of my life I just lived a liberal life, without feeling the need to fight for it. Now liberalism and especially British liberalism feels very much under attack: the tolerance, the openness, the progressiveness and being able to speak one’s mind without being engulfed in a hail of Caps-Lock. These are the essence of modern Great Britain that I hold dear. So yes, I now vow to thee my country, the country that I love.
With this in mind, I am putting the best of myself forwards for my friends, family, community and country. This is ‘the love’ that I am laying on the altar. It asks no question or requirement, it has stood the test of time, it is paying the price (certainly in my time and effort), but it is undaunted and I would, if it came to it, make that final sacrifice just as my Grandparents did when fascism tried to roll over Europe.
But this is not just a national calling; I fear for the future of humanity. Globally so many people have been intoxicated with the inward ideology of nationalism, racism and greed; Thatcherism (Neoliberalism), Nationalism and yes, I throw extremist religious ideology in with that too. It chills me to the core that humanity may now be swerving from away from what Obama described in his Arc of History speech, that each ‘generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real’.
Across the Great Arc of History we liberals have fought and suffered for our cause. The Magna Carta was born out of tyranny, yet there is still so much tyranny in the World. Blacks long suffered as slaves, yet often are still treated as second class citizens. The Suffragettes fought to get Equal Rights, yet pay inequality is universal. Liberal Welfare Reforms combatted laissez-faire oppression of the poor, yet millions suffer in poverty still. It is a long walk to freedom, equity and opportunity, but that is our duty and our pride.
Even so, all our paths are peace. That is what any liberal really wants: peace and harmony for all, with all individuals living together, creating a better place for all.
And of course, soul by soul and (not so) silently the shining bounds of liberalism are increasing, as this group very much demonstrates.
Of course, this maybe just my interpretation, but I feel this hymn expresses what liberal Great Britain is about and it is an identity that the great British people will intuitively understand. An identity that was there all the time, secluded away in familiar words and melody, provided by the son of Swedish immigrants and a British Ambassador to the United States. It is our rallying call!
So with those thoughts, I am looking at an old hymn in a new light and I am wondering if this is just me. Given the great number of wise, passionate and knowledgeable liberals here, I was wondering if you would provide your thoughts. Does this hymn, or at least the sentiments it provides, encapsulate what British liberalism is about? If so, is this a national-liberal rallying call we can use in the face of the righteous-right storm?
Please be kind 😉