Blog No. 40. A Postcard from England

In the Special Bulletin of June 3, we indicated that our vacation itinerary included Lake Como and Rome. That did not happen. Just before we were to fly to Italy, we received word that the wife of the couple with whom we had planned the trip had broken her hip, and we did not want to carry out the plan without them. We decided to keep our ticket to Milan, spend a couple of days there, and then head for England for a couple of weeks. Once in England, we stayed in country inns in Wiltshire, Devon, Somerset and Berkshire, spent two nights with Angela’s cousin in Surrey and then stayed in London for three days. Thus, a brief report may be in order: it takes nothing away from celebrating the Fourth of July to note that our historic ties to England remain strong and relevant. And some readers who have themselves spent time in England, or even lived there, may be interested in a current perspective.

United Kingdom and USA miniature flags First, some overall impressions. The English countryside remains as beautiful and unspoiled as ever and the villages reliably quaint. The inns were comfortable and offered fine food, considerably better than one might have experienced twenty or even ten years ago. (The only discordant note was the practice in one inn of piping a continuous loop of Frank Sinatra vocals into its lounge.) To no surprise, London was bustling, seemingly prosperous and conspicuously multi-national. Our hotel there, a five star enterprise, was said to be owned by an Indian family and all of the staff clearly had English as a second (or possibly third or fourth) language. They were, however, unfailingly friendly, obliging and competent. Then, when we stopped at the historic church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, to catch the rehearsal of a Mozart concert, we noticed the program for the following Sunday: one service in English and two in Chinese (one Cantonese, one Mandarin.)

We did not get to the north of England where economic and social problems may be more evident. In our travels, however, we had to rely on the media to get some feel for the country’s various challenges. As it happened, the news during much of our stay was dominated by the World Cup and the unhappy experience of the English team. In the United States, the World Cup this year raised public interest in soccer (or football as the rest of the world has it) to an all-time high. In particular, the acrobatics of the American goalie, Tim Howard, clearly made many new fans for the sport. Nevertheless, the level of passion for the sport here is still far less universal and intense than in England and many other countries around the world. In England, we saw the public mood proceed quickly through several stages: from excitement and anticipation, to disappointment and anxiety, and finally despair, as England was ignominiously sent home in the first round.

Apart from the World Cup, media attention focused on problems in the schools, Britain’s membership in the European Union, and the prospect of the Scottish referendum on independence.

British Schools. Discussion of the schools centered on concern over a report by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) of a “Trojan Horse” movement by Muslims to dominate schools in areas of high Muslim population. In Birmingham and other locations, the movement was found to have impacted curricula, faculty and the life-style of students, including discrimination against non-Muslims. The report triggered responses from various government officials including Prime Minister David Cameron who pledged that every student in British schools would be taught “British values,” which he identified as tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility and respecting the law.

Along the way, Cameron stressed the importance of teaching about the Magna Carta as a foundational document. Officials in the Prime Minister’s office were even reported to have said that it was “embarrassing that pupils in America, where Magna Carta is seen as a key forerunner of that country’s constitution, knew more about it than their British counterparts.” Whether American students are so familiar with the Magna Carta may be questioned, but it does appear that the document is receiving increased attention under the Common Core curriculum adopted by most states. (Cameron had experienced his own Magna Carta embarrassment when, appearing on the David Letterman Show two years ago, he had been unable to translate “Magna Carta” as Great Charter. On the other hand, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a fellow graduate of Eton and Oxford, insisted that Cameron knew full well the meaning of Magna Carta but had feigned ignorance to appear more down to earth.)

Responses to the experience of the Birmingham schools reflected, to some extent, a broader concern with “creeping Islamisation” in Britain. Although Muslims account for only about five per cent of the population of Britain, they attract a considerably larger share of public attention and concern. Concerns were heightened in June by statements from the government that several hundred British citizens were believed to have left Britain to join the jihadists of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The majority of British Muslims are, of course, entirely peaceable and should not be tarred by the actions of a few. Nevertheless, as the number of mosques increase, and the number or of Anglican churches and church attendance decline, the impact on the culture will be increasingly difficult to ignore.

In my own case, I was riding on a tour bus making its way around London, when I found myself suddenly surrounded by a group of nine young women wearing customized T Shirts with their names and a slogan “Hen Party.” “What’s going on?” I asked one of them. “Is someone getting married?” I guessed. “Yes,” she replied, pointing to the young woman seated directly behind me. I turned and asked:

“When is the wedding?”
“In August,” she replied.
“Where will it be?”
“In the midlands, near Birmingham.”
“Will it be a large wedding? How many guests will you have?
“Oh, about a thousand.”
“Wow. Will it be a religious ceremony?”
“Oh, yes. Islam.”
“That’s nice.”

Apart from the question of Muslim influence, which has affected a relatively small number of schools, the British are more broadly concerned with the quality of British education. Just as in the United States, the nation’s PISA score, as compared with other developed countries, is a matter of continuing disappointment. (PISA is the Program for International School Assessment administered by the OECD. See Blog No. 29, February 26, 2014 for a listing of PISA scores along with discussion of educational issues in the United States.) In Britain, a separate study by Parliament’s Education Committee found that poor educational performance was tied to ethnic and cultural background and in a way that may be surprising to some on both sides of the Atlantic:
“Poor white British children now come out of our schools with worse qualifications than equally poor children in any other major ethnic group. They do less homework and are more likely to miss school than other groups. We don’t know how much of the under performance is due to poor attitudes to school, a lack of work ethic or weak parenting.

Although educational under-performance in the United States is often associated with racial minorities, the cultural problems, involving attitudes toward education, may be similar.

In Britain, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, suggested that the solution to the problem in Britain was to focus on parents. He accused white working-class families of no longer valuing education as a way to improve their family’s prospects. He urged that parents be fined if they missed parents’ evenings, failed to read with their children or allowed homework to go undone. A proposal to fine parents is unlikely to find much political support in either Britain or the United States. On the other hand, it may well be worthwhile to pursue research to see if there may be other ways in which parents can be motivated (and perhaps trained) to contribute more to their children’s education.

The European Union.  A good deal of media attention in June was focused on the attempts of Prime Minister Cameron to block the nomination of a candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, for President of the European Commission—the controlling bureaucracy of the European Union. It appeared from the outset that Cameron’s efforts would fail and in the end so they did. The European Council nominated Juncker over the opposition of only the UK and Hungary. The result was regarded by many as a humiliating defeat, and it remains puzzling as to why Cameron invested so much of his and Britain’s political capital within the EU on his quixotic effort.

Juncker, a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, was initially nominated by the European Parliament in a departure from previous practice; in the past, the President of the Commission has been nominated by the European Council, consisting of the heads of government, rather than the Parliament. Cameron objected to the change of procedure, but more deeply because he regarded Juncker as “too federalist.” In the context of the EU, “federalist” describes those who favor a central government with broad powers and detailed regulations—at the expense of the authority of individual nations. The instincts of Britain, past and present, tend to run in quite the opposite direction; indeed, there is substantial sentiment for withdrawing from the EU altogether. Cameron has said that he favors remaining in the EU, but with reforms, and he has proposed a referendum on membership in 2017. The consensus appears to be that the election of Juncker is likely to make reforms more difficult and perhaps jeopardize the approval of membership in 2017.

Should the United States care or even pay attention? The answer is surely yes, although there is little or nothing that we can do or say to influence the future course of events.  Moreover, it is impossible to project what Britain’s withdrawal from the EU might mean for it or for the EU. It is, however, reasonable to speculate that withdrawal would, at a minimum, result in a period of instability for both. The EU, of course, has other more pressing problems including the still shaky economies of countries struggling to live with (or escape from) austerity. But we cannot be indifferent to the prospects of either the EU or Britain. Both are major trading partners, and the interconnections between their and our financial institutions have been made abundantly clear.

Scottish Independence. The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland. The issue of Scottish withdrawal from the United Kingdom, is scheduled for a referendum on September 18, 2014. Although the referendum is far more imminent than the possible withdrawal of the UK from the EU, the potential consequences are also uncertain. Indeed, questions abound. Would Scotland be able to share the pound and continue to enjoy the support of the Bank of England? Would Scotland be able to join the European Union? Would nuclear submarines continue to be berthed in Scotland? As North Sea oil revenues decline, will Scotland be able to afford the structure of benefits that many have promised will follow independence? And, not to be forgotten, would Queen Elizabeth continue to vacation at her beloved retreat at Balmoral? Again, a decision to withdraw suggests a source of instability and surely would be at the very least a major distraction to focusing on and dealing with other issues.

Not surprisingly, interest and emotions in Scotland are running high on the issue. When Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling contributed one million pounds to the cause of maintaining the union, she was promptly and viciously attacked in the social media by Scottish Nationalists. In England and Wales, a poll indicated approximately 60% of the people would prefer that Scotland remain in the union, but the general attitude seems to be a more low key, perhaps fatalistic, “Well, we’ll see.” The United States obviously has no voice in the matter, but cannot ignore entirely developments that may weaken its oldest and most reliable ally.

England and the UK obviously have some serious matters to deal with. But those matters pale in comparison with past perils confronted and surmounted. Thus, it seems rather cheeky to suggest that, as the London bureau chief of The New York Times recently wrote, the country is undergoing an identity crisis. On the contrary, we believe that the country will continue to follow the command of the World War II poster (that with endless variations is now seen in the United States on napkins, mugs and other artifacts): “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Blog 40 keep-calm

2 thoughts on “Blog No. 40. A Postcard from England

  • Well, the world continues to change and evolve. If we allow ourselves to be stuck in the present, we most likely will have great difficulty living with the evolution.

    Thanks for the great report on GB and it’s evolution as it is presently experiencing.

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