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COMMENTARY: How tolerant are the British?

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Aug. 20, 2002 at 12:41 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Since Sept. 11, there has been much chest-thumping among American professional pundits -- and even more so among the countless amateur "bloggers" who have sprung up on the Web since the terrorist attacks -- over the superiority of all things American compared to anything European. America's treatment of its minorities has come in for particular praise from American opinionizers (especially from those who aren't minorities themselves).

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also jumped on this bandwagon. In a major speech to his Labor Party last October warning against anti-Americanism, the prime minister cleverly cited to his followers, many of whom are far to the left of him, one of America's best-known minority success stories.

"I think of a black man, born in poverty, who became chief of their armed forces and is now Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and I wonder frankly whether such a thing could have happened here."

Yet, historically, how has Britain's record on equal opportunity actually compared to America's?

In some ways, down through the centuries, Britain's has been worse, but in other ways, much better.

While America long had the most assertive feminist movement, no woman here has ever been a significant contender for her party's presidential nomination. In contrast, British voters elected Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister back in 1979, and re-elected her twice more.

Way back in the 1890's, two Asian Indians (both Parsi merchants from Bombay) were elected to Parliament, one representing the Liberals, the other the Conservatives.

Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire three decades before Lincoln's Emancipation proclamation, and the Royal Navy devoted itself for much of the 19th Century to hunting down slave-trading ships.

Today a black person is roughly five times more likely in Britain than in America to be married to or be living with a white person.

Paradoxically, this high intermarriage rate stems in part from the relatively small number of blacks in Britain, just as percent of blacks married to whites is much higher in Montana than in Mississippi. There are fewer blacks because there was fairly little immigration into England for the first nine centuries after the successful Norman invasion of 1066. While it is widely asserted in America today that large-scale racial diversity leads to tolerance, the historical record suggests that the opposite is at least as likely to be true.

Interestingly, elitist Britain's relative lack of respect for the will of the majority tended to make British politicians more respectful of minorities than were democratic American politicos. This is particularly clear in the British government's less harsh treatment of Native Americans before 1776.

To 18th Century Americans, westward expansion was crucial to the development of our middle-class republic. The vast empty spaces on the frontier allowed the average American to buy cheap farmland and become his own master, a servant to no man. The problem, of course, was that the frontier wasn't quite empty. American Indians had been living on it for 10,000 years.

That didn't stop the settlers of the colonial era, but the British ruling oligarchy was more sympathetic to the Indians. London saw the pioneers as both subverting the hierarchical social order and stirring up needless troubles with the Indians. Parliament's Proclamation of 1763 banning settlement west of the Appalachians was loudly denounced in America as one of the "Intolerable Acts." This protection for Indians helped provoke the American Revolution.

Within Britain itself, however, race was seldom the central issue. Instead, religion was. From the Reformation under King Henry VIII in the 1530s into the 19th Century, anti-Catholicism was the dominant prejudice.

Americans tend to think of discrimination as growing out of the contempt the strong feel for the weak. In England, however, anti-Catholicism emerged out of fear of the strong: the Pope and Catholic royalty, such as Mary Queen of Scots, James II (who was overthrown in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688), and Bonnie Prince Charlie, who lead a Scottish Highlander invasion deep into England in 1745.

In the United States, though, religion was less divisive than race. An American Roman Catholic, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Yet, Britain's Catholics were not allowed to vote until 1829.

That religion meant more than racial origins in Victorian British politics is exemplified by Benjamin Disraeli, who first became prime minister in 1868 as head of the Conservative Party and went on to be Queen Victoria's favorite head of government. In contrast, America was abuzz with self-congratulation 132 years later when Sen. Joseph Lieberman became the first Jew nominated for the vice presidency.

After a dispute with his synagogue, Disraeli's father had had the 13-year-old baptized into the Church of England. Followers of the Jewish religion were excluded from sitting in Parliament until 1858, but baptized members of the Jewish race like Disraeli were not.

No man was ever more flamboyantly open about being racially Jewish than Disraeli. His looks and his very name proclaimed his Jewish descent. He turned this into a political asset, writing best-selling novels extolling the romance and wisdom of his ancient race. One of his characters confidently proclaimed, "Race is all."

When Daniel O'Connell, the first Irish Catholic parliamentarian, attacked his ancestry, Disraeli replied, "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon."

Comparative history suggests that there are many different roads, all of them winding, to a society of tolerance. Different societies have to overcome different prejudices; and sometimes one prejudice can be enlisted to fight another.

In Britain, class feeling sometimes worked against racial discrimination. The sons of maharajas and sheiks were often more welcome at Eton and Oxford than the sons of fishmongers.

Similarly, in the last couple of decades, blacks have been more welcomed into the white working class in Britain than in America, in part because British working class identity centers on not acting like a toff. The entrance requirements to the working class are amiably relaxed -- no need for "the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain" exercises. If you like 'aving a pint while watching Arsenal on the telly with your mates at the pub, well, you're halfway home.

What seems to matter is that a society be sufficiently open to moral debate and economic progress to allow minorities to improve themselves and to impress their neighbors. And in this, both Britain and America in their different ways have proved themselves far more successful than most countries.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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