The Manchester attack is an incomprehensible tragedy orchestrated by a craven coward but our history demonstrates a nation with an adamantine resistance to outside threats. Our redoubtable perseverance is not an innate greatness of our people but the greatness of our values as a people.
Our Reaction to Terrorism
After an attack on our country, politicians rhyme off nameless platitudes to console our pain. Terrorist will not change “our way of life” they proclaim “our values are too strong”. These speeches blend into an unfeeling mantra.
You could take the same speech from Tony Blair in 7/7 and apply it to Manchester. They have a clean cut and detached edge, an unfortunately blunt characteristic that comes with speech writers writing your speeches. In these times, our values deserve a specific tribute. Simply, proclaiming broadly “our values” will prevail does not do justice to their power.
Liberty, Freedom, and Democracy
The carnage of the First World War is part of our national consciousness but an unmatched example of the power of our ideals. There are few on these islands that are unaware of the unprecedented sacrifice of the Great War. Every year we honour their steely bravery, Spartan resistance, and unshakeable loyalty. For some Remembrance Day is a shoddy spectacle in jaded military jingoism. This modern interpretation misses the point entirely; it fails to acknowledge what compelled innumerable men to risk their lives and make the ultimate sacrifice. Why did so many crawl through the mud of Gallipoli under a shattering stream of catastrophic Howitzer fire? Why did hundreds of thousands of men charge the boggy ground of the Messines Ridge at Passchendaele, while weaving through a maze of barbed wire, artillery fire, and fallen soldiers?
Our understanding is shaped and distorted by the passage of time. Today, the war is understood through the artist. Poets painted the apocalyptic moonscape, crisscrossed with barbed wire, with manifold threats to life and inexplicable destruction. At school we learn “Dulce et Decorum Pro Patria Mora” , Wilfred Owens lament for the loss of a generation – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. We look back and condemn the incompetent politicians, the insatiable greed of empire, and destructive force of nationalism.
In our leap to find grand narratives and neat conclusions, we forget these forces were of their time, and should not be judged from the high ground of the 21st century. Young men did fight for Britain, but they did so because they believed in Britain. They believed Britain was the most progressive nation on earth at that time. It was. They believed they lived with the greatest amount of freedom. They did. They believed their sacred soil was under threat. It was.
Men died, in their millions, for British democracy and liberty. The British Army went from being non-existent in 1914 to overcome the greatest army in history, the German Army, in four years. This was an extraordinary achievement. In large part, the triumph is explained due to our values: we were fighting for freedom and liberty; the Germans for military dictatorship. It is a quaint peculiarity of history that armies that fight for freedom are always the victors. Wars are not won and lost on battlefields but with whoever is perceived to carry the flame of freedom. Free men fight for their freedom.
Politics and Culture
All we have of freedom, all we use or know – This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.
Our love of liberty did not spontaneously emerge from the ether but has been centuries in the making. The pedigree of our liberty first flowered in the great document of the 13th century, the Magna Carta. King John was an authoritarian monarch and undertook strenuous efforts to bend Earls to his will. Tyranny was inimical to custom so they sought iron clad guarantees that their rights should be protected. The Magna Carta was the answer. This sacred text was often cited when future monarchs breached the compact between state power and the individual. Indeed, liberty has been omnipresent and defines our political journey. John Locke, John Milton, John Stewert Mill, Edmund Burke, Shakespeare have advanced, explored, and defended freedom; it is in our culture, in our history.
The attacks on Manchester were heinous and brutal but the deep reserves of our past offer solace and strength. We have 800 years of history leading to this moment. Time and time again people have questioned that freedom; jealous nations attempted to conquer our Islands only to be abruptly repelled. With liberty in our hearts we defeated the greatest military in history, the Wehrmacht – twice. With freedom as our guide, we humbled the greatest general since Alexander the Great, Napoleon. When the West was viewed with honest eyes from the Soviet Union, the loathsome spectre of Communism shattered under the weight of unfavourable comparison. This leads to a question. Do these Islamic extremists honestly think they will win? That we will submissively bow to their medieval prospectus and abandon our legacy and rich inheritance? We defeated Nazis, why the hell should we be afraid of you?
Terrorists not only have to defeat us but eradicate our history, overcome Churchill, Shakespeare, The Duke of Wellington, Nelson, Dickens, Thatcher, Newton, Brunel, Queen Victoria, and the hundreds of millions of Britons that have supported democracy and liberty. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
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