What, if anything, has Britain left to give the world? Our ancestors have already bequeathed humanity so much, from the rule of law to the laws of motion, that it might seem presumptuous to claim that in our time we could still make a comparable contribution. Yet if we did not still believe that Britain's best days were still to come, who would bother to stay on our damp little Atlantic island? At a deeper level than that at which politics and economics are normally discussed, the British people has not lost its unspoken confidence in the strength of our traditions, our character and our common sense.
The British are at their best, indeed, in a tight spot. However depressed the national mood may be, no true countryman of Shakespeare can fail to thrill to the sentiments of Henry V in his speech on St Crispin's Day ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), just as no countryman of Churchill can hear his Battle of Britain speeches ("Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few") without emotion. Note the emphasis on "the few": the fate of our nation has always depended on a handful of brave souls, in war and peacetime, to do what they knew to be right.
How, though, could these happy few have acquired that moral courage, except by holding fast to their liberties, rather than plumping for ideologies, as others have? In his lectures of 1828, The History of Civilisation in Europe (now republished by the Liberty Fund with an introduction by Larry Siedentop), the great French historian François Guizot paid tribute to the English people, "the soundness of its good sense and practical ability", by contrast with "its lack of general ideas and its distrust of theoretical questions". Guizot acknowledged that the English had established a "government at once regular and free" much sooner than most of their Continental counterparts. He attributed this to a more general cause of European ascendancy, namely that no one principle had been able to dominate, but "the various elements of the social state were modified, combined, and struggled with each other, and had been constantly compelled to agree and live in common". He continued: "This fact, the general characteristic of European civilisation, has above all characterised the English civilisation." Like earlier French thinkers, such as Montesquieu, and later ones, such as Tocqueville, Guizot found much to admire in the British. But in his History of England David Hume had already scotched the myth of Anglo-Saxon liberty as the source of the English constitution, insisting that these barbarians had only received "the rudiments of science and cultivation" from the Norman conquest. Hume conjectured "that both the chief privileges of the peers in England and the liberty of the commons were originally the growth of that foreign country".