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Britain's moral imperialism

Francis King thinks it is high time the British stopped trying to look down on the rest of the world

During my adolescence, the short walk from my home off Kensington High Street to the wastes of Notting Hill and beyond it rapidly made it clear to me that the possession of an Empire brought prosperity only to that few to which, from a happy accident of birth, I happened to belong. But, despite that, there was an almost mystical comfort in those vast areas of the map of the world which, coloured red, made it clear that the British still, however shakily, held dominion over palm and pine.

Now that dominion has shrunk to no more than a dozen or so tiny dying stars in a firmament tumultuous with freak winds and dark with ominous clouds. But, with extraordinary obstinacy, the idea of our superiority still remains with us. The Pax Britannica no longer exists; the Bank of England no longer has the power to break or save the economies of lesser nations; the big stick, which we once flourished with so much authority, is now little more than a twig. All our pomp of yesterday is one not merely with Nineveh and Tyre but with Portugal, Spain and, most recently, Russia. None the less we still persist in thinking that, however humbling the material equation, the moral one still shows us to be lords of the world.

In comparison with Islam or the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicanism is small, feeble and incoherent. But it only requires one of the two archbishops, a bishop or even some dim and obscure parish priest of no particular intellectual gifts to give his moral opinion on any of the national or international issues of the day, for it at once to be quoted everywhere in the media. What a distinguished doctor, scholar, lawyer or writer has to say will often be ignored. But there is a general acceptance that a man of the cloth is also a man of authority.

Recently, when the lowering of the age of consent for gay sex was being opposed in the Lords, the archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey weighed in like a punch-drunk featherweight long over the hill. To lower the age of consent, he declared, would be 'a sign of a sick society'. In France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal the age of consent is 16, in Poland and Denmark 15, in Japan 13. Does the grand provincial of the Anglican Church really believe that these are sicker societies than our own? Probably he does, along with millions of other British people who, encouraged in the delusion by the media, believe in the moral superiority of our country over the rest of the world.

When a British subject is accused of a crime anywhere abroad, the instant assumption is that the person must be innocent and the justice system at fault. 'Louise Woodward is innocent', proclaimed posters in her hometown of Elton, long before anybody had any way of knowing whether she was innocent or not. She had to be innocent, innumerable people were instantaneously convinced, since any investigation and trial in the United States must, by definition, be flawed. Soon after her return to Britain, convicted but released after a short period in prison, a childminder in this country was accused of precisely the same crime. Neither woman had premeditated the murder of her charge; each had clearly been driven to it at a moment of intense exasperation. But for this second woman there was none of the same passionate partisanship or even sympathy from the public and the press. The US courts behaved with exemplary humanity to Woodward; but in the case of the other woman, a mother of young children, the British courts, no doubt influenced in part by the irrelevant fact that, in her youth, she had worked as a prostitute, handed out a barbarous six-year sentence.

No prime minister has ever intervened on behalf of a prisoner about to go on trial or subsequently convicted in one of our own courts; and no home secretary has ever been swayed by such an intervention from abroad, however important the person intervening. But a British subject has only to be accused of drug dealing in Thailand, murder in Saudi Arabia or terrorism in Africa for our government at once to concern itself. The view is that, if these accusations have been made in a foreign country, then of course they must be unfounded; and that if the trial is to be held under procedures different from our own, then of course it will be unfair. There have recently been so many miscarriages of justice in British courts - with people finally being released after serving five, 10, 15 or 20 years for crimes which, it was eventually discovered, they never committed - that it is amazing that we can still maintain this complacent fiction that, if we no longer rule the political or economic roost, we at least still rule the moral one.

As our football hooligans have repeatedly demonstrated all over Europe and as our holiday hooligans have recently demonstrated in Ibiza, driving the vice-consul there to resign in disgust and despair over their 'decadent' behaviour, the only people in the whole world who believe in our moral superiority are our absurdly self-deluding selves.

It is time that we saw that this moral imperialism of ours is as much out of date as our political and economic imperialism eventually came to be.

Francis King, a past president of the writers' organisation International PEN, has published more than 30 novels. His latest, Dead Letters, will appear in paperback in November

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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