Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

People in the UK don’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. That much ought to be obvious, but I’ve met enough Americans that just don’t stop and think long enough to really realise this on a conscious level.

Anyway, our fireworks happen on the fifth of November, and for a different reason.

November 5th in Britain is vastly different, weatherwise, from July 4th in Texas. It’s cold and damp; not actually freezing (mostly), but weather for wearing coats and gloves and for having bonfires. Which you can actually do, usually, because unlike Texas, the British Isles are not a disguised desert in which rain is a legendary creature rarer than the chimaera. Trying to set a bonfire in Texas around the Fourth of July is asking to set the entire state alight. No exaggeration.

The bonfire also provides a welcome break from the cold and dark of a British November, but that’s not its primary reason for existing.

Just like the fireworks, and like the Liberty Bell and the Easter Egg, the bonfire is a symbol connected intrinsically to the reason we have a celebration at all.

(Incidentally, Brits definitely get the better deal with Easter Eggs. American Easter Eggs are small, plastic, and filled with various artificial-tasting American candies. British Easter Eggs are a hollow shell only slightly smaller than an ostrich egg, made out of chocolate (actual chocolate, too, not that awful Hersheys rubbish) and filled with vastly better-tasting British sweets. No contest)

Anyway…

The difference in history behind the US and UK fireworks days is emblematic of the difference in basal attitude between our two countries towards government. And with a US election just around the corner, it seemed an appropriate subject.

The Fourth of July is, of course, an Independence Day. In popular American myth, it’s the day when the heroic American patriots told the evil British tyrants that they weren’t having it any more, dumped perfectly good tea into Boston harbour and shot at the Redcoats until they all went home in disgrace. Give it a couple of hundred years more and Paul Revere will ride through town at midnight distributing presents of ammunition to all the good little redneck boys and girls.

Um, excuse me. I shouldn’t be facetious. This is serious stuff. The birth of a new nation by telling its former colonial power to butt out, and making it stick. The wisdom and foresight of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

The point I’m trying to make is that the essence of the Fourth of July is the celebration of independence. From whom? Well, we’ll look at that in a minute.

The Fifth of November, by contrast, celebrates the failure of an act of terrorism. I should probably explain a little for the benefit of my non-British readership.

The potted popular version is that back in the age when Europeans had long and bloody wars over which variety of Christian they were going to be, a group of Roman Catholic conspirators led by, or at least aided and abetted by, Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up the overwhelmingly Protestant Parliament while the equally Protestant King James I (of England and VI of Scotland) was visiting. (Yes, the king visits Parliament. By tradition the Sovereign has to ask Parliament’s permission to enter; he or she may not do so merely as a matter of right).

The conspirators smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the chambers below the central House, where the aforementioned Guy Fawkes was to wait until he heard the sounds of Parliament in session above, light the fuse and make his getaway.

The scheme might have succeeded, leaving a power vacuum in which most of the powerful Protestant Lords were dead and the closest claimant to the throne was a Catholic prepared to unleash a new round of Bloody Mary’s burnings and torturings of Protestant heretics. British Protestants don’t have a spotless record when it comes to treatment of Catholics, but at least the official persecution stopped short of massed burnings at the stake.

It might have succeeded. The fact that it didn’t was due to the fact that a couple of the conspirators tried to warn four prominent Catholic Members of Parliament not to attend that day, and the four, whether from putting their country ahead of their religious allegiance or from a simple rejection of these violent means, in turn informed the King.

Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and his ring of co-conspirators was apprehended. And for his act of treason against the lawful Sovereign and Government, he was put to death by burning. (It was a savage age in many ways, and the people were incensed. No pun intended).

Hence the bonfire, to remember his death, and the fireworks, to remember the Gunpowder Plot.

The point here is that the essence of the Fifth of November is the celebration of the preservation of government, and that’s the big difference.

For Britons, by and large, government is generally viewed as benign. Its purpose is to restrain lawlessness and allow decent ordinary people to live out their lives in relative peace. The Royal Family is emblematic of this; the friendly, cosy, limited authority of a good father or mother in a family, extended to the scale of a nation. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t considered “the Father of the Nation” in the way the Tsars of Russia were, but it’s a metaphor. National government is fatherly, motherly, a close, familial authority which is, when the chips are down, for you, not against you.

This mindset might as well be Martian to most Americans (though if anything, Jupiter ought to be considered Britain’s presiding planetary power. King of the gods, and all that. Jupiterian, perhaps). The basal American attitude to government is that it’s at best a necessary evil. I sometimes suspect that a lot of Republicans are only narrowly removed from outright anarchism, but even a lot of Democrats seem to have a base-level distrust of government that even the most ardently republican (note the small “r”) Brit doesn’t.

Government seems to be viewed as the enemy. Necessary, perhaps, but needing to be caged and imprisoned and limited and controlled in order to keep the blighters honest. Give them the chance and they’ll turn on you in a heartbeat, eviscerate you and eat your lungs. The US political system of checks and balances is an institutionalised version of this mistrust of authority; no one agency has all of the power, because government is by nature untrustworthy.

Even at our most strongly pro-democracy, most Brits maintain a subliminal belief that the institution of government itself is basically trustworthy. While this is not true of any particular government or group of politicians (most of them, in fact, could do with having their feet held to the fire to keep the blighters honest), the integrity of the institution of governmental authority itself is not up for question. On some level, we trust government to at least try to act for the good of the country and its people, whether or not we trust the people involved to recognise what the good of the country is.

Americans are largely the inverse of this. They might place trust in individual political figures or parties, but the system itself, the institution, the nature of authority, is that it is an enemy and capable of great and nefarious evil. We’re free Americans! No-one tells us what to do! Hooah!

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom from the evil forces of government, embodied in the “foreign tyranny” (personally disputed on both counts, but let’s not get into that) of British rule.

The Fifth of November celebrates preservation of the government from evil forces. It’s a significant difference.

And on that note, I’ll leave all you Americans to go and vote on Tuesday, and all you Brits to reflect on the strange mindset that leads many Americans to vote the way they do. And I can’t even shoot up a single firework here in Texas to celebrate the day, because they’re not allowed to the general public within city limits.

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