The England you'll encounter today has moved from the prim and proper Victorianism of the mid-19th century and is an exciting land of change and experiment, being forever altered by the massive arrival of immigrants from around the globe.
It's not a big country, but 2,500 eventful years have left their mark. Traveling in England is like experiencing a living, illustrated history book -- the ancient mystery of Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall left in the north by the Romans, the grand cathedrals, and the lofty spires of village churches.
Monuments aside, the highly individualistic people who inhabit England today are an attraction unto themselves. Known for their privacy and reserve, they have endless tolerance for eccentricity.
As a long-term cultural shift, Britain's class system seems to be waning. The average visitor will hardly know that it even exists. Yet the number of titles has grown from some 115 peers (nobles) some 2 centuries ago to almost 2,000 titles today. The explosion in titles derives from the policy of elevating to the peerage anyone who continues in a major way to contribute "to the well-being of Britain" -- the late Lord Laurence Olivier, for example.
Britain is the only country in the world that has granted titles to members of labor unions. At the bottom of the rung are knights and ladies (dames) whose titles come from their achievements, perhaps in politics or the arts. Such a title of "Dame Elizabeth" was bestowed on Elizabeth Taylor.
Of course, members of the House of Lords still must come from the peers of the realm; otherwise, a politician is "banished" to the House of Commons. As a political issue, there are those who want to abolish the House of Lords. The argument goes that the very nature of Britain's legislative process is deeply rooted in the class system. But to get rid of Britain's aristocracy would necessitate a radical change in Parliament.
One BBC commentator said, "The royals don't rule anymore, but they provide us with amusement, which is the only reason we keep them around." Dishing the dirt on the royals lures millions of tabloid readers daily. Times have changed. Contrast today's situation to the prolonged press silence about the courtship of King Edward VIII and the American divorcée, Wallis Warfield Simpson, in the 1930s.
The very existence of the monarchy still is a hot political issue to press in a London pub. As Labor's "shadow minister," Jack Straw, longtime critic of the monarchy, said that he would like to see "the type of monarch they have in Norway, or perhaps Sweden. Let the royals shop for groceries like the rest of us. It would signal a classless British society." Even Prince Charles has admitted "that a lot of people need to be taken off the royal payroll and the monarchy scaled back if it is to survive."
Nothing is changing England today more than demographics. The 2001 census listed a population just under 50,000,000, with slightly more females than males. The mean age of England's population is around 39 years, and some 90% of its people were born in the British Isles. Life expectancy for males is 77, for females 81. England's ethnic minorities make up some 15.3% of the population, with Asians forming the largest number of residents.
The Bulldog & a Question of Character
The fact that the English have adopted the bulldog as their symbol gives you a clue to their character, at least according to George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm. In 1947, he wrote that millions of Brits "willingly accept as their national emblem the bulldog, an animal noted for its obstinacy, ugliness, and impenetrable stupidity." Orwell, both a socialist and a critic of socialism, had no kindly feelings toward his fellow citizens.
Countless others have attempted to characterize the English, including the writer Arthur Koestler, who described an average Englishman as an "attractive hybrid between an ostrich and a lion: keeping his head in the sand for as long as possible, but when forced to confront reality, capable of heroic deeds."
The Brits have always baffled the Americans, perhaps ever since the latter ceased being Brits and became Americans. Writer Paul Gallico noted: "No one can be as calculatedly rude as the British, which amazes Americans, who do not understand studied insult and can only offer abuse as a substitute."
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