Fair warning: This post is going to get political.
As a nation, the UK has much of which we can be justifiably proud: a long tradition of stable government*; historic leaders in trade and industry; great artists and composers, just for a start.
However, as with any country (perhaps more than most), we have a lot of which we should be ashamed: For every positive aspect of the legacy of colonialism, there are a dozen abuses, and the British Empire was responsible for much that was evil. We may have been one of the first world powers to oppose the slave trade, but that was after centuries of being a leading force in it. Without wanting to get too political too soon, our history of military oppression in Scotland and Ireland leaves us looking very much like the bad guys. All this is before we consider how even in England, we perfected Nazi-style techniques in our treatment of Romany people. And that’s just one example.
Compared to that, the example I’m going to focus on might seem a little tame, but it provides a stark contrast to a country proud of its democratic heritage. One shameful part of British history** was the Test Acts of the 17th Century. These acts were meant to penalise Catholics, but also imposed criminal punishments on non-Conformist*** Christians, as well as anyone of any other faith or none, unwilling to pay lip-service to a religion they didn’t believe in. You couldn’t sit in parliament, hold public office, or even attend university if you weren’t an Anglican. This law was only scrapped in the 19th Century, although there were ways around it, and especially later on it wasn’t very strongly enforced.
Of course, we have to try to understand it in its historical context. The 17th Century was a time of political and religious tension. Europe had known centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. There was a Catholic plot to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament (the Gunpowder Plot). England experienced years of civil war where many feared the influence of Catholic countries on their King (Charles I, who was married to a Catholic French princess), perhaps worried England might return to the days of ‘Bloody’ Mary.
In those days, religious and political identity were much more closely tied together, without a separation of church and state. It’s understandable that they might, way back in 1661, see people not willing to swear allegiance to the Church of England as being political questionable – closet traitors, perhaps, stockpiling gunpowder to blow up the king? They were wrong, of course, but you have to try to understand their motives, while also being able to condemn it as something objectively wrong. When the Test Acts were repealed – and a professing Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic or Methodist could attend university again – the country could breathe a sigh of relief that common sense, liberty and the public good had prevailed.
Why, then, I have to ask, are there moves within our current government to enforce a new Test Act? There are moves to penalise those unwilling to swear allegiance to a bill of “British Values” which, amongst much that is commendable, contains certain things that many people – Catholics and Protestants, Jewish people and Muslims – cannot in good conscience agree to.
Are people of faith and conscientious, dissenting atheists, to be barred from public office and university again? I sincerely hope we can learn from history and draw on our legacy of the defence of universal human freedoms to prevent such a situation.
*The irony of this statement in the current political climate is not lost on me, however you have to admit that the turmoil of living on Brexit Island is still far more preferable to living under a dictatorship or under the dysfunctional governments of many countries.
**Although I believe they may only have been enforced in England and Wales.
***Non-conformist here just means any Christian belonging to any other tradition than Anglican – anyone not conforming to the establishment of the Church of England.