Down Memory Lane

Last week, an SCMP columnist wrote that “the sun has already set on the nation they call Great Britain” and questioned whether it (UK) is a failed or failing state. I put that to a young man my son’s age who had recently migrated to UK on the BNOer scheme and asked for his reading. He found the assessment somewhat negative. Well, even as I was typing away this blog, we had news that Birmingham City Council had declared itself effectively bankrupt, when the City is the second largest in UK. Such development and other recent news on UK sent me down memory lane to 1958 when I first learnt about the nation as one on which the sun never set.

I was in primary six, being prepared for the Joint Primary School Certificate Examination, and our Form Teacher, a Mr Chan Hok Siu, taught us in Chinese many four-word Chinese idioms including this one on Great Britain. I was ten and I was functioning like a piece of sponge soaking up whatever information fed to me. Later, and much later, I learnt that it was the year the United States launched the Explorer One satellite; when the Munich Air Disaster occurred after a plane crash carrying the Manchester United team; when Bobby Fischer, then 14, won the US Chess Championship; when the Great Chinese Famine began which lasted till 1961 causing the death of nearly 30 million; when the Broadway musical My Fair Lady opened in London with Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle; and when Elvis Presley was conscripted into the US Army; amongst other events.

For me personally, I was catapulted to secondary school, a process I had described in some details in my first memoir published in 2021, which still makes good reading for myself at times. I think I could expand on that era somewhat – maybe in the sequel. Mum had never paid too much attention on me, being the middle child, but in her discussions with the Parish Priest at Holy Cross Path Village, she had conjured up some plans to send me overseas someday, probably in UK or the US and it appeared to me at the time that all it would take was to put me in a thick fur coat to keep me warm. My vista at the time was indeed rather limited and restricted. I had not ventured out of the Hong Kong Island my idea on which was a linear strip of land from Shaukiwan to Sheung Wan along the tramline.

As to Birmingham, I had some fond memories on the city too. I first visited the city in 1981 as part of a familiarization tour in my capacity as head of the training section for General Grade Officers in the Civil Service Training Division. The UK Civil Service had a training centre there which was converted from a previous chocolate factory. I found Birmingham pretty much vibrant, with its road networks linking various parts of the country and indeed a very much alive commercial centre. I visited the City again in 1985 with other colleagues as part of the Oxford Course. It was snowing hard and we had a great time tobogganing and throwing snowballs on each other.  

Other news from UK centred on the closing down of many big shopping malls in city centres due to uncontrollable theft, burglary and armed robberies, and of course shop lifting. I read with amazement that respectable people operating from London are creating a profession from taking away valuable goods and merchandises from high street venues – free of charge – and offering them to designated clienteles at pre-agreed prices, thereby benefiting both sides, with the shops and the cities being the sore losers.  

Apparently, UK had borrowed such practices from the United States. It boggles the mind and makes no sense at all.  In one word, this is a brutal afront to just government, or to democracy. Charles van Doren (1926 – 2019), an American writer and editor, in his A History of Knowledge referred to an essay written in 1689 by John Locke (1632 – 1704) on political theory where he made an important distinction between “the state of nature” and “the state of civil society”. Let me quote,

“The state of nature is one in which there is no law other than the law of reason, which is obeyed by reasonable men but which cannot be enforced when unreasonable men disobey it. In the state of nature, in other words, there is no machinery for insuring that all men and women obey the law of reason. As a consequence, few do obey it, for to obey that law when others do not is to make yourself weak. When force is the only arbiter, you must use force or have it used against you.

The state of civil society is characterized by “a standing rule to live by,” in Locke’s memorable phrase…… Obedience to the standing law was enforced by various civic institutions which employed officers chosen by the people or their representatives.”

When the concept is extended or applied to international law, the situation becomes vague and complex. “The rule is there, for all to see, but the machinery for enforcing it does not exist.”

We should also take note that the Declaration of Independence championed by Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) was based on certain fundamental principles, the first amongst which was that all men are created not only equal but are endowed with certain inalienable rights, which Jefferson said, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Now it is also obvious that Jefferson had followed Locke’s thinking that the rights were Life, liberty and property. Indeed, Locke had said that government’s first task is to secure property.

It follows that the law makers in the West today could be seen to have totally ignored and disregarded the individual’s rights to property and the government’s duty to safeguard that right and the individual’s property.

I would stop here and see what others think, if anyone reaches this point.

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