I’m in the United States and one of my holiday reads has been has been David McCullough’s excellent ‘1776‘, a wonderfully written history of the first year of the Revolution, or Rebellion, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from.
McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has a gift for character and is helped by those left by history to populate his story. Two of the characters in ‘1776’ are particularly striking. On the American side you have Major General Nathanael Greene. On the British side you have Captain John Montresor.
What is striking is if you look at both men a little closer. Greene, aged just 33, was a self educated foundry owner on the outbreak of the war. Montresor, by contrast, had over 20 years military experience behind him fighting in North America in the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from), with Wolfe at Quebec, leading expeditions and building fortifications “from Boston to Detroit to New York City”.
Yet Greene was a Major General and Montresor a Captain. As McCullough writes
“If the desperate American need for leaders had thrust young men like Nathanael Greene into positions beyond their experience, the British military system, wherein commissions were bought and aristocrats given preference, denied many men of ability roles they should have played”
Two and a bit centuries later little has changed. True, the USA has seen the rise of powerful dynasties such as the Kennedys, Clintons, and Bushes but a Ronald Reagan, a Bill Clinton, or even, dare I say, a Barack Obama or a Sarah Palin, can still rise from origins like Nathanael Greene’s to shape the nation.
Britain, on the other hand, remains almost as crusty and ossified as it did in the reign of King George III. Efforts have been made to remedy this malady. The most successful were the Whigs. They generated the wealth which allowed the Tories to paint the planet Imperial Pink and but were still sneered at.
Next came the early socialists. Despite initially noble intentions they failed to see how their ideology would simply replace one elite with another leaving them with the same ossifiaction, just with different people. And given how many Labour leaders from Clement Atlee to Ed Miliband were thoroughly posh even the faces changed little.
Finally came Maggie Thatcher (who Milton Friedman always saw as a 19th century Whig anyway) who’s attempts to convince the working and middle classes that there was no shame in seeking to be as rich as the upper class drew horror from Tory toffs like Lord Stockton. In the end they did for her.
So Britain remains, as it was when the expertise of John Montresor went untapped, a place where who you know matters more than what you know. In the USA, which cast this off in 1776, the difference is exhilarating. For the ambitious and talented the advice of the 19th century newspaperman Horace Greeley still holds; Go West, young man!