When we first visited London, many years ago, we went to see the Queen’s Life Guards at the Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall. The changing of the guard was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. A crowd was already there when we arrived at the enclosure where the ceremony was to take place.
Two or three London bobbies herded onlookers into a space at the end of the courtyard, behind a pavement stripe. We scored a place near the front, where we could see and hear everything.
There were a few other Yanks, but most of the audience was British. It’s easy to tell who is a tourist, and thus equally evident who is not.
One of the locals, a dumpy man in a tweed cap and horn-rimmed glasses, recommended himself to my attention, because he had become the focus of the bobby’s attention.
The copper, a lank young man, stared at the chap in the tweed cap. “Got to push it, now, don’t we, luv?”
The man stared back, mute.
“You’re over the line. Move it.” The officer fingered his baton.
The man jiggled one notch backward.
The bobby stepped forward and stood in the man’s face. He slitted his ice-blue eyes and dimmed his voice to a purr. “Now, that won’t cut it, ducky. You’re courting a summons.” He cast his eyes downward, toward the man’s feet.
I craned my neck to see down. Mister Tweedcap’s shoes cut semi-ovals out of the pavement line, extending half an inch over.
The man jigged backwards again, crowding a woman who stood without interval behind him. His shoe-tips now just touched the line.
The bobby gave him one more cold look, then turned away to walk down the front of the crowd. He stopped after a few steps and looked back.
The man in the tweed cap stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. Silent as ever.
Satisfied the man’s feet had not moved, the bobby turned away again to troop the crowd.
The new guards, red and blue by regiment, cantered in on proud black steeds. After a bit of clip-clop and folderol, the old guards—every bit as flashy—departed.
Meanwhile, the bobby had returned to our sector.
The crowd knew the moment the rite was over. They lapsed into a slouch that was palpable.
Mister Tweedcap stepped over the line and lit a cigarette.
The bobby flashed a grimace of a smile. “See you tomorrow, Mick. Same time, same station.”
“Righto, Kenny,” said the man, exhaling a puff of smoke. “Give my best to the missus.”
The copper nodded and moved off to protect some other part of the kingdom.
Had I been ordered by a cop to move back I would have said “Yes, sir” and removed myself to well behind the line, slacker that I am.
Our British cousin stood on his rights as an Englishman. He thereby reinforced a centuries-old framework of “English liberties”—the same liberties that would have given him, in a rural setting, the right to use long-established footpaths through farmers’ fields.
His grudging deference to the civil authorities, his insistence on toeing right up to the line, must not be sneezed at. English history is soaked in the blood, not to mention the tortured entrails and piked heads, of those who challenged authority. An Englishmen needs to know just how far he can go. The fellow in the tweed cap embodies the “village-Hampden who, with dauntless breast, / The little tyrant of his fields withstood.”
The strong have always ruled the weak.
At some time past, this hegemony gained the name of “government,” which derives ultimately from a Greek term that means to steer a ship. The idea of government was that ordinary folks needed to have their ship steered by experts, otherwise known as “the rightful authorities,” those in a position to exercise power.
The concept of “government,” with its accompanying whiff of political legitimacy, gave any tyrant the full justification for his particular tyranny.
Government employed a system of laws, at least since the time of Hammurabi, which applied to those governed but not, usually, to those who did the governing.
That is still largely the case. Some governments feign the hypothesis that laws apply equally to ruler and ruled. But the principle is carried into practice only when convenient.
Gradually, over millennia, societies have enshrined in tradition many customs that limit, in a practical way, the power of the ruler, of the ruler’s extended family, and of that corps of cronies and straphangers who constitute the ruling class.
Today we benefit from protective customs codified in Jewish, Greek, and Roman law; from feudal practices which arose in Europe during the days of the Holy Roman Empire; from the legal heritage of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and post-Norman rule of Great Britain; and from American practices that began in colonial times and gave birth to Constitutional safeguards of our common rights.
All these things form a web of customs, understandings, and institutions which guard our liberty.
But in the human soul there is a craving for primacy.
In every village board, every bowling league, and every garden club across the land lurks a self-appointed leader who would become Caligula or Saddam Hussein without giving it a second thought—were not he or she restrained by the many strands in our ancient web of governing traditions.
Democracy, freedom, and equality are not the natural condition of society. Dictatorship is no temporary aberration; it is the rule, absent that multifarious system of closely tended liberties on which we depend just as does our cousin in the tweed cap. Despotism exercised by the most cunning, brutal, and lucky is the default order of things. We should thank God for the long, painfully developed, chain of specific practices and understandings which hold would-be tyrants at bay.
Fairness, justice, and decency are merely warm, fuzzy concepts that hold no sway. Without the common residues of parliamentary procedure, contract law, and long-established precendent—all of them dreary and tedious things, to say the least—we would be at the mercy of mere thugs.
Whenever a nicely uniformed and duly constituted authority requires us to stand in a box, we—at the very least—ought to jam our caps down over our brows and bump our toes right up to the line.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)
Thanks, Larry. That was powerful commentary. You might have been thinking this, but you didn’t add that a “village Cromwell” might also be lurking in various kinds of church meetings, as well.
Thanks, Bob. I wrote the piece because I suddenly remembered that little guy in the cap, for some reason. And I really think a lot of people, especially young people, do not understand the intricate web of historic tradition on which our present state of relative freedom and prosperity so largely depends.
Always a pleasure to read your stuff. Sidebar-My dad often wore a tweed cap in the fall. Bless him.
God rest his soul.
I think this is where the expression “toe the line” came from?
Yes, it’s similar customs, mostly from military contexts in the 1700s and 1800s, where soldiers and sailors were expected to form up with their toes on a line. It signifies submission to authority.
Of course, in the case I cite, it’s a very grudging submission–a “Yes, but…” kind of thing.