Blogs > Liberty and Power > It Was Ever Thus

Aug 1, 2008 12:39 pm

It Was Ever Thus

Geoffrey Wheatcroft provides the historical context to the British reputation for drunkenness. He concludes with the celebrated words of William Connor Magee, Bishop of Peterborough and, for four months before his death, Archbishop of York, that he would rather see England free than England sober, and suggests that today Magee might think again. Yet Magee's actual words were,"It would be better that England should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober." An admirable and impeccably liberal sentiment.

Reading this prompted me to read the entry on Magee in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (behind subscription). There I read that"[a]lthough his religious views were always of an evangelical tone, they broadened considerably in later years ... In a sermon of December 1885 Magee accepted evolution ... All fanatical excesses in religion were abhorrent to him. He had little sympathy with the eccentricities of teetotal fanatics and other social reformers, and some remarks in his later speeches that he would rather see England free than sober, and that under certain circumstances betting was not wholly sinful, led to much misconception, but were fully consistent with his hatred of exaggeration and misapplied enthusiasm." Evidently he was a pretty sound fellow with whom I could enjoy a drink or two.

UPDATE (August 1): Today the Financial Times has seen fit to publish my letter about Bishop Magee together with a picture of the prelate himself.

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