The story of Britain has mostly been about conflict with France, Germany or Spain. The preeminence of the Royal Navy, in the defiant spirit of its sea lords, ensured that European dictators from Napoleon to Hitler could never set foot on British soil. As British admiral John Jervis reassured his superiors in 1801 amidst rumors of an impending Napoleonic invasion, “I do not say, my lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea.”
Britain’s sea power, imperialism, parliamentary government and majority Protestant religion set it apart from its European neighbors — and not just because of its geographical isolation.
The 18th century British and Scottish Enlightenment of Edmund Burke, David Hume, John Locke and Adam Smith emphasized individualism, freedom and liberty far more than the government-enforced equality of result that was favored by French Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is no accident that the American Revolution was founded on the idea of individual freedom and liberty, unlike the later French Revolution’s violent effort to redistribute income and deprive “enemies of the people” of their rights and even their lives.
France produced Napoleon, Italy had Mussolini, and Germany gave the world Hitler. It is difficult to find in British history a comparable dictatorial figure who sought Continental domination. The British, of course, were often no saints. They controlled their global empire by both persuasion and brutal force.
But even British imperialism was of a different sort than Belgian, French, German, Portuguese or Spanish colonialism. Former British colonies America, Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand have long been democratic, while much of Latin America, to take one example, has not until recently.
In World War I, the British lost nearly 1 million soldiers trying to save France and Belgium. In World War II, England was the only nation to fight the Axis for the entirety of the war (from September 1939, to September 1945), the only Allied power to fight the Axis completely alone (for about a year from mid-1940 to mid-1941), and the only major Allied power to have gone to war without having been directly attacked. (It came to the aid of its ally Poland.)