Today I gave my 63rd "Thought for the Week" on BBC Radio Manchester.
While sometimes I think of a subject well ahead of time, on other occasions only the imminent deadline unlocks the ability to think of a topic. This time, I had a subject in mind, which I was not entirely happy with, but believed I could "wrestle it into shape" when I started writing.
However as soon as I started typing the date when the "Thought" would be delivered, I instantly abandoned my original idea and knew what I really wanted to say.
America has made a massive contribution to human civilisation in many ways, especially science and the liberal arts. However what matters most to me is its political contribution.
Due to the pandemic, I always pre-record the "Thought for the Week" and send it to the BBC in advance. Accordingly you can hear my recording below.
Today is the fourth of July. In Britain, just another day.
In America, Independence Day. In 1776, on the 4th of July, representatives from 13 British colonies rebelled against the King. They declared the colonies independent. They won the first war of national liberation against a European empire.
They went on to create a remarkable country, one of “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
America was a key inspiration for the French Revolution. That’s why, on America’s 100th birthday, the French people gave the USA what has become the most famous statue in the world. The statue’s name means, in English, “Liberty enlightening the World.” It has inspired millions around the world to dream of freedom.
America has given us some of the greatest people of the last 250 years. Men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. Remarkable writings and speeches like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, the “I have a dream” speech.
I didn’t set foot in the USA until I was aged 30. But right here in Manchester, I grew up steeped in American history and culture, from my choices in reading and TV.
Is the USA perfect? No. Were the great men I named perfect? No. Muslims know that only God is perfect.
But today, I celebrate a country that taught the whole world the meaning of freedom and equality, in a way that no other country has done.
In Ronald Reagan’s words, “A shining city on a hill.”
All my life I have been aware that people's views of the USA (and knowledge about it) differ enormously.
In my case at the age of nine I was inspired by the presidential campaign of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I grew up reading American science fiction, and American comics. I came across the Gettysburg Address for the first time in a TV programme about the speech. I read the US Constitution in my twenties.
I cannot forget that the Chinese students who in 1989 bravely protested for freedom in Tiananmen Square built a 10 metre tall statue "Goddess of Democracy" which was clearly modelled on the Statue of Liberty.
As a migrant to the UK myself, albeit as a very young child with no memories of the actual arrival, I can easily imagine how Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms in the period 1880-1920 felt as they saw the skyline of New York City (and the safety and freedom it represented) appear over the horizon after a long voyage over the ocean.
Below I have reproduced the text of the relevant passage from Ronald Reagan's farewell address linked above. However I encourage readers to listen to the full 21 minute talk, or to read the full text.
And that's about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill."
The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago.
But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.