Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
September 1913, W.B Yeats
One of the difficulties of being English is realising how little of our culture is ours.We live in a glass house on a street of otherwise solid, heavy, brick-clad mansions, each concealed by towering leylandii and forbidding fences topped with iron spikes. Our ancestors were so successful in conquering and subjugating the world, spiritually as well as physically, that we are now surplus to requirements, like a prototype boneshaker gathering dust in a shed or a Ford Model T. Our language is spoken by everyone in the world. Our free-trade economics are more or less orthodox. Parliamentary democracy, like cricket, may be a game that only the English can play, as Spengler said, but it is a model that is more or less universal. The basic assumptions of the modern world are, for better and considerable worse, English.
It isn’t all that bad. As Orwell said, English civilisation is as distinct as that of Spain: the suet puddings and pillar boxes have entered into your soul. Of course, culture is an accretion of millions of tiny acts and preferences, a thank-you here, a queue at a bus-stop, steak-and-kidney pie, children’s TV, musn’t grumble, pints of bitter and so on. On that basis, England is no worse off or more deracinated than any other European country, most of which are under the same pressures as we are. Culture on a national level is something more than morris-dancing, folk-sessions and CAMRA membership (the last implicit stand of middle-aged identity).
I speak of England very deliberately. The Scots, despite culturally being an off-shoot of Northumbria and having been anglicised thoroughly, can identify themselves against us. North Walians and Welsh-speakers too have the spectre of Lloegr in the east. The Irish go without saying and the Ulster-Scots in the north have the Catholics. Much of this resentment against England is curiously unreciprocated, but the England of the Celtic imagination persists and looms large in their psyche. The English are cruel, less community-minded, less real, less authentic, stuck-up, posh, quintessentially middle-class and cold.
Whether or not this bears any reflection to life, is irrelevant. In reality, you couldn’t stick a fag-paper between someone from Donegal or Yorkshire, Ayrshire and Leicestershire, Anglesey and Kent; to any genuine outsider the difference would be meaningless. The landscapes are the same, the language is the same, the hedgerows are the same, the architecture is the same, the basic assumptions and tenor of life are the same. Celtic nationalism before the war, whether with Saunders Lewis in Wales, Hugh MacDiarmid and Douglas Young in Scotland or De Valera’s clerical Irish state were very broadly speaking of the right. There’s an amusing interlude in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy where Guy Crouchback finds himself on the Isle of Mugg with a deranged Scottish nationalist with fascist sympathies.
All three of these nationalisms are now left-wing, civic and hold beliefs in contradiction to those held by their forebears. The only point of reference is that whatever the English are, we aren’t. If before the war, the English were seen as bourgeois and decadent merchants, their apparent shift to the right since alters everything. This results in an odd combination of being pro-immigration, pro-EU and pro-internationalist both politically and economically whilst trying to maintain a small and vulnerable culture. Nigel Farage, Theresa May and other milquetoast figures are seen as fascists. Pearse rolls in his grave whilst the Irish commentariat sneers at the English for having the ill-taste for asserting themselves as a nation.
I doubt whether the English are particularly right-wing compared to their neighbours, but perception is everything. To some extent the dislike of England is the rage of Caliban seeing his own reflection in the glass, the narcissism of small differences raised to an absurd peak. The Scottish nationalist, speaking and reading English (not Scots), listening to English media, English accents, reading English novels and living in a culture imbued with England, rebels on some level, however silly this may seem. You taught me language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!
We don’t have an England to define ourselves against. We are, as Peter Hitchens so vividly put it, the only virgin in a continent of rape victims. In the 20th century, every single European country underwent either civil war, invasion or revolution. Some of them, like Russia experienced all three. The only exceptions were Switzerland, England and Sweden. Sweden was forced to allow German troops to cross into Norway and escaped invasion. That leaves Switzerland and England, geographically isolated, eccentric in their governance, the two voices of liberty, one of mountain and one of sea, of Wordsworth’s sonnet. These two countries alone were spared the full horrors of the twentieth century and they are both the least pro-EU nations in Europe.
But our record stretches back even further. France experienced revolution in 1789, Robespierre, the Thermidorean reaction, the `whiff of grapeshot`, the 18 Brumaire, the first empire, the Bourbon restoration, the 100 days, the Bourbon restoration, the July revolution, the second Republic, the Second Empire, the Third Republic and so on until the mind gets sick of the revolving door of statesmen and political systems. Nearly every other European nation has a similar record. History is a story of discontinuity, of change, invasion, war and revolution.
Our last revolution was in 1688. The last real battle (barring a Jacobite skirmish) fought on our soil was Sedgemoor in 1685. There is a reason why a sizeable proportion of 500 year old mature trees in Europe are located in our countryside. The last time we experienced the sort of violent and brutal invasion, similar to those endured by Poland and Germany within living memory, in which the ruling class and intelligentsia were annihilated was in 1066. Our political system would be recognisable to Pym and Hampden. Much of the English countryside would be recognisable to Richard III. The English state, administratively centralised to a degree unknown on the continent, has persisted for over a thousand years. Barring Edward Heath’s execrable reforms, to which no man of taste pays any attention, the counties are the same as they were 1000 years ago. Leicestershire as a territorial and administrative unit is older than Spain or Italy.
There is no folk-memory of invasion in our people, no sense of a looming Russia to the east. Dislike of Germany, fading and qualified by admiration for their economy, is not existential. Our dislike of France is similarly trivial. So now that our state is no longer controlled by our people and now that we are undergoing an invasion, we have no way of resisting. We are like the native Indians or other indigenous peoples, cosseted and protected through isolation from illness, only to violently succumb when exposed to the slightest cold. The orcs are in the Shire.
Britain is the universal state, the prototype of modernity, of liberalism, of free-trade, of parliamentary democracy and Exeter Hall philanthropy and abolitionism. Our rulers are used to seeing our interests as universal. Our foreign policy is predicated on the idea that we are a great power with interests in every corner of the globe, rather than a small island with limited geographical interests. This leads us into fantastical and ludicrous adventures like Iraq and Libya. Enoch Powell noted that it was hard to describe the Anglo-American relationship and our toadying up to the USA without using terms derived from psychiatry.
London is seen as a world city, an international emporium of capital and trade. The status of London as the preferred shopping destination of sheiks and Davos men gives our rulers a sense of importance out of all proportion to the actual interests of England. The pursuit of this policy has reduced our people to a minority in their own capital city! We gave away our birthright for a mess of Arab gold and Russian funny-money. We de-industrialised because it was cheaper to buy cars abroad and cheaper to import coal from abroad; it’s comparative advantage, you pleb. No other country allows its companies and national infrastructure to be sold and traded as if they were soap manufacturers, or matchbox makers. Free trade, dubious when we were the only industrialised country in the world, is still as rigorously applied as if it was 1850 and people were more or less forced to take whatever we could sell them.
We have to realise that our interests are not universal. I suspect that the union will collapse over the next ten years or so, leaving England (probably with Wales) alone. Enoch Powell, throughout his lifetime, applied a Carlylean ruthlessness and dislike of cant to all political developments. The man who spoke fluent Hindi and dreamed of becoming Viceroy wandered the streets of London weeping when he heard Atlee announce that India was to become independent. He immediately saw that the Commonwealth was a sham and wanted it abolished, as well as the ludicrous definition of British subjecthood extending to Indians and others who had rejected the King. More importantly, he grasped that the end of empire was the end of Britain as an imperial state. In his St George’s day speech, half a century ago, Powell turned Kipling’s riddle back on its head: we know most of England who only England know.
We should see the end of the union, the death of Queen Elizabeth and the probable abolition of the monarchy in the Commonwealth Realms as a glorious affirmation of our Englishness. England alone, exalted, in splendid isolation, the alter orbis of Europe and the western world. Nor will this be a retreat into sterility. Our position will be no different from that of Drake, Raleigh and the first Elizabeth. We must revert to being the hard-nosed and aggressive people that we were in the 16th century, piratical in nature and the kings of exploration. England is waiting to be born from the carcass of Great Britain. We must redefine ourselves, cast off the universalist dogma of free-trade, of `British` identity and become who were always were and who we always are, the English. The ride will be dangerous, but exhilarating.
Well might we say with Milton: Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of quick ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity to soar to.