Image: The White Cliffs of Dover - the archetypal image of Britishness - or Englishness? Rights: Immanuel Giel/Wikimedia, CC 3.0
The Britannic archipelago has seen two referendums in the last two years: the United Kingdom’s EU referendum in 2016 and the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland in 2018. Both concerned profound existential issues. In both the combatants were divided, not just over the questions on the ballot papers, but over identity and meaning – over the weight of the past and its implications for the future. In both, voters had to ask themselves what sort of country they wanted to live in and what part they wanted it to play in the wider world. Both aroused strong passions; in both hope warred with fear, the future with the past. But there the similarities stop. One was a triumph; the other a tragedy.
The second referendum – the 2018 abortion referendum in Ireland – was the triumph. It signalled an astonishing break with the past history of the Irish Republic. When I first visited southern Ireland as a sixteen-year old schoolboy in 1950, the country was dirt poor: for the first time in my life I saw people begging in the streets. I didn’t then realise that the constitution of the Irish Republic privileged the Catholic Church over all other denominations; and that the Catholic church of Ireland was one of the most reactionary, intolerant and oppressive in Europe. It was still De Valera’s Ireland; and the preamble to De Valera’s constitution, adopted in 1937, explicitly stated that the people of Eire acknowledged ‘all our obligations to our Divine Lord Jesus Christ, who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial’. A later article declared that the state recognised ‘the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of its citizens’. Other faiths – even the Jewish faith – were to be tolerated, but their adherents would be second-class citizens.
Since then, Ireland has changed out of all recognition: ‘changed utterly’ to use Yeats’s famous phrase in his poem ‘Easter 1916’. Thanks in part to its entry into the then European Economic Community more than 40 years ago and its continuing membership of the European Union, it is now an outward-looking, tolerant and comparatively prosperous country, It has had two female Presidents, one of them born in Northern Ireland; Irish commissioners have played constructive parts in European Union politics; the current Taoiseach is an openly gay man of mixed race. Garett Fitzgerald, as Taoiseach and as Brussels Commissioner, was a figure of European significance. Against that background, the result of the recent abortion referendum is less surprising than it seems at first sight. By a large majority, the Irish people voted for hope and the future: for empathy, compassion and human dignity. In doing so, they were voting to take a giant step along a path they had been following for decades.
The contrast between the Irish vote of 2018 and the United Kingdom vote of 2016 is astonishing. By a narrow majority of 52% to 48% of those voting (and 37% of those eligible to vote) the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union after forty-three years of membership. This was the tragedy. It was a tragedy of fact: an act of national self-harm unparalleled in European history since France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940. It was also a tragedy of behaviour. The Leave campaigners, from Boris Johnson to Nigel Farage to David Davis to David Owen to Gisela Stuart to Chris Grayling to the ludicrous Jacob Rees Mogg plumbed depths of ignominy not seen in the United Kingdom since the anti-Jacobin panic of the late-eighteenth century.
The contest between a vision and a bank statement was no contest.
But, to put it at its lowest, the Remain campaigners did not exactly cover themselves with glory. David Cameron’s campaign during the Referendum debate was not just lacklustre; it was positively comatose. The mixture of frivolity and arrogance – the stigmata of an Etonian education – which had marked his entire political career cast a blight on the Remain campaign. The ‘Leavers’ offered a bogus vision of re-born grandeur, but it was at least a vision. The ‘Remainers’ offered a glorified bank statement. Virtually no one made the moral, cultural and emotional case for the European project – the case that inspired the founding fathers of the European Community like Monnet, Spaak, De Gasperi and Schuman. The contest between a vision and a bank statement was no contest.
The 2016 EU Referendum was only the third UK-wide Referendum in British history. In 1975 the Wilson Government called a Referendum on the question of continued British membership of the then European Community. In 2011 a Referendum took place on the possible introduction of the Alternative Vote in place of the traditional First-Past-the-Post British system. Both these Referendums yielded massive majorities for the status quo; in both cases the results were virtually identical across the Kingdom. The 2016 EU Referendum turned these precedents upside down. The Scots and the people of Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’; the English and Welsh voted ‘Leave’. The implications are explosive. A plebiscite called on the assumption that the United Kingdom is a homogeneous polity revealed a yawning chasm dividing the British state and people against themselves. The United Kingdom has never been a unitary state, but it has been a union state. Now it is a disunited state – a ‘Divided Kingdom’ as the Welsh commentator and polemicist John Osborne once called it.
The implications go wide – far wider than the political class, administrative elite and commentariat in the Westminster-Whitehall bubble realise or could reasonably be expected to realise. There, the ancient doctrine promulgated by the great Victorian jurist A.V. Dicey more than a century ago – the doctrine that the ‘the absolute legislative supremacy or despotism of the King in Parliament’ was ‘the very keystone of the constitution’ – still holds sway. (Manifestly, Dicey’s ‘King’ was English.) For Enoch Powell, who rephrased Dicey’s doctrine 80 years later, the essence of Englishness lay in the English acceptance of ‘the unlimited supremacy of Crown in Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it’.
If Dicey and Powell were right, the devolution statutes that set up a Parliament in Scotland and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland – together with administrations responsible to those bodies – are so many weasel words. Either the (English) Crown in Parliament is absolutely sovereign or it’s not. If it is, then the devolved assemblies and administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are constitutional phantoms – playpens for Peter Pan-like political children who won’t grow up. If it isn’t, then the London-centred elites must sooner or later come to terms with a reality they have denied ever since the devolution statutes were passed. In practice, it hardly needs saying, neither of these things has happened. In time-honoured British fashion, fudge – thick, gooey, sticky, but unappetising fudge – has been the order of the day. In the Soviet bloc, before the collapse of Communism, there was a saying: ‘They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’. In twenty-first century Britain, the equivalent has been: ‘They pretend to lead, and we pretend to follow’.
No longer. Thanks to the EU Referendum, the fudge has melted. Like an acrid smog, the assumptions spawned by the Dicey-Powell constitution hang in the air of Westminster and Whitehall, but in the rest of the Kingdom it commands, at most, reluctant acceptance. Worthies ranging from George Soros to Tony Blair to Nick Clegg have argued that, if the British people so wished, Britain could return to the status quo as it existed before the Referendum. Their argument doesn’t hold water. The Referendum result was a child of that status quo. We are where we are. It’s not a good place: the Soroses, Blairs and Cleggs are right about that. But pretending that we can somehow re-enact the Referendum tragedy, only with a new and comforting final act, is self-deception on a monumental scale. What the Referendum has done is to bring us – ‘us’ being the varied, sometimes quarrelsome peoples of the four nations of the United Kingdom – face to face with the profound existential questions that the Irish people faced in their long transition from reactionary clericalism to tolerant and open-minded modernity.
The questions are obvious. Who are we? What does ‘we’ mean in a state that encompasses four different nations? Where have ‘we’ come from? What diverse and contested histories have shaped ‘us’? Where are ‘we’ going – and where do ‘we’ want to go? The answers are a different matter. Self-evidently, they can never be final. History is not determinate. There are no iron laws of social or economic or political change, as Marxist-Leninists in their heyday, and triumphalist liberals after the fall of Communism, all imagined. But that doesn’t mean that the questions shouldn’t be asked. ‘We’ – whether British, English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish – need a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred debate about our several and collective identities, including our identities as Europeans, separated from the rest of our continent by only a few miles of salt water.
But identities are tricky things. They are always plural, not singular. They are fluid, multifarious and heterogeneous. Individual identities often clash with group identities; religious identities with national identities; national identities with class identities; the identities of hitherto dominant nations with those of hitherto subordinate nations struggling for a place in the sun. They shift through time and space, as circumstances change. It is possible to be, at one and the same time, a father, a husband, a great-grandfather, a Cardiffian by birth, an Oxonian by education, a would-be historian, a poetry-lover, a dyspraxic, a former journalist, a member of Plaid Cymru, a graduate of the intensely competitive joint services Russian course and a rolling stone for whom the grass is always greener in the next field. I should know: I am all of these things myself.
Muslim Welshmen and women, Muslim Englishmen and women and, for that matter. Muslim Frenchmen and women are not only Muslims. They carry a variety of other identities, which may matter more to them when national or ethnic questions are not involved. Attempts to force complex, many sided identities into a single, all-encompassing box are profoundly dangerous. The vicious quarrels between Sunni and Shia Muslims; between ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews in Jerusalem and cosmopolitan entrepreneurs, entertainers and writers in Tel Aviv; and between the Hindu extremists of India’s BJP and the essentially social-democratic Congress Party are all examples.
Through that prism, the history of the British state looks very different from the picture painted by the great Whig historians and whiggish political leaders of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The history of what we now think of as Britain is one of relentless English expansion at the expense of the non-English peoples of the Britannic archipelago. Anglo-Saxon warriors landed on the shores of what is now England in the early fifth century CE. During eight long centuries, culminating in the killing of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last Welsh Prince of Wales in 1282, English conquerors gradually subjugated the native Welsh and drove them into the inhospitable uplands of what English speakers call Wales and Welsh speakers call Cymru. (It is not for nothing that Lloegr, the Welsh word for England, means ‘the lost land’.)
The island of Ireland has been a grumbling appendix in the entrails of the British state for centuries
Ireland was treated at least as harshly as Wales, but her would-be English conquerors never subjugated her completely. The island of Ireland has been a grumbling appendix in the entrails of the British state for centuries; in a huge variety of different guises an ‘Irish Question’ has haunted London governments from William III to Gladstone and from Asquith to Theresa May. Despite incursions by Edward I and Oliver Cromwell, Scotland fought off her Sassenach would-be conquerors. Not surprisingly, the Act of Union of 1707 which incorporated Scotland and England into the new polity of Great Britain met surly resistance in Scotland.
English predominance in the Britannic isles is an inescapable reality, but that does not mean that their non-English peoples have welcomed it, or even accepted it. Myths, legends, poems and songs have burnished memories and kindled hopes of emancipation from the English elephant in the British room. Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, celebrated in countless Burns’ nights, is the best exemplar of Scottish memories of resistance to their over-mighty (or perhaps just over-weight) southern neighbour. The great Scottish historian Tom Devine believes that William Wallace, the chief hero of the Scottish War of Independence against Edward I, ‘represented the spirit of the common man striving for freedom against oppression’. Burns’s immortal lines contain the gist of the story:
Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has often led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Edward’s power –
Chains and slavery!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave!
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Against that background, Scotland’s ‘Remain’ vote in the EU Referendum is not just explicable; it was predictable. The Scots are not English and don’t want to be English. Scottish intellectuals and political leaders can draw on a long, proud history of resistance to English pretensions and of involvement in European social, cultural and economic life. Memories of the medieval ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France still linger north of the Border. The Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson is one of the most glittering chapters in the history of European civilisation. Until the early nineteenth century, England had only two universities; Scotland had four. Commentators south of the Border are apt to peddle the notion that present-day Scottish nationalism is merely utilitarian and not existential. This is patronising nonsense.
Northern Ireland’s ‘Remain’ majority was less straightforward than Scotland’s. Catholics voted overwhelmingly for ‘Remain’, irrespective of income or location. Protestants were divided, essentially along class lines. The better-off and better-educated were for ‘Remain’, the worse-off and less educated for ‘Leave’. Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin voters were for ‘Remain’; the hard-line Protestant DUP and DUP voters were for ‘Leave’. The deep divisions in the province, which go back to the partition of Ireland in 1921, were still alive and well. As Michel Barnier, David Davis, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar have all discovered, they still are.
The Welsh story is more complicated. In simple numerical terms, the English ‘Leave’ majority was so big that a Welsh vote to remain would have made no difference to the result. But if Wales had voted ‘Remain’ all three of the non-English nations of the United Kingdom would have been on the opposite side from England. The centrifugal forces which have been immanent in the structure and politics of United Kingdom since the nineteenth century are stronger now than I can remember. A sharp fissure between England and all three of her non-English neighbours would have given them a powerful boost. So Wales matters.
But it matters in a special way. Welsh history, and the political culture that that history reflects and sustains, have something in common with Scotland’s, but the differences are greater than the similarities. Whereas the unofficial Scottish national anthem, ‘Scots wha hae’, evokes memories of Scottish victories in long-distant battles, the Welsh equivalent focuses on the land of Wales, the culture it has bred and the warriors who died defending it – often unsuccessfully.
Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri;
Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gywladgarwyr tra mad,
Tros ryddid collasant eu gwaed.
[The old land of my fathers is dear to me,
Land of bards and singers, famous men of renown;
Her brave warriors, very splendid patriots,
For freedom shed their blood.]
The nearest Welsh equivalent to the Scottish heroes, Wallace and Bruce, is Owain Glyn Dwr (Shakespeare’s Owen Glendower). Early in the fifteenth century Glyn Dwr rose in revolt against English rule. Welshmen of all classes, from the gentry to the clergy to the landless poor rallied to his cause. He proclaimed himself ‘prince of Wales’; several Welsh castles, including Harlech, Aberystwyth and Cardiff fell to his forces; and for a brief, but brilliant moment, it looked as if he would become the ruler of an independent Wales. He summoned a parliament to his capital at Machynlleth, the first that Wales had known, and made alliances with France, Scotland and Castile. In the end the revolt was crushed, and Glyn Dwr’s fellow countrymen were savagely repressed. But his memory lived on. The great Welsh historian, John Davies, called him ‘the chief hero of the Welsh people’; Sir Rees Davies, sometime Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford, saw him as a symbol of the hope ‘deep in the hearts of the Welsh that they might some day gain the right to live in an independent country, governing themselves’.
Yet the cruel truth is that, whereas Bruce and Wallace defeated the English invaders, Glyn Dwr’s revolt against English oppression failed disastrously. Conquered Wales stayed conquered. Under Henry VIII, two statutes passed by the English Parliament and known eventually as Acts of Union, rubbed Welsh noses in the conquered status of their country with astonishing brutality. Wales was absorbed by England. She was divided into counties on the English model and given representation in the English Parliament. One of the statutes declared, in so many words, that Wales was for ever ‘incorporated, united and annexed to’ the ‘realm of England’. To drive the message home, it decreed that the Welsh language was not to be used in Welsh law courts and that monoglot Welsh speakers – at that time the vast majority of the Welsh people – were ineligible for public office. An infamous entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the early twentieth century – ‘for Wales, see England’ – showed that the mindset which had inspired Henry VIII’s Acts of Union was still alive and well.
Devolution, involving the creation of a Welsh Assembly or Senedd, with a Welsh government accountable to it, has softened the rigours of Henry VIII’ s legislation. In a host of ways, Wales has become more Welsh than it was when I was a boy. The dragon flag is omnipresent; street signs are in Welsh as well as English; train announcements are in both languages. If you drive across the Severn bridge from England into Wales, you will see a sign ‘Croeso i Gymru’ (‘welcome to Wales’.) Shop-fronts announce that they are open every day in Welsh as well as in English (often with Welsh first and English second). In the 1964 general election, I stood as Labour candidate for Barry – a South Wales port west of Cardiff – and I still remember one of the party activists saying: ‘Wales for the Welsh and Glamorgan for us!’ It was probably a joke, but I can’t imagine anyone saying anything like that today. Just one example: Barry now boasts an enormous Waitrose, replete with signs in both languages.
Yet Wales voted as England did. The great question is, why? Part of the explanation is economic. The Welsh mining valleys, whose black gold once powered the navies of the world and transformed Cardiff from a glorified village to a ‘coal metropolis’ are now impoverished and desolate. But desolation is only part of the story. Some time ago, well before the EU Referendum, my wife and I went to a meeting in Pontypridd, in the heart of the Rhondda valley. It had been arranged by the Welsh branch of the Royal Society of Arts; the attendees were ‘social entrepreneurs’. They were not impoverished themselves. They were good citizens, committed to the welfare of their communities. Some were trade unionists, some were small employers, some worked in the public sector. And virtually all of them were disconnected from and contemptuous of the institutions of governance and formal politics. They had no time for the local authority, the Welsh government, the London government, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats or even Plaid Cymru. A young woman attendee told me that, when she went to Cardiff, a few miles away, she felt ‘stigmatised’ because of her Rhondda accent. Given all this the ‘Leave’ majority in the local authority area covering the Rhondda valley was as predictable as Scotland’s vote to remain. But I don’t think my Pontypridd acquaintances were voting against the European project, the European ideal or even the European Union as such. They were seizing a heaven-sent opportunity to deliver a costless kick in the pants to the faceless, alien institutions which had failed them and their community. They were right to lash out; the tragedy is that they chose the wrong target.
England – or ‘Greater Wales’
England remains; and England is the most variegated and complex of the four nations of the United Kingdom. She was the tinder box of the ‘Leave’ campaign, and the heartland of the ‘Leave’ majority. In some ways England is a greater Wales. The ex-mining areas in the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire coalfields are full of English versions of Pontypridd and they voted as Pontypridd voted. But that is only part of the story, and not the most important part. Since ‘Leave’ won with English votes, and since the ‘Leave’ victory was both narrow and unexpected, most writing about the Referendum result has focussed on England and the English. Most commentators have assumed that the English ‘Leave’ majority was in some sense extraordinary: and that the explanation must be extraordinary as well. Candidates include the long-standing, arrogant English tendency to use the words ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ as if they were interchangeable; the myopia and amnesia of the Anglo-British elites whose members have viewed the British state as their property; and the corruption and mendacity of successive British governments, evidenced by the parliamentary expenses scandal and above all by the Iraq War.
These charges are valid, but they miss the inconvenient truth that, for centuries, England’s ‘other’ has been the European mainland. John Milton, the poet and propagandist-in-chief of the seventeenth-century English revolution claimed that God had revealed himself ‘as His manner is, first to His Englishmen’. Shakespeare’s famous hymn to England as a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ which protected it from ‘the envy of less happier lands’ comes from the same stable. (The ‘less happier lands’ were the rest of the European continent.) Most evocative of all are the first and last verses of Blake’s Jerusalem. The poem is an extraordinary mélange of mysticism and patriotism: the reference to the ‘feet in ancient time’ draws on a legend that Jesus visited England in his youth. Significantly it has become the nearest approximation to a national anthem that England knows.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?...
I will not cease from Mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
In all of these, the message is clear: England is a special, providential nation: a nation with a unique history and a unique vocation; a nation summoned by a higher power to pursue a uniquely glorious mission.
On a more mundane level, English exceptionalism has shaped British attitudes to the European project since the end of the Second World War. When the Council of Europe was established in the late-1940s, Ernest Bevin warned, ‘If you open that Trojan horse, you’ll find it’s full of Pandora’s boxes’. When United Kingdom was invited to join the Coal and Steel community in the early 1950s, the Government refused because, as Herbert Morrison put it, ‘the Durham miners wouldn’t wear it’. A decade later, the echt Englishman and Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell made a passionate speech at the Labour Party conference opposing entry to the then European Economic Community, on the preposterous grounds that it would mean ‘the end of a thousand years of history’.
In the end, Britain did join the European Community, which soon morphed into the European Union. But she has been a reluctant, half-hearted and fractious member. The long reign of Margaret Thatcher, as echt an English woman as Gaitskell had been an Englishman, furnishes plenty of examples. Her belligerent insistence on getting ‘her own money back’ is one. Another is her wild outburst, ‘No, no, no’ when she learned that Jacques Delors, then Commission President, had said he wanted the Commission to be the European executive, the European Parliament to be Europe’s elected body and the Council of Ministers its Senate.
The long history of ‘opt-outs’, wilful misunderstandings and genuine incomprehension which has been a leitmotiv of Britain’s EU membership is less dramatic, but more revealing. John Major, another echt Englishman, once said he wanted Britain to be ‘at the heart’ of Europe. The truth is that Britain, or rather Anglo-Britain (or perhaps Brito-England) has never been anywhere near the heart of Europe. David Cameron’s witless ‘re-negotiation’ exercise, which preceded the EU referendum, is a particularly striking case in point. The re-negotiation produced nothing of substance; such changes as followed weakened the Union instead of strengthening it.
So where do we go from here? England is the problem: if there is to be a solution, it will have to be English. Anthony Barnett has wrestled with this in The Lure of Greatness. The path to a solution is littered with paradoxes. The Dicey/ Powell constitutional orthodoxy has impinged on England as least as damagingly as on the non-English nations of the kingdom – perhaps more so. There are four legislatures in the United Kingdom. Those in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast deal with specifically Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish questions. But the London Parliament is both the English Parliament and the Parliament of the entire Kingdom. England – a nation of some 50 million inhabitants – has no Parliament of her own.
The question is, why? The answer lies deep in the cerebral cortex of the Anglo-British political class. For most of their histories, the London-centred elite saw the non-English nations of the Kingdom as colonies. They were governed tactfully and even sympathetically, with due regard to local traditions and ways of life. But in the last resort they were fiefdoms of the British state. Devolution was an ad hoc device – or rather a series of ad hoc devices – designed to keep the natives happy. There was no over-arching plan, still less a coherent constitutional doctrine. Muddle and mess prevailed. No one asked the fundamental question of how, in principle, power should be shared by area. Scotland got a Parliament; Wales and Northern Ireland got Assemblies. Given all this, it’s not surprising that England got nothing. For the London-centred elite, England was a colony too. But it was too big and awkward a colony for self-government.
For the London-centred elite, England was a colony too. But it was too big and awkward a colony for self-government.
Only the people of England – the ‘secret people of England’ as Chesterton called them – can solve the English problem. In management-speak, they will have to ‘own’ the solution; and to ‘own’ it they will have to shape it. The Scottish Constitutional Convention that paved the way for Scottish devolution offers a model. It stimulated a wide-ranging, sometimes passionate debate through which the Scottish people found themselves and reached a consensus about their political future. Citizens’ Juries, and even Citizens’ Assemblies, as used in parts of Canada, offer a complementary model. A solution would have to include is a codified constitution, with an English Parliament alongside the existing legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and an elected Senate in place of the swollen and quintessentially anti-democratic House of Lords. But constitutions are only words on paper. What matter are the values they embody and transmit. The real question is whether England’s political culture and traditions are rich and diverse enough to enable Chesterton’s secret people to discover (or perhaps re-discover) the compassion and generosity of spirit that the Irish displayed in their abortion referendum.
By definition, we can’t know the answer. But the England of frivolous Etonians, the swollen House of Lords and the London-based elite is not the only England. Looming in the wings is the unbiddable, stubborn, sometimes quirky England of Milton, Thomas Paine, William Cobbett, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst, R.H. Tawney and George Orwell. That second England – the England that, in Tawney’s famous phrase, scorned the first England’s ‘servile respect for wealth and social position’ – could yet set England alight, as Ireland was set alight during the abortion referendum campaign. But this won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘heavy dough of the English’ that fascinated and exasperated de Gaulle is still pretty heavy. Only argument, debate, discussion, engagement and social learning can turn the trick. Let battle commence! `
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