Britain, and England in particular, have been in the fortunate position throughout large swathes of history of not having to define her identity. You simply knew what it was to be British (or English, often interchangeable to the great fury of the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish).
When there were definitions, they tended to be contradictory, as Orwell noted so perceptibly in The Lion and the Unicorn”. The British are peace loving and domesticated, yet adventurous, warlike and conquerors of the greatest empire in the world.
They are practical and indifferent to abstract ideas yet almost all modern political philosophy was produced in England and Scotland. (In fact, one could argue that the tragedy of the twentieth century was that German political ideas overtook British ones, but that is for another time.)
The British are tolerant of other people but have historically disdained all habits but their own and have cheerfully spread their own ideas to far corners of the world. (Now, of course, they complain that Americans do the same in a far less intrusive fashion.)
The English invented the idea of common law, the sense of property and a civilian police force, yet for centuries England was acknowledged to be effectively ungovernable outside certain areas.
The British are individualistic and eccentric yet love the idea of order and similarity.
One can go on for ever and, indeed, on could argue that most nations hold in themselves very similar contradictions.
The definition of Britishness or Englishness has always been difficult. Shakespeare did a good job at a time when the country was going through various severe crises. Kipling, especially in his Puck of Pook’s Hill
and Rewards and Fairies
stories and poems, created a certain image of Englishness, one that he struggled to define in other works as well.
Kipling was, in many ways, an outsider in England and it is often outsiders who pay more attention to the definitions of the society that has adopted them. I recall having an extremely interesting conversation at the IEA with Lawrence Hayek and a Dutch gentleman. The three of us had been born in other countries and come to Britain at various times of our lives and various periods of its history.
The two things we agreed on were that England was the most wonderful country in the world and that the English did not appreciate it. Buchan, too, would have supported that conclusion.
Consider that most English of all English characters, Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was created by a Hungarian writer, Emmuska Orczy. The film of the book was scripted Lajos Biró, a Hungarian, produced and directed by Alexander Korda (need I say what nationality he was) and acted by Leslie Howard, who had been born in England to Hungarian parents.
The film came out in 1934 and was seen as a jolly adventure story. During the war (when Howard worked hard for the British cause and was killed when a plane he was travelling in was shot down by the Luftwaffe) there was something of an attempt to define Englishness.
It was easy to say what Britain was fighting against but what was it fighting for? The two directors who worked hardest to answer that question were Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger, the latter being, yes, you’ve guessed it, a Hungarian who, according to one website
“In 1938, [he] joined the Hungarian coterie of Alexander Korda, and like his compatriots he had much to invest in the dream of England as an outpost against tyranny and beacon of decency in a Europe turning to fascism.”
What he invested was his imprint on films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
(though, as a matter of fact, I understand why Churchill wanted to ban it), Canterbury Tale
, I know where I’m going
(this one about Scotland) and various others.
The attempt to define Britishness was not always successful but the films are consistently interesting.
It seems we have no useful Hungarians around at the moment. So, it is left to the Daily Telegraph
to produce a list
of ten (why not twelve?) elements of what the core British values are.
One cannot help admiring the attempt (even if The Scarlet Pimpernel
is probably more fun) especially as it is wonderfully free of the sort of mawkishness that seemed to overwhelm the British media in the wake of the London bombs.
“Many countries try to codify their values in law. Some oblige their citizens to speak the national language; others make it a criminal offence to show disrespect to the flag. But statutory patriotism is an intrinsically un-British notion. We prefer simply to set out, in general terms, the non-negotiable components of our identity - the qualities of the citizenship that Muktar Said
Ibrahim [one of the bombers of July 21] applied for.”
The ten components are :
The Rule of Law
The Sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament
The pluralist state
The English-speaking world
The British character
Very nice, too, and about as hard to assess as they were in Orwell’s day. The British character is impossible to define as everyone will do so differently. I have been told by eurosceptics that unlike those nasty Europeans, all the British ever wanted to do was to be left alone.
No doubt, the greatest empire in history was created by people wanting to be left alone. And what of the fact, as the old song had it, “every war we fought we won”? None of those wars were on British soil.
Furthermore, time was the British character was defined as a “can-do” one. Would that sill be true now, I wonder.
The English-speaking world has, of course, grown out of England and her ideas. What people talk of as the Anglosphere is that: freedom, justice, rule of law and other issues: small government, enterprise, individualism. How much of that has survived successive twentieth century governments, not to mention the great European project?
As one gets to the more specific values, one sees a wish-list. I wish this were still true (if it ever was, of course).
No one is above the law? Well, I am not sure that is true about this government in itself and in the ideology of group politics. As I said in my previous posting, Cherie Blair QC would have been horrified if the sort of “rights” she thinks are essential to Muslim girls were applied to Anglican ones.
That applies to the third item as well.
But, of course, the one that is particularly ridiculous is item number 2. Really the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph should know better. “The Lords, the Commons and the monarch” have not constituted “the supreme authority in the land” for decades. There is the small matter of the European Communities Act 1972 and ECJ judgements.
Personal freedom? Private property? Tell that to the people who can no longer own or sell handguns or run well regulated clubs; or to the foxhunters; or to the businessmen whose scales were confiscated because they disobeyed the diktats of the metric regulators; or to the farmers whose animals were slaughtered even though there was no sigh of foot and mouth disease anywhere near them.
It is not that I object to any of those core values. Far from it, though I would like to see some of them a little better defined. And, naturally, I agree wholeheartedly with number 8, history. The teaching of history is absolutely essential. The advantage of British history is that through its imperial aspect (warts and all but good things and all, too) they can incorporate and provide a “story” for all those who come to live here.
It is just that until we deal with our problems they will remain a wish-list. England is, of course, in many ways an idea and it is the idea that those who come here often subscribe to. But the idea has been tarnished and there is no point in providing definitions until it is bright and shining again.
And, one has to sympathize with the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph. How many of them are Hungarians? In the circumstances their effort is very creditable.