The Pursuit of Knowledge

The Forbidding of England

By From the November 2008 issue

Send to Kindle

I ATTENDED AN ordinary English state school in the late 1950s. In our history lessons we were taught that England is the heart of Great Britain, that Great Britain is the heart of an Empire, and that, thanks to this Empire, ideas of law, freedom, and democratic government had spread around the globe. We were therefore proud of the Empire, which we described as British, not English, and thought of it as proof of our national virtues and a contribution to the advancement of mankind. Our flag was the Union Jack, a striking synthesis of the emblems of our constituent peoples, and we believed that this flag represented a peaceful union, rather than the triumph of one nation over others. We sang “Rule Britannia,” the rousing chorus of which declares that “Britons never never never shall be slaves!”

We had no difficulty in reconciling our attachment to the English Crown, the English law, the Church of England, and the English language with the view that we were British, and no more British than the Welsh or the Scots. In those days there seemed to be no contradiction in our composite national identity, and we could identify ourselves for some purposes as English, for others as British, without divided loyalties. The turning point of the war, when London was saved by the Royal Air Force, was called the “Battle of Britain,” and postwar spirits were raised by a “Festival of Britain,” located in the English capital. And when England played football against France, we waved the Union Jack in support of our countrymen.

Our identity, in other words, was defined in terms of what it included, not what it excluded. It was not belligerently xenophobic, nor was it founded on myths of racial purity or tribal kinship. But it was a genuinely national identity all the same, and we thought of ourselves (Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish included) as a single “island nation,” containing other nations as parts.

Jeremy Rabkin persuasively argues that the nation-state is a natural home of political freedom. But we must also recognize that European nationalism has often been the enemy of freedom and that national identity and nationalism are two quite different things. The “nation” that was to rescue the revolutionary French from their feudal masters became a new form of feudal master, though one which could never be held to account for its misdeeds.  It wielded power over its subjects beyond anything imagined by Louis XIV when he declared that “l’état, c’est moi.” The worship of the nation, introduced by the Revolutionaries and given its liturgical trappings by Robespierre and his faction, culminated in Napoleon’s campaigns, which devastated Europe and ruined France. In reaction to Napoleon’s destruction of their country, the Germans too became nationalists. And the rival nationalisms of Germany and France dominated the European scene until the final defeat of Germany in 1945. In light of this history it is hardly surprising if the European Union, which grew from the debris of the 20th-century conflicts, should announce itself as an alternative to the nation-state.

BUT THE EU’s understandable hostility to the criminal use of the national idea, which ought to be directed primarily at France and Germany, has been almost exclusively directed at England—the one European nation to be entirely untainted by nationalism. The most striking feature of the EU’s attitude to my country has been the concerted attempt to remove it from the map. The official map of the Union, which was projected long before the United Kingdom was admitted as a member, mentions Scotland and Wales as autonomous regions, and allows France, Germany, Italy, and the rest to retain their traditional names, even if divided into Länder or départements. But the name “England” does not appear on this map. All that the English are granted is four “regions,” defined geographically. It seems that this corresponds to a long-term policy— one so deeply buried in the aims and projects of the European Union that it has never, to my knowledge, been openly debated. This is the policy of dividing England in something like the way that the colonial powers divided Africa, and then creating “regional assemblies” to administer the arbitrary fragments.

This policy appeals to the Labour Party, which has already granted national assemblies to Scotland and Wales. For the last thing the Labour Party wants is an English Parliament, in which it could never hope to form a government. The Labour Party can rule over the English only with the help of its Welsh and Scottish MPs. Under its jurisdiction our nation has ceased to be the single nation that we were taught to believe in, and has become three—maybe four— nations instead. There are Scotland and Wales, with their own legislatures; and there is England, ruled over by a legislature dominated by MPs from Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, hovers uncertainly on the perimeter. As for the EU’s “regional assemblies,” the Labour Party is proceeding to impose them upon us, even though the scheme has been decisively rejected in referendums and opinion polls.

In short, we are seeing the first moves toward the abolition of England. The core nation in our syncretic national identity, the one from which the idea of “Britishness” derives, the one celebrated in our patriotic literature down the centuries and identified with our common language and culture, has been forbidden.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has therefore made a point of extolling a new kind of national loyalty, one which is compatible with the disappearance of England. He reminds us of the “core values” of Britishness, which include freedom, toleration, compassion, social responsibility, and other qualities that can be read in ways favorable to the socialist state. But he has little time for the core values of Englishness: the stiff upper lip, the well-spoken accent, the ethic of fair play, and the code of the gentleman. These he is happy to denigrate as imperial hangovers and symbols of a privileged caste.

In its 11 years in office, the Labour Party has granted legislatures to the Welsh and the Scots; begun, through the regional assemblies, to deprive the English of a Parliament; removed the hard-won protections of the English countryside; and abolished the old House of Lords. It has attacked and penalized the Public Schools and the old Universities, banned hunting with hounds (that quintessential symbol of old England), and encouraged the mass immigration of potentially disloyal minorities into the English cities. All this fits easily into the EU’s broader agenda and prepares the way for that final abolition of England, which will be achieved because almost nobody has noticed it.

ONE INTERESTING RESULT of this is that people are losing the sense of British identity. The Scots and Welsh have their patriotic songs, their heroes and legends, all of which are celebrated in their history lessons. But they are rapidly forgetting that they are part of a larger national entity, with an imperial legacy and a shared culture across permeable borders. At football matches nobody now waves the Union Jack: the separate national flags are all that can be seen, and if any Englishman raises a flag outside his house it is the cross of St. George, the flag of England. Apart from this symbol, however, the English are allowed precious few reminders of their identity. Our heroes have been effectively excised from the curriculum or recycled as villains, like Clive of India, Wellington, Captain Cook—even Churchill, now painted as the leader responsible for the Second World War. Our legends and patriotic stories are given no airtime on the BBC, and the Arts Council, which distributes taxpayer money to cultural enterprises, and warmly encourages applications from ethnic minorities, refuses to fund an “English Music Festival,” on the grounds that such a jingoist enterprise would offend the multicultural orthodoxies of New Britain.

Americans should not view the forbidding of England with complacency. Although many Americans have Irish and Scottish ancestors, who came to this country as refugees from the English, the fact is that America was made in England. Its constitution was inspired by the reflections of Locke, Montesquieu, and Harrison on the constitution of England; it was made possible by the inheritance of English common law, and by the extraordinary way in which that law has granted freedom to the subject and protected this freedom from oppressive power. The underlying law of the United States is not Roman law, Scots law, or Napoleonic law: it is English law, which has been the guarantee of freedom in every place where it has taken root.

The common law of England is not imposed from above by sovereign powers that hope to control us, but is built from below by judges striving to resolve our conflicts. It is a bottom-up form of legal order, a legal order designed to protect the subject from his oppressors. It is this law that is responsible for the freedom of England, and which was brought to America by the early colonists, there to take root in the fertile soil of a pioneering community. But we should not believe that the common law is a permanent possession. Indeed, it has been the most important casualty of the EU’s relentless dictatorship, which has been concerned at every step to create centralized legislation and courts empowered to enforce it.

At every point, now, our judges find themselves hampered by regulations, by vast tomes of dictatorial edicts, and by a European court of “justice,” staffed by judges raised on the Code Napoléon, whose duty is to enforce the top-down decisions of the Eurocrats, rather than the rights of the individual subject. Once England has been abolished, the hostility of the EU elites will target America as the most important surviving example of a legal order devoted to individual freedom rather than state control. The anti-Americanism that we witness today among the European elites will be nothing beside the anti-Americanism that we are sure to witness then. The pity is that England will no longer be around to sympathize.

Roger Scruton, the writer and philosopher, is most recently the author of Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books).

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.