The Wehrmacht never got in here

Chris has a point:

Whereas Britain pursues overseas expansion, England stays at home. The great statements asserting the rights and the dignity of the ordinary man – and it was the Englishman G.K. Chesterton who said there’s nothing ordinary about the ordinary man – are all English: Magna Carta, the Putney debates, Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause.England stands for freedom, Britain for conquest. England stands for quiet dignity, Britain for glory. England is grown and natural, Britain is imposed by the ruling class.

Britain, he might have added, is Great (originally to distinguish it from Brittany, the lesser Br├ętagne, but never mind). By contrast, England is Little.

But being a little Englander has never really been respectable. The spectre of the little Englander haunted last year’s debate over the EU Constitution, and doubtless would have got more of an airing if we’d had a chance to vote on the damn thing. Little England means isolation rather than co-operation, conservatism rather than progress, nationalism rather than federalism: to be a little Englander is to cling to the myth of autarchic national sovereignty in an interdependent world.

At least, it is now. For the original little Englanders – Chesterton among them – the connotations of the stance were quite different. As Patrick Wright wrote in 2005, referring to Chesterton and co-thinkers like Hilaire Belloc:

Their beleaguered “England” was on the side of the people against industrialism, monopoly capitalism and the rules and bureaucrats of what Belloc called “the servile state”. Chesterton and Belloc would join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in seeking to preserve traditional “thatched” roofs against the big businesses that could spend fortunes pushing synthetic alternatives. Yet if theirs was emphatically a “little England”, this was also because it entailed a strong rejection of British imperialism. Chesterton elaborated on this aspect of his Englishness in an article entitled “On Rudyard Kipling and making the world small”, included in his book Heretics (1905). Here he took issue with the epigram in which Kipling asked “what can they know of England who only England know?” It was, contended Chesterton, “a far deeper and sharper question to ask, ‘What can they know of England who know only the world?’” As an imperial “globe trotter”, Kipling may certainly “know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.” Insisting that Kipling’s devotion to England was the outcome not of love but of critical thought, Chesterton values it far less than the “real” (by which he means instinctive and unreflected) patriotism of the Irish or the Boers, whom Kipling had recently “hounded down in South Africa”.This attempt to dissociate “England” from the British empire may indeed sound attractive. Yet it remained a thoroughly defensive definition of Englishness – one that was formulated in bitter awareness that the world was actually moving in the opposite direction. Its anti-imperialism was less a critical engagement with the British empire, than an act of retreat and even denial.

The last point deserves making, just as it’s worth bearing in mind that Chesterton and Belloc were reactionary Conservatives of a fairly high order. But the main point remains: so far from resisting encroachments on British sovereignty from trans-national federalism, the original Little Englanders were against the imposition of British sovereignty on large tracts of the world. It’s almost a 180-degree reversal, with ‘little England’ counterposed to two different ‘Britain’s. What has remained constant is the fact that ‘Britain’ represents a long-term governmental project – and a project which may take precedence over mundane everyday concerns such as the welfare of the people who live here. This, I think, is the heart of Chris’s opposition between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’.

Oddly enough, the original form of the ‘little England’ slur has been making a comeback recently. Here’s Nick Cohen from 2004:

The beneficiary of the great left-wing revolt against Blair has turned out to be the right. The Tories are doing better than they have done for a decade. Voters disillusioned with established politicians are turning to the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than to the left. The reactionary shift should not be a surprise. The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain’s interests to tag along behind the United States.

And here’s Nick again from last week:

It is not at all clear that modern, middle-class, liberal-leftists are either liberal or left wing in the old senses of the words, although they will always be middle class to their bones. Many of them are becoming little Englanders, all for human rights and democracy at home but not abroad.

The argument in the first extract isn’t so much constructed as free-associated: to argue that Britain should not take a subordinate role to Bush’s USA is to be a ‘Little Englander’, to be a Little Englander is to be a conservative, ergo the anti-war movement was in some unspecific way stirring up conservatism. (Presumably CND were to blame for Thatcher.) The second extract is more straightforward: if you care about human rights and democracy then you should sign up to the Euston agenda, endorsing Bush and Blair’s strategy of promoting those causes by military force. If you don’t, you’re a little Englander.

The ‘ethical foreign policy’ of our period bears a distinct resemblance to the ‘enlightened imperialism’ of Chesterton’s; once again, we seem to find ourselves between England and Britain. Chris: England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause. On that basis, you can call me English. (And part-Welsh, but that’s another story.)

5 Comments

  1. BondWoman
    Posted 1 June 2006 at 11:47 | Permalink | Reply

    That’s an interesting post, but I think that there is another dimension you hint at, at the end – namely the reference to “part-Welsh”. Your post, and I think Chris’ argument, is entirely about two different narratives within the geographical domain we call England. Much of the context is provided by an internal/external distinction between England/Britain. But of course the context is more complex, both geographically and in terms of cultural identity and ideology. The state we live in is not Britain, or even Great Britain, but the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland, but we refer to “British” as the shorthand form, normally, to refer to this state in adjectival terms (actually I use UK as an adjective sometimes – the UK constitutional settlement, for example – but I am probably a minority). But furthermore, the types of reference points for “englishness” you and chris refer to are not exclusive to England. I am sure we could find Scottish, Welsh and even Northern Irish statements paralleling those you refer to. I just don’t have time to do so. Thus what is happening here is first and foremost a confusion about English identity within the UK, and not an adequate representation of the federal complexity of the UK as a multi-nation state.

  2. Rob Jubb
    Posted 1 June 2006 at 21:44 | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve inherited enough dour Scot from my mother to be very suspicious about English national identity, such as it is: it strikes me as rather class-ridden and parochial, with a kind of bluff arrogance. That in turn makes me suspicious of the identification of the state with Britain. I remember being staying with friends of the family who live on a Laird’s estate in the Grampians. The Laird’s mother came round to speak to the man of the house, and did so in a cut-glass English accent. She was as Scottish as I am, and I’ve lived my whole life in the South of England. The people who owned the estate before that family were Manchester wool merchants who left monuments to the whisky stills they destroyed all over the glen. They weren’t Scots either. If the Scottish ruling class is English, that makes the British ruling class English.

  3. Phil
    Posted 1 June 2006 at 22:09 | Permalink | Reply

    Rob: If the Scottish ruling class is English, that makes the British ruling class English.

    True, but that doesn’t make British-ruling-class the only valid form of English identity.

    BW: I am sure we could find Scottish, Welsh and even Northern Irish statements paralleling those you refer to.

    I expect we could – there’s the Declaration of Arbroath for starters – but that doesn’t invalidate the English/British contrast; if anything it strengthens it.

    I’ll admit that the idea of mobilising England against Britain is pretty quixotic; if we’re going to mobilise on any basis I’d be happier orienting to class irrespective of nationality. But I do think an idea of England can be reclaimed by radicals, albeit not as readily as the idea of Wales or Scotland.

  4. Rob Jubb
    Posted 2 June 2006 at 18:01 | Permalink | Reply

    “True, but that doesn’t make British-ruling-class the only valid form of English identity.”

    Yeah, but it does mean that if you’re going to try and separate the two, you’re going to have to find outright opposition to the British state qua British, rather than English, because it makes Britain English territory. One of the points about the parochialism and the bluff arrogance of Englishness is that it suppresses the idea that Britishness is not Englishness.

  5. Simon
    Posted 2 June 2006 at 22:17 | Permalink | Reply

    The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain’s interests to tag along behind the United States.

    And Nick, from a few years before:

    Until 11 September, all right-thinking people denounced America’s anarchic sabotage of global security. Britain opposed her when we had a foreign policy.

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