Category Archives: England

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 Brétagne, 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.)

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.”Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission.”

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

“This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn’t have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby,” said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. “It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

It’s all there. There’s the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government’s main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all – and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there’s the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) – and that’s coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There’s more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage’s bunker estate (and there’s a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There’s the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it’s good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there’s understatement – blessed British understatement.

“It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

Into the fireplace

As a postscript to this, here’s Stephen Sedley from the current LRB:

When I read for the English Bar in the 1960s, the legal history lecturer stopped when he reached 1649 and explained that he was now moving directly to 1660, because everything that had happened between the trial of the king and the restoration of the monarchy was a nullity.

That’s some nullity.

Sedley’s reviewing Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, a vindication of the regicides collectively and Charles’s prosecutor John Cooke in particular. Sedley’s conclusion demurs from some of Robertson’s larger claims, but leaves one significant claim intact. (‘Bradshawe’ is John Bradshawe, the president of the court which tried Charles.)

Robertson claims too much when he credits Cooke, first in his courtroom defence of John Lilburne, then on his own arrest, with introducing the right of silence into the common law. The supposed right, which developed in the early canon law, had by Cooke’s time acquired a mythological status: widely believed in, respected in the ordinary run of cases but ignored in favour of torture when anything serious was at stake. Cooke’s fate, however, was by the time of his arrest so firmly sealed that there was little point in pressing his interrogation. Nor, I think, could Robertson make good his suggestion that Bradshawe was breaking new ground, in anticipation of Locke and Rousseau, when he said to Charles: ‘There is a contract and bargain made between the king and his people … The one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty.’ This embryonic notion of constitutional monarchy, looking – through a reluctantly commercial metaphor – for middle ground between traditional liberties and government by divine right, was by 1649 a commonplace of political theory. What was novel was Bradshawe’s pointing out to a captive king the consequence when it was the monarch who broke the contract: ‘Farewell sovereignty.’

When it comes to justified rebellion against over-mighty rulers, in other words, the Americans have nothing to teach us. The English did it first – and ushered in a decade of legal nullity, a short-lived no man’s land in which the impossible could become possible. I’m not (solely, or necessarily) talking about Abiezer Coppe or Winstanley, or even about the Levellers. 1649 saw a permanent defeat at Burford as well as the brief nadir of the monarchists, but it wasn’t Thermidor: Cromwell himself was venturing into terra nullius.

It was not the Bill of Rights of 1688 but Cromwell’s Instrument of Government of 1653, still lost in the official void three and a half centuries later, that first set out some of the foundational principles of a modern democracy: triennial parliaments (for a united state of England, Scotland and Ireland), not to be prorogued except by their own will; a non-hereditary Protector, empowered to legislate, tax and govern only with the consent of Parliament and to make war only on its advice; abolition of the established church, and religious toleration (except of ‘Popery and Prelacy’). But not then, or after 1660, or after 1688, did it come true.

From what I know of him, I’ve got a lot of respect for Charles Stuart as a person – and I certainly don’t think Oliver was a nice guy. But it’s not hard to choose between the two. The constitutional ferment of the English Revolution remains a landmark in the country’s history: unsurpassed in many areas, in some still unattained.

A night to kill a king


It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country’s history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.

One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
– Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 – 30/1/1649

Under the mirror

Not so much a Googlism, more a (thanks to Mr Bartlett for the inspiration).

What could be more British than…

the quintessential Village Inn
a sweet cup of tea
Heinz Baked Beans
the zebra-crossing
fair play
a young builder sharing a fish and chips supper with his girlfriend
Thousands of people camped out in the mild evenings drinking tea
a nice cup of tea
roast beef with all the trimmings followed by apple pie
fish and chips
a gastro pub, situated in the heart of London’s East End
a garden, to remember the 67 British victims of September 11th
cheese and chutney sandwiches
The Times or The Sun
a jolly old picnic in a park
the Royal Family
“Here’s a picture of my bum”
marching peacefully through London
war, spies, betrayal
a breakfast of bacon and eggs
the Vulcan
A fillet of haddock in crispy batter, served with chips and peas (mushy if you prefer)
a Curry
the red, white and blue rosette of the British Motor Corporation
fish and chips, donkey rides, Ovaltine and Bingo
a cup of sweet tea
the old “working class hero” routine
Stoic, restrained, humorous, lousy teeth
real ale
a pint of beer
tea and scones
Huge bosoms, pert bottoms, and lots of innuendo
the sight of a cricket bat in the boot of a Jag
“Bloody Hell”
communing with God in a garden
a story about a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the murder of a star soccer player
inventing a sport, and then losing at it to every other nation for centuries afterwards
a long wheelbase Jaguar
the Henry Moore Statues ‘Double Oval’ and ‘Oval with Points’
Lawn Bowling and Afternoon Tea
a Mini
the Big Garden Birdwatch
muscular Islam
a good old motorway
a car that lends itself to having the Union Jack painted on its roof
total lack of enthusiasm
the National dish of England, Chicken Madras
hanging painted wooden or ceramic ducks on the wall
the ultimate symbols of the monarchy, the Crown Jewels
Michael Caine
an Indian banquet
the traditional “cuppa”
“doughy and bland”
an Oxford Companion to JMW Turner
Ealing Studios
a symbol of Britannia carrying a shield that clearly shows the Union flag motif
to have your Mini painted in the red white and blue colours of the Union Flag
Roger Moore in a safari suit
to enjoy a cup of tea
a record of Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”
Goodbye to Berlin, Women in Love, The Heart of the Matter or A Passage to India
British Airways, Rover cars and Moss Bros
blue jeans and a tan pork pie hat

Rather a lot of food and drink in there, wouldn’t you say? Fish and chips, real ale, and of course a nice cup of tea – can’t beat it. (Bill Bryson said that one of the things that first struck him about the British was our ability to get “genuinely excited at the prospect of a hot drink”. Well, yes and no, Bill. We get genuinely excited at the prospect of a nice cup of tea.)

Being the artsy-bloody-fartsy type, I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot, who wrote this about ‘culture’ in 1948:

It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

As Raymond Williams noted ten years later, “This pleasant miscellany is evidently narrower in kind than the general description which precedes it. The ‘characteristic activities and interests’ would also include steelmaking, touring in motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining and London Transport.” (What could be more British than coalmining?) “Any list would be incomplete, but Eliot’s categories are sport, food and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure.” It’s a good argument, but fifty years on the folksonomic zeitgeist of Google tends to agree with Eliot: food, sport and a little art, plus cars, protest, a total lack of enthusiasm and Newcastle. Nice to see protest coming up as part of the national character, mind you – better that than Henley.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google’s view of English culture isn’t very different, although there’s less about cars and more about gardening. Oh, and buggery:

Gilbert and Sullivan
afternoon tea
fine fabrics and fibers [sic]
a fish and chip shop
consort music
Dr. Doolittle
to see THE QUEEN in all her royal gloriousness
an exhibition of original Flower Fairies watercolours
marching peacefully from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square
a country church with a tower
a laburnum in full flow
Sunday dinner with the vicar
A man dressed in medieval costume emblazoned with the cross of St.George
Gardens and tea
a lazy Sunday afternoon watching cricket on the village green
Steak and Kidney Pudding
drinking imported German lager and tucking into a plate of chicken and chips
beginning a meal with a chilled soup made with fresh strawberries
feeling too diffident to complain
Tea and scones overlooking Kensington Gardens
a fried breakfast
buggery and croquet
Curry houses
a Peter Noone song with a corny, contrived introduction
a May Day Bank Holiday Brass Band Concert
a pink rose
Terence Stamp
good old-fashioned boarding-school style buggery
poking fun at Americans

Poking fun at Americans? Wouldn’t dream of it. Purely by way of contrast with the previous two lists, here’s what Google thinks is typically American:

the gold rush
a Beer run
apple pie
baseball and apple pie
a can of Campbell’s soup
a marketplace
blue jeans
buying the best
standing up and saying “no, not in my name you don’t”
an African-music concert in an Irish/Italian neighborhood
migrating to a thinly-settled area to experiment with liberty
blatantly trying to get money out of a tragedy
blowing stuff up
the idea of a second chance, a fresh start, Act Two
a barbeque
doing our best to abide by the law
an afternoon at a Braves game
the automobile
the dollar bill itself
the lawsuit
Easy Rider
the eternal optimism that we can always improve our lot
the saying “you can’t stop progress.”
a trial by media
a composer grounded in Hollywood, but who has belatedly rediscovered his concert music identity
a tailgating party at a football game
equating second place with failure
Michael Moore
small-town citizens coming together to solve problems by consensus
a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
a vote
an Oreo
Columbus Day
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life
mud wrestling
standing up for the Constitution
reaping just rewards for your own labor
a history textbook that decides, halfway through, to be a detective novel instead
betting $1 million on the flop of a single card
corn growing on an Iowa farm
a hotly contested college football game between division rivals
the right to choose for oneself
the American Red Cross
Little League
watching commercials
baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July
a fun-filled day at the park
suing the bastards
giving people a second chance
protesting and exercising our rights
raping the expressive and unique nature of a foreign culture for material gain
the socialist goals of social justice, equality of opportunity, economic security, and peace
Guns and money
fair play
baseball, hot dogs, and the Democratic Party
the flag
french-fries and hamburgers

Phew. Tea, anyone?

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