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The Lost Country

On Brexit.


England: the very epitome of stability and security. Arguably the oldest nation state in the world, possessed of a long history of constitutional government and the rule of law, that has proved exemplary for so many other countries. Yet today and suddenly it would seem, it is seized by a crisis of identity, its future is uncertain, and it is riven by cultural conflicts.

To understand why this is so we have eventually to see this crisis as but one manifestation of a more general emergency of the West, but first we have to pay attention to peculiar features of the English situation.

The most peculiar is English people’s uncertainty about which country they now belong to. Are they English or are they British? Research suggests that the English view themselves as first of all English, yet with the blithe assumption that Britain (and once the entire British Isles) is a kind of greater England, with a further penumbra extending to the former empire and especially the white dominions. In other words, “Englishness” is for a majority not a typical matter of a Romantic self-contained folk identity, as with the Celtic outliers, but inherently a matter of glorious expansion, albeit of perceived native values of fairness, liberty, and tolerance of difference.

The minority in England who see themselves as first of all British do so for essentially liberal and cosmopolitan reasons. But those in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland who see themselves as primarily British do so for essentially opposite, traditionalist reasons that have more in common with the primary Englishness of small “c” conservatives in England. Perhaps only those (albeit many) English of half-Celtic descent, like myself, identify first and foremost as British for these sorts of reasons that have as much to do with a sense of intertwined cultures as with a shared enterprise of empire and mission in the past.

It was the majority group whose primary Englishness is, all the same, inseparable from their sense of the wider renown of Britain that tended to vote to leave the European Union, whether we are talking about folk in the well-heeled shires or those on the margins, in the north or the far west, or in the many areas of distressed coastline.

In each case, culture and not economics was at the fore: greater England is an independent, sovereign reality whose subordination to a European imperial oligarchy was taken to be obviously unnatural. If you were doing well in Midlands pastures, then why not vote to loosen English enterprise from Continental restraint? If you were doing badly, say on the ramshackle post-industrial Isle of Sheppey at the end of the Thames, then why not vote for a fully independent island that might just come more under the control of the unfortunate?

But by now the attentive reader should have anticipated the massive irony of self-deception that was at work here. The specific mode of Englishness that engendered a majority for Brexit also threatens just this sense of Englishness. Without membership in the European Union, it is much harder for England to re-invent its global power through subsumption in a wider Continental enterprise (the prospect of such re-invention was a considerable part of what inspired France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries to subsume their separate political identities into a political union in the first place). For the English to imagine that they can stand outside such a logic, despite the Commonwealth and the “special relationship” to the United States, is surely self-delusion. Indeed, it is Emmanuel Macron, and not any British prime minister, who has started to think about how to restore France’s old imperial influence, especially in Africa, precisely through the mechanism of the European Union. Any English return to influence East of Suez will only be possible because of the United States, and the Far Eastern powers will be more concerned with their relations to the European Continent as a whole than with an offshore island.

In this respect then, English global pride, which in part prompted Brexit, also doomed that very pride, possibly to extinction. But it also threatens something far worse.

For it turns out that sovereign self-isolation as the guarantee of integrity is a fiction. To the contrary, internal unity can depend upon the delicate tissue of relationships to the outside world that help to keep internal tensions in balance and under control. This is obviously the case with Northern Ireland, whose fate has been considered with callous (even murderous) disregard by the political drivers of Brexit. Sadly, their indifference is echoed by perhaps a majority of the English, who astonishingly just do not care whether a substantial chunk (incidentally the best-educated and most solidly traditional chunk) of their own country just peels away, with all its distinctive natural beauties and cultural glories. This peeling away will probably be hastened by the realization of (mainly Protestant) Ulster loyalists that their loyalty is spurned on the British mainland.

But it is also the case with Scotland. Even if economic logic after Brexit suggests this country should remain within the Union, the unwanted loss of a political belonging and court of appeal beyond an increasingly alien Westminster will most plausibly trigger a Scottish exit. If Ireland re-unites, as is likely, this will leave England and Wales on their own for the first time since the Norman Conquest of Ireland. Thereby, any sense of the greater England that is Britain will have been lost forever.

And what is English identity without this? The history of English expansion in the face of both Celtic and continental entrapment stretches back before the Reformation. Surely, then, some sort of psychological crisis must inevitably then ensue?

For one thing, “the United Kingdom of England and Wales” will not be a natural reality. However economically implausible, the Welsh sense of difference and dignity, buttressed by a living Celtic language, may eventually lead them to follow the Irish and Scottish examples. If they do so, Cornwall may even recall that it was once West Wales. Northumberland, forgetting Percy and Reiver pride, might also recall (as some polls have shown) that the northern border has been fluid and that its alienation from London is as great as that of the Scots.

Above all, the North of England might object to being left still more at the mercy of the South East—something qualified in the past by Celtic votes for the Labour Party, once dominant in the North of England also. It might in effect recall that in medieval Oxford northerners were housed as part of the same “nation” as the Scots, while Daniel Defoe remarked as late as 1727 that the often physically impassable Trent was a greater border than the Tweed. Not, of course, that the North would ever join Scotland, but without the allure of past shared glory the unity of England could soon prove somewhat fragile.

Of course, in theory the mainstream English could at last identify with the many bohemian bourgeois efforts of Ralph Vaughan Williams and others to uncover their authentic folk past: the songs, the dances, the stories, and the customs which the English secretly possess in as much abundance as anyone else. But to do that would be also to re-awaken a greater consciousness of English regions, which is today notably lacking. Equally, and most ironically, it would be to re-awaken a sense of an insular culture common to the entire British Isles. For English music, poetry, ornamentation, architecture, and dance was in reality subject to continuous Celtic influence (and vice-versa) from pre-conquest times onwards. Indeed, it is not even clear that the English are a separate ethnicity at all—even if it is hard otherwise to explain the Dark Age language shift and the relapse into paganism after the retreat of Rome. Archaeology fails to disclose any evidence of large-scale “Anglo-Saxon” invasions or even of elite replacement in any way comparable to those of the Norman Conquest. The names of the first kings of Wessex were Welsh; the pronunciation of Old English indicates Welsh influence, as does its already more Latinate syntax compared to that of most Teutonic languages.

Thus the English, for all their pride, are a strangely lost people: perhaps that is why they were doomed to wandering from the outset, as so many Anglo-Saxons poems would suggest: passing through the world half-blinded and disguised, like the god Woden, who was sometimes glimpsed in pagan times stepping forth with his staff over the southern downs on the Wansdyke that was named for him.

And just what great story about themselves might they turn to in order to know who they really are? Again, there are distinctly English and distinctly British alternatives. There are the tales of Hereward the Wake, of Robin Hood and Guy of Warwick, of outlaw resistance to conquerors and enclosers, the tales that render the English strangers on their own terrain under the aristocratic tyranny of the Norman yoke. And yet even these powerful stories cannot readily be dissociated from Celtic influence: the supreme outlaw rebel was the Scotsman William Wallace and the most resonant tales of Robin Hood were invented by Sir Walter Scott. Those like William Cobbett, John Clare, and William Barnes who have most spoken of the resistance of the true English to the ending of the commons and to the state appropriation of Church lands have also been alert to the fact that Ireland suffered a more extreme version of this “Norman” fate.

In terms of content also, these defining legends suggest apparent contradictions. According to the at times overrated George Orwell, the English prize liberty and yet also order, while being fairly indifferent to equality. But how does this square with the continuous celebration of outlawry which Britain has bequeathed to both North America and Australia? Or with the linked thematic of robbing the rich to pay the poor and the sense of a threatened guild and peasant solidarity forced to retreat to the Greenwood, which is how the Robin Hood stories are best interpreted?

Just like the Scots, the English are able to combine a certain sense of equity and sharing with an acceptance of the need for aristocratic familial leaders. In this respect it is the American South that seems rather more in continuity with both England and Britain than the American North, settled largely from the Puritanical Eastern counties of England, with their stronger links to continental free-thinking and rebellion.

But the tales of outlawry, of lurking in fen and forest in order to enact occasional raids and plunderings in the name of a lost and truer, perhaps faerie order, are only one resource of the English legendarium. The other concerns the entirety of the “Matter of Britain,” which extends to Lear as well as Arthur.

This was indeed much promoted by the Norman conquerors and their vengeful Breton allies: they even tried to link it via spurious genealogies to the alternative Danish stories of English origin, focused upon Lincolnshire, in order to please their equally vengeful Danish allies, some of whom had also fought at Hastings. Yet the English, from Chaucer to Purcell to Tennyson, also felt able to embrace these stories, perhaps in part because the Anglo-Saxons themselves explicitly embraced the Romano-British legacy, which archaeologists now conclude left far more traces than the Germanophile Victorians once supposed.

Unlike the Robin Hood legends, these stories are hieratic, chivalric, and imperial. They certainly celebrate just rule and the overthrowing of tyranny, but the tyrants here are more like primordial anarchists. Perhaps Scott allowed a certain mediation between the two idioms by telling how the noble Sherwood outlaw was really the servant of the true King, the crusading adventurer and continentally jaunting Anglo-French Richard Coeur-de -Lion, in contrast to his laggardly and corrupt stay-at-home brother.

It is just about conceivable that the spirit of Hereward the Wake could have caused England to opt with Brexit to be, as it were, to be a kind of greater Sheerness: exiled from globalizing marauders, living in a “moral utopia” of enforced if desperate improvisation, as the German modernist Uwe Johnson described it, when in implausible exile on the Kent islet. But for the English imaginary, King Richard stands in disguise behind the outlaw, and the Continent is resisted just because, ever since Arthur, a kind of “West Byzantium” has rivaled the Holy Roman Empire, which the European Union in one sense attempts to revive.

If only, one might suppose, the Pope had granted Henry VIII his divorce, and if only Henry had assumed the emperorship as he desired. Or if only, much earlier, the Empress Matilda had routed King Stephen during that terrible and bloody English winter. But instead, England, a little like Russia, has always sustained a rival claim to inherit the Roman project—a claim later sustained by the United States.

It might seem far fetched to say that the disaster of Brexit has occurred because no one has reflected on any of this. And yet it is true: both English folk culture and English working-class memory and self-education were already dead, and a decadent elite had ceased to ponder anything remotely serious. In search of rootless global wealth and glory, the political and ideological preconditions of this quest were totally neglected by those who had forgotten that English expansion has always depended upon coming to terms with its Celtic neighbors and upon an intense engagement with the power politics of the continent.

More profoundly, one could say that Brexit supposed that a country could continue to exist without a soul: without a religion, without links to its neighbors as soul-mates, without a consistent narrative sense of why it exists—a sense that can admit and partially resolve the many contradictions of the past. Instead, it turns out that because the English have failed to reflect on the preconditions of their own identity, and on the pressing need to reforge that identity in a more Romantic folk idiom (that would also involve a more federalist version of the United Kingdom), they are in danger of seriously losing themselves altogether. Perhaps they have, after Chesterton, “at last spoken,” but if so it could be only to sound their own last gasp.

Remainers as much as Leavers are responsible for this. They failed to attend to the new division of England between the supposedly better educated and those who had left school, with their increasingly poor life-prospects and more localized horizons. They failed to realize that alarm about excessively high levels of immigration, involving both mutual exploitation (of incomers and those already there) and a lack of integration, was far from “racist.” They failed to register coherent working-class anxieties about Brussels’ treatment of Southern Europe, the passing on of bankers’ debts to citizens and a totally inadequate response to the refugee crisis, which anticipated an even more inadequate one to the pandemic. They failed to recognize a wider reasonable English anxiety about the power of an unaccountable and unelected oligarchy to overrule national preferences.

At the same time, Leavers gratuitously ignored the way in which the United Kingdom is too large to be just like Switzerland or Norway: outside the E.U. it faces a dire choice between damaging its own economic and political interests and merely accepting continental decisions in which it now has no say. It blithely chose to ignore the equal reality that one’s near neighbors tend to be one’s most important trading partners and allies. At a cultural level it shamelessly recycled old Whig myths about the supposed independence  of common law from Roman and canon law traditions—again much encouraged by Victorian Germanism—not to mention Protestant ones of Roman tyranny.

No one was asking what England really is and how she could be sustained in the future. Yet this is not to say that the European Union and its member countries are necessarily in much better shape. As with England, centuries of excessive centralization, partly enabled by a continuous imperialism, are starting to come undone in France, whose deeper reality, as Graham Robb has shown, is really one of a near-anarchic local dispersal. Meanwhile, the European Union has been more and more corrupted by a technocratic vision which, from the outset, with Jean Monnet, rivaled the subsidiarist, corporatist, economically participatory, and personalist one of Robert Schuman and other Catholic founders.

Schuman, more so even than Jacques Maritain, had insisted that for the sake of its legitimacy the European Community must acknowledge the ultimate importance of the Christian faith, something that never really took place. A vision of mixed government, tempering democracy (which had proved recently capable of electing monsters) with wise and shared advice, has been warped into a rule of mere cartel mercantilism, a German priority of law over politics and an ordoliberal favoring of the free market over the real needs of workers and consumers.

In consequence, the increase in European unity has been no organic process of shared development, common citizenship, and mutual rule, but a series of opportunistic coups and arbitrary decrees on the part of the European Court of Justice and the Commission. Any democratic rebalancing of the E.U. that did not give way to an unrealistic and undesirable erection of a superstate would have to open up the council to continuous delegation from national assemblies, besides subordinating the commission to the council and a strengthened parliament. But none of that is in sight, nor any clear path to its achievement. In these circumstances, and the failure so far to learn any lessons from Brexit, further exits from the Union and even its ultimate disintegration cannot be ruled out.

This is more than sad, because, at its best, as with its earlier support of French small farms (now, however, much threatened) or its much greater support for a region like Cornwall, than would ever be plausible be offered by national governments, the E.U. has shown how a “commonwealth-empire” can correct the domineering and culturally monochrome tendencies of the nation state and of its false doctrine of absolute sovereignty.

Already Brexit-voting Cornwall is discovering that, after all, it was Westminster and not Brussels that was wrecking its inshore fishing industry. Many British farmers and small businessmen are also realizing, some of them with regret that, it is now too expensive to export to the E.U. in the face of heavy duties. Inversely (though this was for a time concealed by the pandemic) British consumers are discovering just how expensive it has become to import. For now and for similar reasons, those in the much bigger service sector have yet to face the real reckoning, but since services were left out of the E.U. deal that day will come.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson has to square the political circle: satisfy two camps who voted for Brexit for opposite reasons: the well-heeled in order to escape even the light hand of E.U. regulation, the marginalized in order to free the state from supposed (and certainly exaggerated) European prevention of state aid. We are already seeing how he will do so: a combination of trade deals like the one just signed with Australia that will compromise consumer and ecological standards alongside centralized infrastructure projects for the North that will offer no real prospects for empowerment or self-transformation.

It is true that more jobs are now on offer and some wages are going up. But that is mainly down to the impact of Covid and a generally perceived need for some capitalist rebalancing towards production and genuine consumer demand in the face of the instability of the finance sector and overreliance on debt at every level—tendencies also in evidence in the United States. As to whether all the jobs can be filled, that remains doubtful: British firms often turned to European migrants not simply because they could but because no equivalently trained and able British workers were available.

If the E.U. does survive, it is consequently possible to imagine that one day a sad, divided, almost powerless England, once more trapped between the Celts and the continent, and now more dominated than ever by an ethnically diverse population, will creep back, tail between its legs, to ask for re-admission from Brussels. Neither Robin Hood nor King Arthur will any longer be recalled or spoken of; West Byzantium will be no more, as England is finally subordinated to the realm of Charlemagne.

But of course the E.U. will not really be that, and not being that it may not even be there at all, or not for long. Yes, it is still more needed today for both collective defence and the securing of borders, if European civilization is to survive in the face of large and partially alien “civilization nations”: culture and politics are after all inseparable. But can it exist in perpetuity at all, without any echo of Christendom, of Jerusalem and Athens and Rome, of all these “matters” of which the British and French ones are simply offshoots?

The problem of England is in the end the same as that today of the Celtic nations, the European ones, and the E.U. itself: a loss of psychic identity. As a result of this, besides the horrendous political miscalculations of David Cameron, both England and Scotland look set to become one-party states, governed by all too similar versions of state-capitalist oligarchy. Democracy is here as elsewhere dying, because the mythoi that upheld any real sense of a shared demos have already perished. Without them, England, Britain, Europe, and the world now face a dire future in which left-wing transhumanism allied to rampant artificial intelligence and surveillance will be increasingly in conflict with xenophobic and racist nationalisms.

No enlightened liberalism proffers any answer to this. A revival can only come from a return to the roots of our Western civilization, in all their ultimately European variety and yet entangled unity.

John Milbank is emeritus professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he is president of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy.

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