Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Robert Tombs

England’s Past and England’s Future”

23 November 2015

University of Winchester

Prof Robert Tombs, Cambridge University


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the seminar held at the University of Winchester on 23 November 2015.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen for doing me the honour of inviting me to speak to you this evening, and so helping to inaugurate the Centre for English Identity and Politics. Thank you too for your presence here tonight. 

I was giving a talk a few months ago at a Festival, and a woman in the audience asked if I thought there was an English national character.  Being caught on the spot - historians don’t like the phrase ‘national character’, it suggests all sorts of intellectual sins - I avoided the question, glibly answering that people are not very good at assessing themselves, and that it really takes an outside perspective to identify the characteristics of a people.  (I think that is true: for example, when I first visited Nepal, I was very struck by the fatalistic attitude people took to traffic - cars might miss them by inches and they didn’t react.  In Norway I noticed that nobody shouted at their children.  Nepalese and Norwegians wouldn’t be aware of these things - they would think they were just normal behaviour.)  It’s difficult for English people too to know what is ‘normal’ and what is unusual in their behaviour, and in their history. 

So I thought I would begin this evening by pursuing this thought a little further.  England and the English have had the benefit of many distinguished outside observers telling us what our characteristics are.  I would therefore like, as an introduction to this talk, to look very briefly at six historians or political observers: three Frenchmen and a Frenchwoman, Paul Rapin, François Guizot, Flora Tristan, and Élie Halévy; a Scotsman, David Hume; and an Irishman, Edmund Burke. 

Paul Rapin was a Protestant who served as a soldier in the army of William of Orange, took part in the ‘Glorious Revolution’, and then wrote the prototype of what was later dubbed ‘Whig History’: that the history of England was about the conquest, or reconquest, of liberty; by which the people, especially through parliament, resisted the absolute power of monarchs; that this culminated in the Civil War against Charles I, and reached a happy ending in the Glorious Revolution.  François Guizot, another Protestant Frenchman, had a much more brilliant career than Rapin: he was not only one of France’s leading historians, but he became prime minister in the 1840s.  He developed Rapin’s version and gave it a wider global significance as the liberal political prototype for the whole of Europe: as he put it in 1828, ‘to abolish absolute power in the political sphere and the intellectual sphere - that is the role of England in the development of our civilization’.  Halévy, a professional historian during the early 20th century who wrote a multi-volume History of the English People, identified the importance of religion, and particularly Methodism, in creating a peaceful form of English radicalism.  David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, in his History of Great Britain published in the 1750s, took a very different view: progress was not due to political struggle, as the Whig historians said, but to economic development under strong government, particularly that of the absolutist Tudors.  Edmund Burke, an Irish Whig politician and philosopher, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791), similarly praised England’s embrace of continuity, attacked revolution as oppressive and destructive, and famously argued that a nation was a pact between past, present and future generations.  Very different from all these was Flora Tristan, French socialist and pioneer feminist, writing in the 1840s, who described the England of the industrial revolution as a dystopia of injustice, exploitation and vice, and which was rapidly heading for economic and social collapse. 

What does this contrasting collection of outsiders’ observations tell us?  We could just take them as miscellaneous opinions and myths, which contradict each other, and don’t really mean anything at all.  But I suggest something different.  First, they have helped to shape the ways we think of ourselves and our history by permeating the general historical culture.  They influenced generations of other historians, novelists, politicians, and journalists - often without their being aware of it.  Second, they all observed something important: just as in the traditional Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which one grabs the tail and thinks it’s a snake, another grabs a leg and thinks it’s a tree …  England’s history, like the elephant, is more complicated than any simple characterization - it has a tail, legs, a trunk and a lot more besides.  Yet these incomplete insights are not wrong.  Our history does consist of struggles for liberties, as Paul Rapin said, and this has provided a model for many other countries, as Guizot observed.  But progress in English history was also based around strong government and economic innovation, as Hume insisted.  Yet that economic innovation was accompanied by severe social problems, as Flora Tristan saw.  But English radicalism, as Halévy noted, while reacting against those social problems, did have a very strong religious, respectable, and reformist core, in strong contrast to the violence of France: Methodism, as is often said, was more central to English radicalism than Marxism.  And finally, Burke was right to stress the difference between pragmatic English parliamentary politics and revolutionary utopianism, and right to see the persistence of a degree of solidarity, of common identity, which though sometimes strained has rarely if ever been entirely broken.  The English have often – very often, perhaps always - complained about their rulers, and often opposed them, but they have very rarely - I am tempted to say never - tried to destroy the system of government.  So we can recognize important things about our past and about our historic identity in what Rapin, Guizot, Halévy, Tristan, Hume and Burke saw.  And I believe that this tells us something fundamental: there is no single simple story, and our history is therefore not the property of a single party.  John Denham put it in human terms in the lecture he gave here last year: ‘Asking me whether England’s real story is radical or conservative is like asking me which of my grandfathers is most English.’[1]

To return to my original question - the question that the lady in the audience asked: do we have a national character?  David Hume, to go back again to him, defined a national character in 1740 as:

a peculiar set of manners [made] habitual [by] the nature of the government, the revolutions of public affairs, the plenty or penury in which the people live, the situation of the nation with regard to its neighbours, and such like circumstances.[2]  

He thought that the English ‘of any people in the universe [had] the least of a national character.’  He ascribed this to their ‘liberty and independency’, which encouraged individuality, not uniformity.  So here again the theme is diversity: a free society creates a varied identity.  There are lots of varieties of Englishness: and people who have tried to describe what is ‘typically English’ have produced a list of different and even contradictory characteristics: both conformity and eccentricity, bluntness and reticence, deference and assertiveness, honesty and hypocrisy, community spirit and privacy, and so on.[3]  If we agree with Hume’s view about liberty creating individuality, perhaps these contradictory characteristics are indeed all ‘typically English’. 

Again, if we go along with Hume, we have to expect change as well as continuity in our national identity - rapid and fundamental change has been a crucial part of our history, and foreigners have often in the past and today associated England with novelty.  Some once fundamental English characteristics have altered almost beyond recognition, perhaps most obviously self-consciousness as a Christian, and after the 16th century as a Protestant, nation.  But this religious past has not disappeared, it has mutated, as in other parts of Protestant Europe, into the secularization and moral pluralism that has been increasingly characteristic of Englishness since the 1960s.  We can follow some of the roots of this change back to the 18th century Enlightenment; but then from the 1960s onwards change accelerated at a dizzying rate, transforming mainstream views of gender, race, class, sexuality, and behaviour, and turning a disciplined, decent, prudish post-Victorian England into a more raucous and chaotic society that the 18th century caricaturists Hogarth and Gillray might have found familiar.  As one historian of religion has observed, the 1960s generation (which is my generation) may have differed from their parents more than any generation in history[4] - quite a thought!  The ‘Cool Britannia’ of the late 1990s was a much-mocked slogan, yet it was accurate in evoking the plethora of cultural novelties that are as much part of the ‘character’ of today’s England as its ancient traditions.  If England and Britain inspire admiration, or at least curiosity, round the world (you may have read recently that one study judged it to be the world’s leading country in soft power[5]) then it is as likely to be for modernity in music, art, sport, consumerism and the cosmopolitan ferment of London, and for the supposed ability of English society to accommodate tradition and modernity in tandem.  For many at home and abroad, Arsenal and Radiohead are at least as typically English as Beefeaters and bowler hats, and London is the throbbing heart of modern global society.  This change has been fuelled by economic globalization, by the rather alarming dynamism of the City of London, and by mass immigration.  However new these things may seem, they have grown out of England’s unique global and imperial past: our present multi-ethnicity is as much a part of our heritage as thatched cottages and cream teas. 

Whatever elements, old and new, characterize England’s national ‘civilization’ (as George Orwell called it), taken as a whole it has an unusual characteristic: the English have long been ‘nonchalant’ about nationhood (as the sociologist Krishan Kumar puts it) and reluctant to assert English nationalism, even denying that there was such a thing.  This is because as the core nation in a multinational state and a global empire, it was neither desirable nor necessary to beat the nationalist drum.  Flag-waving came to seem embarrassingly or absurdly un-English and to many English people it remains so.  (Here’s a little test: do you feel ever so slightly embarrassed if you see people waving Union Jack umbrellas at the Last Night of the Proms or with their faces painted with red crosses at sporting events?  I do!)  But this is to some extent changing: in politics, in sport, in literature, in the arts, in everyday conversation, people have been thinking about themselves more self-consciously as English.  When pollsters asked people to describe themselves as either British or English, in 1992 twice as many chose ‘British’ over ‘English’; during the 2000s the proportions were almost the same.[6]

This rise in English national consciousness has not been sudden and potentially shattering, as for example in Quebec, Flanders, Catalonia or Scotland; it has been slow and pretty moderate in its political fallout.  But the political implications are there now, even if politicians have been understandably reluctant to react to them.  As an example of this political hesitancy, party manifestos in the recent general election made very little mention of England.

I began by talking about ‘national character’, and much of what can be said on this subject concerns what we might call ‘myths’, and what have been dubbed ‘invented traditions’ - you may know the well-known book on that subject edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.[7] 

John Denham has emphasized the importance of myth:

We don’t discover our England in the history books; we create England, again and again, from the parts of our history which make most sense to us today.  Events happen, things change, we change, our view of the world changes, the stories we tell about ourselves change.  And then we declare, ‘this is what England always was and always will be’.[8]

I’m going to disagree with this in part - or rather, try to supplement it.  People who write those history books believe that they are not just telling stories and juggling myths: they are able to say true things - not ‘the truth, the whole truth’, but true things.  Does this matter?  I think it does.  History affects us not only in what we believe about ourselves, but also in what we may not know about ourselves.  Karl Marx put this famously:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.[9] 

Norwegians don’t shout at their children - not, I imagine, because they are conscious of this as the Norwegian way, but simply because that is how their history and culture have made them without their being aware of it.  So I am going to try to say a few true things about English history that we may not be consciously aware of, but which affect our collective attitudes. 

First, perhaps the most obvious statement about England: that it is a very old nation.  Historians who take an interest in such matters agree at least about this.  One, the American Liah Greenfeld, even thinks that England is the prototype: ‘the birth of England was not the birth of a nation,’ she writes, ‘it was the birth of the nations.’[10]  Antiquity and continuity are undoubtedly features of English history.  Yet antiquity and continuity - due above all to the rarity of great disasters such as defeat, invasion and subjugation - do not mean changelessness or immobility: obviously the monarchy, parliament, the common law, the economy, social structures … have all changed enormously.  Continuity is not the enemy of change: paradoxically, it even facilitates it by making it less threatening and more acceptable.  In that case, does continuity have much substance?  Is it not simply another myth, an irony of history?  Britain has had no revolution, civil war or invasion for more than three centuries; France has had four revolutions, at least four serious civil conflicts, maybe four coups d’état, and at least six major invasions in that time.  Yet today Britain and France are pretty similar.  Does that show that all this is myth?  We have a myth of continuity, the French have a myth of revolution - but the outcome is pretty similar?  Well, you could say I’ve chosen a rather misleading comparison.  If I’d chosen to compare England today not with France but with Russia, or Iraq, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we would have a much sharper impression of the differing consequences of continuity and upheaval. 

But let us stick to France and Britain: one clear difference is that France has had to be more ideologically conscious than we have about the nature of the state, its organization, its functioning, and its aims.  Its constitution begins by stating ‘France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic’ - I doubt if we could even get as far as the first sentence if we tried to draft a document like that.  Just imagine the arguments!  ‘Indivisible’ - what about devolution?  ‘Secular’ - what about religious diversity?  (Let’s not even mention monarchy or republic.)  England (and indeed the UK) doesn’t have a declared purpose: it just is.  It continues to use and adapt ancient institutions for changing circumstances.  Is this kind of pragmatic continuity good or bad?  I suppose both, like almost everything in history.  Some people emphasize the benefits, others the disadvantages.  But the fact of continuity affects us, whatever we think about it. 

Let me try a second true thing, though like my point about continuity, it is also paradoxical: England is culturally a divided nation, and at the same time a relatively harmonious nation.  The divide was originally religious, in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Most crucial was the divide between the established Church and Dissenters, or to put it in familiar terms, between Cavaliers and Roundheads.  This division was originally about religious questions that would seem to most of us today (and seemed to some people at the time, including Queen Elizabeth I) utterly trivial - whether there should be altar rails, or whether the minister should wear a surplice.  But as we see today, esoteric religious differences can become matters of life and death, for what they symbolize, and because they absorb and inflame all sorts of other tensions - social, political, ethnic, gender, economic, racial.  Thousands are dying atrociously today over religious differences that most of us cannot even understand.  So it was in England in the 1640s, the Civil War which cost the lives of over 200,000 people - a far higher proportion of the population than the two World Wars.  After this fortunately brief spasm of violence burned itself out, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 instituted legal toleration for religious Dissent, and hence permitted the development of two cultural, social and political tendencies within the same nation - something that is quite rare, and was very rare in Europe at the time, as most countries were dominated by a single state religion.  The political division of Whig and Tory, later Liberal and Conservative, later still Labour and Conservative to a large extent followed this religious divide, which took on regional and social aspects too - in shorthand terms, I call this Coronation Street versus Ambridge.  Dissent was particularly strong in less developed parts of the country where the Church was weak; but those areas subsequently became the new industrial areas of the north, strongholds of working-class Liberalism and trade unionism, strongly linked with chapel-going; then from the 1920s onwards, these areas became the strongholds of the Labour party, representing industrial workers and more recently public-sector workers.  This religious division has been transmuted, but has not disappeared: as the 2015 elections showed, cultural divisions remain fundamental, and they may even be re-emerging as class identities fade.  A recent analysis of the elections concluded that ‘The biggest divides these days are cultural … Newspaper readership provides a far better predictor of Labour and Tory support than any other indicator.’[11] 

I think we need to accept and recognise this deep and ancient division, which has, for good and ill, made us what we are.  Remember what John Denham said about his two grandfathers, with different political loyalties and cultural backgrounds, but equally English.  Similarly, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn are both typically English, both tapping into distinct and deeply rooted differences.  We can never be a very united and homogenous society, like Scandinavia.  This is not all negative.  If the conservative, Anglican, Tory tradition helped to keep the show on the road, the Dissenting tradition provided an inexhaustible dynamism in campaigning; and it certainly prevented English political life from descending into a complacent torpor.  Tireless campaigns for religious equality, for the abolition of slavery, against alcohol and prostitution, for the rights of women, for human rights abroad and in the empire would have been unimaginable without this restless and demanding Nonconformist conscience. 

We like to think that liberty is fought for - as in Paul Rapin’s prototype Whig history, with which I began.  Judging by comments in the media and by politicians, the classic Whig line remains widespread - that liberty was won during the Civil War.  The reality is different: the civil war almost destroyed liberty.  Only when the country rejected fighting, and Puritan zealots had to abandon their visions of a compulsory New Jerusalem, was liberty possible.  The basis of our modern politics is the fusion of our conflicting traditions, not the conquest of one by the other.  To the Whigs we owe the principle – Magna Carta restated in modern form – that rulers must obey the law, and that legitimate authority requires the consent of the people.  From the Tories came the principle – fundamental to any political order – that people have no right to rebel against a government just because they disagree with it.  Fusing these seemingly conflicting principles produced characteristics of English political culture: suspicion of utopias and extremists; trust in common sense; and the view that ‘compromise’ is victory, not betrayal.  These things stem from the failure both of royal absolutism and of godly republicanism: costly failures, but fruitful ones.  Hence my argument that we manage to combine persistent division with relative harmony - we disagree, but don’t kill each other. 

But I don’t want to suggest that we have always arrived at happy and fruitful compromise: that would be too good to be true.  As I said, we are not Scandinavia.  lt seems to me that there remains today a rather shrill sectarian character to English politics, which I suggest is connected to the religious roots especially of the Left (the ‘religious Left’ as I think of it).  English politics absorbed the style and mentality of religious revivalism, stressing the morality of its causes, and not infrequently the wickedness of its opponents (‘lower than vermin’, in Aneurin Bevan’s pithy phrase).  Issues that in many other European countries hardly figure as ideological controversies – welfare policy, health care systems, the education system, even the school curriculum – in England still today take on huge symbolic importance in which differences of opinion become moral shibboleths solemnly pronounced on by bishops, just as once people came to blows over altar-rails and surplices.  It would be a great improvement if we as a nation could accept that differences of opinion can be honestly held, and that our opponents can sometimes be right: experiment and improvement would be easier to bring about, and perhaps more effective than clashes of dogma.  The post-election comments by a number of leading Labour politicians that they should respect the electorate’s view, and not accuse their opponents of being somehow immoral seemed to me a healthy recognition of our political diversity as a nation; though the subsequent vertiginous ascent of Jeremy Corbyn showed the continuing vitality an older, more sectarian tradition.  People say they dislike ‘Punch and Judy politics’; but also complain that politicians are ‘all the same’.  This is an outcome of our paradoxical combination of division and harmony. 

The third and final true thing I want to say concerns national decline: quite simply, it hasn’t happened!  Yet belief in decline - the myth of ‘declinism’ - has been one of the most powerful and I think most damaging illusions of recent generations.  We can trace its origins to the late 19th century: to economic competition from Germany in the 1880s; then to the failures of the interwar period, to temporary setbacks during the Second World War, but above all to the 1950s, 60s and 70s - the period of decolonization, de-industrialization, cultural transformation, and a huge loss of self-confidence in Britain - above all self-confidence in England - as a nation. 

The idea of decline rests on two assumptions.  First, that England/Britain has experienced a collapse in international power and in economic dynamism.  Second, that this results from failures of the nation as a political, economic, social and cultural organization.  Some historians made declinism an intellectually credible story.[12]  The conclusion was that major policies, institutions, even fundamental aspects of English culture and ‘character’ were ill adapted to a modern nation – a very potent weapon for radicals of Left and Right (Mrs Thatcher said ‘Everything we wished to do had to fit into the overall strategy of reversing Britain’s economic decline’[13]). 

Loss of world hegemony is at the root of declinism.  An early manifestation was a 1956 television series ‘We the British: Are We in Decline?’ which was entirely about decolonization.[14]  Certainly, the world changed over the twentieth century, and all overseas colonial empires (including that of the United States) dissolved.  But declinism, ignoring the experience of other countries, focuses on a deeply pessimistic view of postwar England’s weakness contrasted with a grossly overblown image of its earlier power.  Victorian hegemony always had very clear limitations – there was something in the complaint familiar at the time that Britain had been a third-rate power with a big empire.  Mrs Thatcher was powerless to slow down German unification in 1990; but so was Mr Gladstone in 1871. 

If we take a longer view, distribution of power in the modern world has been remarkably stable.  When Britain emerged as a significant force, after the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, it was the smallest and yet most global of the world’s half-dozen or so most powerful states, alongside China, India, Russia, Germany (the Holy Roman Empire) and France.  It occupies a similar position three centuries later - if anything, somewhat higher on the list.  The change in the contemporary world has not been the decline of Britain, but the post-1941 rise of America, which in wealth and military power outdistanced not only Britain, but every other state. 

Nor has England declined economically: by the late 1950s and 60s it was of course richer than ever.  The change has been that a few other countries have caught up.  This is not a quibble, but a fundamental difference of analysis, as catching up with the pioneers is a normal feature of economic modernization, as a succession of developing countries attract foreign investment and import the latest technology.  England remains, as in 1713, among the richest countries in the world – in 2008, among populous countries, the United Kingdom was second only to the United States in gross per capita wealth, and, needless to say, vastly richer per capita than China, India, Russia or Brazil.  Similarly, the 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index, if we leave out very small countries (such as Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Iceland), placed Britain in the top five (along with Canada, Australia, the United States and Germany).

Why do I emphasise this point?  Because I think declinism, wherever it becomes strong (and I would include as examples Germany in the 1920s, or France and the United States today with the rise of the Front National and the Tea-Party Movement) creates toxic political tendencies, extreme and destructive.  Less dramatically, it distorts political debate and analysis - for example, creating a cynical belief that nothing is worth doing and nothing is capable of improving; or alternatively that everything needs to be scrapped and nothing is worth preserving.  By making a country less self-confident and less rational, it makes it less creative and less innovative.  Declinism is therefore the opposite of truly progressive politics.  So my denying national decline is not a plea for complacency: on the contrary, I hope it removes a possible excuse for doing nothing - that is, that nothing can be done and that everything is hopeless. 

There is today an ‘English question’, which is both an English problem and an English opportunity, and I would like to end with some thoughts on this.  There are characteristic English challenges today, which stem from our history, and which in combination are unique.  England has become one of the largest centralized administrative units in the world, and coping with this is a perennial, and perhaps insoluble, political problem.  The concentration of power and responsibility in Whitehall is largely a consequence of the Second World War.  The judgement of historian Jose Harris is very striking: war changed England, she writes, ‘from one of the most localised and voluntaristic countries in Europe to one of the most centralized and bureaucratic.’[15]  The resulting decline of local government, whose last great age was the 1930s, was further and deliberately accelerated during the political conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s.  In consequence, today the proportion of our public spending controlled from the centre is roughly twice that in France, Japan and Italy, and more than three times that in Germany.[16]  England has other peculiarities: uniquely, it possesses simultaneously one of the world’s largest capitalist entities, the City of London, and also one of its largest socialist institutions, the National Health Service – a difficult duality that no one consciously set out to create, and which can only be explained as the outcome of past wars.  On top of this come the challenges to our constitutional system posed by Scottish nationalism and EU integration. 

And finally, we, along with most of the Western world, are affected by a crisis of democratic politics.  The symptoms are similar from Norway to New Zealand: populist denunciations of the system, citizen disengagement from centrist parties, electoral volatility and/or apathy, and the rise of dissenting movements of Right and Left which appeal to large numbers who are, or feel themselves to be, disfranchised or ignored by a system dominated by faceless forces.  The political scientist Peter Mair has summed up the causes[17]: the loss, or deliberate yielding up, of decision-making power by national governments to other organizations both domestic and international - quangos, law courts, business corporations, central banks, the EU, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization.  Hence the perception that parties and politicians are no longer willing or able to represent their voters, and that politics has become an irrelevant smoke-screen for the machinations of interests and lobbies.  Nationalism is one outcome of popular discontent, when people feel it will give them back some control. 

So is the English question only a problem?  It is understandable that many people have seen it as such, going back well into the days of Gladstone and Asquith.  How can you allow this big cuckoo to squeeze the Celtic chicks out of the nest?  An obvious answer is to break it up, and mute its political voice.  The Liberal MP for Dundee - a certain Winston Churchill - urged this in 1911: split England up into provinces, to make the English happier or at least to keep them quiet.  I’m not sure if George Osborne is the latest exponent of this idea in promoting ‘city regions’, presumably taken from Labour’s 2006 Local Government White Paper.[18]  I admit I worry about this, partly for practical reasons - we only need to look across the Channel or the North Sea to observe some of the costs of regionalization, not only in financial but also in political and indeed ethical terms, as a source of conflict and a seedbed of cronyism.  Moreover, I am instinctively suspicious of an attempt to split England up as it has never been since the reign of King Harold.  Local government, yes; regions, perhaps; provinces - no.  As Robert Colls put it in his excellent Identity of England: ‘the nation’s propensity for seeing itself as diverse should not be allowed to outstrip its propensity for seeing itself as united.’[19]

This is why I think we must regard the English question as an opportunity, and not just as a problem to be wished away or pushed out of sight.  Perhaps surprisingly, in a globalized world in which for a century or more clever people have been confidently predicting the demise of the nation as obsolete, it is coming back.  People want to be within a political community in which they feel trust, confidence and solidarity.  They are right: in a recent study of global prosperity, 14 of the 20 most prosperous countries were small.[20]  Democracy, civility, social welfare, economic efficiency - all require mutual trust and solidarity,[21] however much people may grumble.  Indeed, grumbling is a sign of health: when people don’t grumble, it’s because they have given up hope.  The English question should therefore be an opportunity for a sensible, moderate but thorough rethink of a system which is not in acute crisis or in decline, but which now needs be made better.  There is a vocal group which thinks it has the solution: to call a convention that will sit down and draw up a single codified constitution. 

I admit that I don’t get thrilled by the idea of rewriting all the rules from scratch.  As a historian of France, I think of the fourteen French constitutions in just over 200 years, many of them later overthrown by violence, because all (including the present one) created new, unforeseen, and often insoluble problems.  I think we should listen again to Edmund Burke’s warning against jettisoning a system built up over time.  He considered that no generation had a monopoly of wisdom: ‘I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.’  Such people ‘have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own.’[22]  I admit that I am no more confident than Burke that we are so much wiser than our predecessors. 

So should we adopt a minimalist solution, and just tinker with our present arrangements in a pragmatic way that respects continuity?  There are advantages in this, not least flexibility, adaptability, and accountability - an entrenched constitution may seek to guarantee accountability, but it also takes it away by making certain things impossible.  However recent governments have been tinkering rather too readily with our more flexible system: in no democratic country I know of is it possible for governments simply to change the constitution under which they govern - in many countries, this would be regarded as a coup d’état!  Moreover, ours have done it for short-term aims, without clear objectives, and have then abandoned the job half-finished when it became a bit tricky.  Important parts of our constitutional arrangements are now like a house extension put up by a cowboy builder.  An authoritative recent work on constitutional law concludes that ‘we no longer have a constitution, in the sense of a set of conventions which set the bounds of executive power.’[23]  We need to take this more seriously - and we are going to have to. 

I like some of the things the 19th century French philosopher Ernest Renan said in a famous lecture entitled ‘What is a nation?’  A nation, he said, was ‘a daily plebiscite’, because we constantly have to choose to make it work.  It was also, he said, ‘a great solidarity’.  Nations are the largest scale organizations in which human beings have managed to make democracy and solidarity work - never perfectly, but better than anything else.  For us, that great solidarity may end up being England. 

Why not Britain - or Europe?  It is of course a question whether the Union is compatible with the increasing self-consciousness of its member nations - a question the Scots will resolve for us.  It may also be a question whether national self-consciousness, at least on the part of England, is compatible with full membership of the EU, or whether we shall follow in the footsteps of Norway and Switzerland - that is another subject.  As for England and the Union, I hope to remain part of both.  But in trying to balance the two we face a choice: to try to get away with doing the least possible, or to try for bolder reform.  I’m a cautious person by nature, as I implied earlier by invoking Edmund Burke, but in this case, after some 135 years of discussion and hesitation, I don’t think we could be accused of rash precipitation if we actually did something: the time may now actually have come to repair the roof while the sun is at least weakly shining.  As I’ve been drawing on Burke, perhaps I should recall that he believed in autonomy for Ireland and America - ‘We must govern America,’ he said ‘according to [its true] nature … and not according to our own imaginations; not according to abstract theories.’[24] 

Now surely we must govern the United Kingdom according to its true nature, which is now as an association of nations.  We have to give to the British nations the most self-rule that is compatible with the continuation of the United Kingdom.  But how much is compatible?  Well, there is a long way to go from where we are: think how much autonomy American or German states have - enormous by our standards.  They show that is not impossible for units of very different sizes to coexist: California has 39 million people, Vermont has 600,000 - less than one-fifth the population of Wales.  What is needed is a willingness to tolerate difference, as we are slowly learning to do, and a clear constitutional arrangement to draw the boundaries. 

I don’t think this needs a complete new constitution, which would embroil us in a range of issues we are not very good at thinking through, which would bring out the deep-seated divisions I outlined earlier, and which - as in the experience of France - might be the beginning, not the end, of our problems.  But we do need a sort of Statute of Westminster (or better still, a Statute of Winchester!) to set the ground rules, like the 1931 Statute which defined the relationship between the United Kingdom and the self-governing countries of the Commonwealth: it is extremely businesslike - and short (3½ pages).  (That’s the opposite of what Napoleon said a constitution should be - he wanted ‘long and obscure’, because he wanted to be able to fudge.  But accountability requires short and clear!) 

To sum up: I have argued that our history is not the property of a single party, that our national characteristics are very diverse, and that we have been nonchalant about asserting our nationality.  Yet whether we realize it or not, we are shaped by our history: antiquity, continuity, sectarian division strangely combined with relative harmony.  We were long obsessed with our national decline, which on examination turns out not to have happened.  But we do have characteristic problems, usually the legacy of history, that now need to be tackled.  In my view, we should regard this not as a threat but as an opportunity.  

A final thought.  I have expressed the hope that England could be the basis of ‘a great solidarity’, but this does not prevent solidarity from extending out from that core as far as we want it to go.  But the alternative is to risk leaving the growth of English consciousness as a resentful, inward-looking, potentially destructive force based on frustration, pessimism and declinism.  That would be a distortion, indeed a betrayal, of our history, which is a largely benign and fortunate one.  For this reason, England’s past can give us reasonable confidence in England’s future. 

[1]               John Denham, ‘Reimagining England’, lecture delivered at the University of Winchester, 9 October 2014
[2]              David Hume, ‘Of National Characters’ (1748), in Political Essays, ed. Knut Haakonssen (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
[3]              See e.g. Peter Mandler, The English National Character: The History of an Idea fromEdmund Burke to Tony Blair (Yale University Press, 2006)
[4]              Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (London, Routledge, 2001) p 190
[5]              Report by Portland Communications <>
[6]              Michael Kenny, The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford UP, 2014) pp 81-2
[7]              Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge UP, 1983)
[8]              Denham, ‘Reimagining England’
[9]              Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1852)
[10]             Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity  (Harvard University Press, 1993) p 23
[11]             Peter Kellner, ‘General election 2015: how Britain really voted’, [accessed 05/08/2015]
[12]             Notably Martin J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (Cambridge UP, 1981) and Corelli Barnett, The Collapse of British Power (London, Eyre Methuen, 1972).  For an antidote, see Jim Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-war Britain (Harlow, Longman, 2000)
[13]             Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London, HarperCollins, 1993) p 15
[14]             Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965 (Oxford UP, 2005) pp 140-41
[15]             Jose Harris, in Gordon Martel, ed., The World War Two Reader (London, Routledge, 2004) p 331
[16]             The Economist (14 Aug. 2010) p 19
[17]             Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London, Verso, 2013)
[18]             See Kenny, Politics of English Nationhood p 187
[19]             Robert Colls, Identity of England (Oxford UP, 2002) p 380
[20]             Legatum Prosperity Index 2015.  The top three were Norway, Switzerland and Denmark.  The large countries in the top 20 were Canada, Australia, the USA, Germany, the UK, and Japan. 
[21]             See for example Putnam, Fukayama, Pinker, Haidt
[22]             Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J.C.D. Clark (Stanford UP, 2001) p 328
[23]             Sir John Baker, in Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins, British Government and the Constitution (Cambridge UP, 2011) p 10
[24]             Speech, 22 March 1775, in Edmund Burke, On Empire, Liberty and Reform: Speeches and Letters, ed. David Bromwich (Yale UP, 2000) pp 72, 92




Privacy Settings