The importance of being British
In late 1982, I was a 27-year-old graduate student, living in Chicago and about to marry a US citizen. I had the prospect of making my life and pursuing a career in America. But I vividly remember, a week or two before the wedding, a conversation with two American friends, in which it became clear that they assumed that I would be settling in the New World.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I corrected them. I told them that I was intent upon returning to my own country, for good or for ill. My friends were mildly stunned. I like Americans — so much that I married one. But I know where I belong: here in Britain.
Quite why I feel this way is not easy to explain. Lots of people who were born here and who live here don’t feel that way — or at least, they don’t appear to. And yet it has determined the direction of the whole of my life. In the words of W. H. Auden, I accept the fate I am. I accept it as a vocation to be true to my deeply felt attachment — and now to confess it.
I say ‘confess’, because throughout my life I have been acutely aware that in the educated, middle-class social circles of my own generation, patriotism has been regarded — and is still regarded — as embarrassing. I am aware that, if old and dear friends in Oxford and in London, politically centrist with a leaning to the Left, read this, there will be a sharp intake of breath and a sucking of teeth — a mental stepping back, as if they’d just encountered something diseased.
I have been aware of the un-coolness of patriotism among members of my own class and generation for all of my life, which is why I have suppressed it. I have always felt it, but rarely expressed it — because I assumed that ‘everyone else’ must know better. However, older age, I have found, confers two benefits: first, one finally knows what one thinks; and second, one cares less for what other people think. So, I now say what I have always felt. I confess the truth: I am a British patriot.
Accordingly, I have become critical of my self-styled ‘progressive’ friends. Not critical, necessarily, of their attachment to Europe, but critical of their habitual silence over the signal blessings that life in this country has conferred on them — and critical, most of all, of their habitual tendency to denigrate it, unnecessarily and irrationally.
Hilary Mantel, the famous author of Wolf Hall, is not a friend of mine, but she does represent lots of people I know. Last September she told the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that she’s planning on moving to Ireland, so that she can become European again. Why? Because, she says, Britain is “an artificial and precarious construct” and has shown its “ugly face” in “abusing exhausted refugees even as they scramble to the shore”.
Now, Dame Hilary was born in Derbyshire, blessed with a university education at the LSE and Sheffield, enabled to become a best-selling and prize-winning novelist, and then awarded public recognition in the form, first of a CBE, and then of a DBE. Such a person, I suggest, owes Britain considerable gratitude, and if she is moved to think ill of her country, it should only be under great pressure and with great reluctance. But Dame Hilary’s alienation is partly incoherent, partly untrue. It’s not reluctant; it’s wilful.
She says that Britain is an artificial construct. Of course, it is. Every state is man-made and artificial. No state ever dropped out of heaven. Britain in its current form as the United Kingdom did not exist before 1707. The United States did not exist before 1783, nor Italy before 1871, nor Ireland before 1922. Since states are artificial, not natural, they come and go: Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 and in 1993 it ceased to exist.
Perhaps, however, by calling Britain artificial, Mantel means that it’s an unnatural yoking together of different peoples — English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. But if that’s what she thinks of the UK, what on earth does she think of the EU? The artificiality of a state, or its multinational character, is no reason for leaving it.
What then about the ugly, racist face of contemporary Britain? Well, there’s no denying that racism exists here — as it does in Europe. But according to the 2018 report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, racial discrimination occurs less in Britain than in any other EU member state, including Ireland. (Just for the record, I voted Remain in 2016, not out of blind faith in the EU, but out of Burkean caution. Now, however, I want Brexit to succeed with my whole heart.)
So something perverse, something dishonest, is going on here. One reason, I take it, why my ‘progressive’ friends would suck their teeth if they heard my patriotic confession, is that they find it very difficult to distinguish patriotism from nationalism, and nationalism from fascism. So let me make quite clear what kind of patriot I am. I am a Christian patriot.
What does that mean? In part, it means that I recognise that my country, like every other, is indeed an artificial construct. It is man-made. It is not divine and eternal. My country is not God. In that respect, my Christian patriotism is quite distinct from the kind of Romantic nationalism that so scarred the twentieth century, most infamously in Germany. In this kind of nationalism, the nation is a substitute for God and it’s by investing oneself wholly in the life of the nation that the individual achieves a kind of immortality.
Such an idolatrous nationalism conflates the nation with divinity. Christian patriotism cannot do that. Therefore, the Christian patriot recognises that his loyalty to his country cannot be blind and it has to be critical, holding it to account before the law of God.
My Christian ideal of patriotism was incarnated, as it happens, in the life of a German. His name was Helmuth James von Moltke. A lawyer, he was the great-grand-nephew of Bismarck’s famously victorious general. Although an aristocrat, he became a Christian socialist and an opponent of the Nazi Party. In the mid-Thirties, he came to England to qualify for the English bar in case he should decide to flee here with his family. In the end, however, he chose to return to his country, to suffer alongside his people, and to do what he could to mitigate the evils of the Nazi regime and prepare for a better future.
And yet he did not support the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. The reason was that he foresaw that the plot, were it to succeed, would have given Germany a conservative regime that, while not Nazi, was not different enough. He believed that, in order to be redeemed, Germany had to suffer an unequivocal, catastrophic defeat, before being reconstructed from the bottom up. Imagine how painful it must have been for a patriot to want that for his country. Christian patriotism is not Romantic nationalism. The Christian patriot must be willing to play prophet to his country, criticising it because he loves it and wants to save its soul.
So, I am a Christian patriot. But I’m also a British patriot. I have always been a British patriot because I am an Anglo-Scot, born in Scotland to a Scottish father and an English mother, and educated on both sides of the border. I do not answer to ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’, for, being both, I am British.
During the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 I lost several nights’ sleep worrying about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom. As a Christian, I had to admit that it was possible that the UK should break up. It could be that its time had come to and end and that, like Czechoslovakia, it should disintegrate into its constituent parts. At the time, I found it difficult to explain why I was viscerally opposed to this conclusion, and what would be lost if the UK were to disintegrate.
However, in the months following the independence referendum, I discovered at least two things about what the UK is good for. First, the UK is good for multi-national trust and solidarity. Germans identify themselves very closely indeed with the European Union. Yet German taxpayers are adamantly opposed to fiscal transfers, whereby their resources are used to subsidise the French, no matter the Greeks. In contrast, the English, and especially Londoners, hardly bat an eyelid at the redistribution of ’their’ taxes to Scotland or Northern Ireland, or indeed other parts of England and Wales.
During the referendum campaign Alex Salmond was glibly misleading on a number of things. One of them was the supposed ease of the process of dis-uniting. In addition to the Queen, the BBC, and the pound, Salmond genially assured us that the ‘social union’ would persist.
But since English and Scottish interests would be opposed, it’s a practical certainty that negotiations would be fractious. It’s highly probable that the separating Scots would not get all that they wanted, and that, in turn, the English would recover a resentment of the Scots not seen since the 18th century.
The truth is that we here in the UK have achieved a level of multi-national trust and solidarity of which the EU can still only dream. It’s a precious achievement, which we should not take for granted nor surrender lightly. That’s one thing the UK is good for.
A second thing is the security and promotion of humane and liberal values. There is a strong strain in contemporary Scottish nationalism, as there is in Corbynite socialism, which believes in the equation, “Britain equals Empire equals Evil”. By ‘Empire’ here is meant, not only the imperial past, but the present aspiration to play a global role in bolstering the liberal international order.
According to some nationalists, therefore, for Scotland to separate from England, and so to disintegrate the United Kingdom, would be an act of national repentance and self-purification. It would redeem the English as well as the Scots.
This view is documented in John Lloyd’s excellent book, Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot, in which he quotes from Robert Musil 1930s novel, A Man without Qualities, which was set during the decline of the Austrian Empire around 1900. Of that empire, Musil wrote “However well founded an order may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it, a faith that, in fact, always marks the spot where the new growth begins, as in a plant; once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit”.
I agree with Musil that faith in what we might call a globally responsible Britain is uninsurable: there’s no guarantee that it won’t be lost. But I disagree that it is unaccountable. I think a good account can still be given.
Maybe in the Nineties we thought that History had ended, that the West had won, and that NATO had lost its reason for living. But with an aggressively nationalist Russia rattling its nuclear sabre on the borders of Europe, and with a ruthlessly authoritarian China building military bases in the South China Sea, it seems that humane and liberal values still need defending. So, who will defend them? The United States, we hope. But after that, who? Arguably, the UK, more or less alongside France.
Britain may no longer rule the waves single-handed, but we can still help to rule them. The fact that we’re no longer Number One in the world doesn’t mean that we’re nothing. If the UK were to disintegrate, one of the West’s three serious military powers would be hamstrung.
So, I think that the United Kingdom is good both for multinational solidarity and for a liberal world order. My British faith still has credit in the bank. That’s why I am a British patriot.
But it is not just Scottish nationalists who disagree. Another major way of corroding faith in global Britain is to denigrate its historical record, the most recent part of which involves empire. This is why the decolonisers focus so relentlessly on slavery, presenting it as Britain’s dirty secret.
There are two main objections to this story. First, as I’ve indicated, there is hard social scientific evidence that contemporary Britain is actually one of the least racist countries in Europe. More recently, this year saw the publication of the so-called ‘Sewell report’ of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which concluded that Britain is not systemically racist. The second problem with the decolonisers’ equation of the British Empire with slavery and the ugly racism behind it is that fact that the Empire was the first major power in the history of the world to abolish the slave-trade and slavery in the name of a Christian conviction of the fundamental equality of all human races under God.
John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, prefaced his Thoughts upon Slavery (1774) with a quotation of the tenth verse of the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis: “And the Lord said—What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground”. The context is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the implication is clear: African and Englishman, slave and master, are brothers, common children of the same God. This was the racially egalitarian view that triumphed in 1807 when the British parliament voted to abolish the trade in slaves throughout the Empire, and again in 1833, when it voted to abolish the institution of slavery altogether.
What is more, from 1807 and throughout the second half of its existence until the Sixties, the Empire was committed to suppressing the trade and the institution across the world — from Brazil, across Africa, to India and Malaysia. In the 1820s and 30s, the Slave Trade Department was the largest unit in the Foreign Office.
At one point in mid-century, the Royal Navy was deploying over 13% of its total manpower in suppressing the trade in slaves between west Africa and the Americas. According to the economic historian, David Eltis, the British spent almost as much suppressing the Atlantic trade in the 47 years from 1816-62 as they earned in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807. And according to the American scholars of international relations, Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape, Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic trade in 1807-67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”.
So, no, there is no causal connection that runs through the British Empire from colonial slavery in the past to systemic racism today. Britain today is not systemically racist. And between the slave trade and slavery of the 18th century and the present lie 150 years of imperial penance in the form of costly abolitionist endeavour to liberate slaves around the globe. The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British Empire, and whatever residual racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit.
Despite the heated nature of these debates, some, on both the Right and the Left, think that the ‘Culture Wars’ are a fuss about nothing. I could not disagree more strongly. What’s at stake in the ‘decolonising’ front of the ‘Culture Wars’ is nothing less than faith in Britain.
Keeping that faith is important for the welfare of human beings, not only on these islands, but all over the world. That is why I’m a British patriot.
A version of this article was delivered at a meeting of the National Club in September 2021.