For centuries, English rulers grappled with an Irish question. Occasionally they have grappled with a Scottish question. Unrecognised by Westminster politicians, the entire United Kingdom now confronts an English question.
As the polemicist and campaigner Anthony Barnett has shown in The Lure of Greatness – his caustic analysis of last year’s EU referendum result – the leave majority was an English majority. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted remain. Though Wales voted leave, a Welsh majority for remain would have made no difference to the result. The May government’s hapless attempts to cope with the fallout from the referendum also stem from English preoccupations.
Though a modest overall majority voted leave, no one knows what they meant by their vote. The result is a contorted debate reminiscent of medieval theologians debating the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. But today’s debaters operate in the goldfish bowl of an overwhelmingly English Europhobic press, driven by social media, which combine to leave a divided government lurching from one approach to the EU negotiations to another.
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” May said in January. In her Florence speech in September she sounded more conciliatory. But changes in the government’s mood music don’t affect the brutal reality: that the UK is set to leave the European Union because an English majority has voted to do so, ignoring the opinions of two of the UK’s four nations.
The great question is, why? Partly it’s that for centuries, myths, memories and rhetoric have transmitted a vision of Englishness of extraordinary power. Two examples stand out: Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a “precious stone set in the silver sea”, and Enoch Powell’s evocation of the “sceptred awe, in which Saint Edward the Englishman” claimed “the allegiance of all the English” and in doing so symbolised “the unity of England, effortless and unconstrained”.
It is a profoundly reactionary vision, but emotionally powerful. It conveys the message that England is a special, exemplary, even providential nation, set apart from others. Iconography tells the same story, from the mock-Gothic Houses of Parliament to the trooping of the colour on the monarch’s official birthday.
But the England of Shakespeare, Powell, parliament and the trooping of the colour is not the only England. There is a second England, sustained by a second vision of Englishness, which erupted into history with the 1381 peasants’ revolt, one of whose leaders asked a question that has echoed through the centuries: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”
‘The England of Shakespeare, Powell, parliament and the trooping of the colour is not the only England’ Photograph: John Mitchell/Getty Images
Three centuries later, John Milton, secretary for foreign tongues under the Commonwealth established after the execution of Charles I, and the greatest English poet apart from Shakespeare, distilled the second vision of Englishness more powerfully than any other writer in our history. Republican London, he wrote, was the “mansion house of liberty”; the argument that the king had a hereditary right to the crown implied that the subject was “no better than the king’s slave, his chattel, or his possession”.
In Areopagitica, his immortal attack on censorship, Milton argued that the censors’ premise – that virtue needed protection from vice – was not just false, but the reverse of the truth. There was no merit in a “fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed”; true virtue proved itself in intellectual combat. Milton was no democrat, but his argument was quintessentially democratic. The learned and powerful had no lien on truth. The uneducated and powerless could – and should – take part in an effervescent national conversation, without which republican liberty would be an empty dream.
The future is more open than it has been since the referendum was called
A century and a half after Milton, Thomas Paine published Rights of Man, one of the most explosive attacks on the elaborate nexus of property, power and privilege in the English language. A favourite target was the monarchy. William the Conqueror, from whom the kings of England derived their title to rule, was a “French bastard landing with an armed banditti”. The whole notion of hereditary rule was degrading; it implied that the people could be inherited “as if they were flocks and herds”.
The working-class Chartists at the start of the 19th century interpreted the republican vision in a new way: they campaigned for universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments, on the grounds that it was only by winning power that the masses could escape “the brand of slavery”. The suffragists and suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries added a new, revolutionary ingredient to the republican tradition: it was not enough to campaign for Paine’s rights of man; women also had rights, above all the right to belong to the political nation.
With the possible exception of the peasants’ revolt, most of the manifestations of the second England were outward-looking and what we would now call “Europhile”. Milton saw himself as part of a Europe-wide Protestant movement, threatened by a still dominant Catholic church. After leaving England for France during the latter’s revolution, Paine was elected to the national assembly despite speaking no French. The Chartist movement ebbed and flowed in harmony with events on the continent. Its final flicker came in 1848, Europe’s year of revolutions, when a mass meeting on Kennington common was overawed by armed police and troops.
Many leave campaigners in the EU referendum were mendacious and irresponsible, but their victory has a deeper significance. The first England defeated the second. It did so because the leavers had the better tunes. They spoke to the heart, while the remainers spoke to the head. The leavers offered a vision of antiquated glory; the remainers offered a pettifogging list of benefits and costs. Enoch Powell’s ghost was omnipresent. John Milton’s was nowhere to be seen.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope. The leavers’ victory was a one-off. By definition it can’t be repeated. Since the referendum, a bemused and uncertain country has been floundering in an emotional and political bog. We know we are set to leave the EU. We don’t know what kind of country we shall be – or what kind of country we want to be. As a result, the future is more open than it has been since the referendum was called.
The task now is to create a 21st-century vision of republican liberty. Of course, it will be difficult. But it would be a counsel of despair to assume it can’t be done. And what a prize it would be: success would make it possible to again foster a humane, imaginative and generous-hearted relationship with the rest of our continent.