Edwin Jones’ book (see last post) had got me thinking again about modern myths of Englishness. I did a piece on this in November, but his comments on the Whig view of history have given me a different take. Maybe what we have now in English mythology (especially in the right-wing newspapers) is essentially a truncated, secularised version of the Whig view. This no longer starts with Protestantism and the Spanish Armada (whose anniversary in 1988 had little contemporary resonance). Instead it is the myth of Britain resisting tyranny, essentially based round the twin poles of Napoleon and Hitler. (Even WW1 has no real resonance now – there’s no nostalgic feeling of ‘plucky little Belgium’ to be tapped into). What is depressing about this mythology is not just that it is held to define our relationship with France and Germany forever more, but that it is essentially reactive. Unlike in the US, the Great World War Two myth is not the liberation of Europe, but the Battle of Britain, just as Trafalgar has more resonance than Waterloo. England’s role in Europe is not to lead it to a better future, but to resist its encroachments. In this myth even concepts such as human rights have no real merit, since they’re essentially just nasty French Revolutionary ideas (unless someone can re-popularise Tom Paine).
I don’t see an easy way of getting from here to there (acceptance of the EU) and I don’t think Jones has the answer. But I think it needs to be done, since the alternative is ever greater isolation. The isolationist tendency in right-wing thought is even more extreme than previously, since there’s no longer any British Empire or even solidarity with Protestant bits of Europe. The Conservative Party may claim they want to be in the EU, but their policies towards it are the completely unrealistic ones of demanding that existing treaties are renegotiated. They won’t get that, so will they then say the truth, which is that they want to get out? And then? Other than becoming the Fifty-First State (but we’re too blue state to get accepted), the UK will exist in a strange world, seemingly comprised largely of Switzerland, Iceland and Singapore, and with about as much international influence.