England: the nation with a special place in Europe

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.

Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.

England’s relationship with the rest of Europe emerges as long and complicated. The Vikings invaded but it was the Normans who dragged England into continental entanglement. Euroscepticism has deep roots, fuelled by a concern that entanglement was not in the nation’s interest. But England has always been deeply engaged in Europe and detachment from Europe has never been a strong force.

England is not unique in Europe for its global attachments but the depth of them seems now to be distinctive. De Gaulle vetoed Britains entry into the EEC because he thought Britain’s global attachments were too strong for it to be committed to the community. Although England’s European attachments feel stronger today than in my childhood, as Tombs points out, many families had deeper connections to the former colonies – particularly America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – than to continental countries.

As for the Empire, Tombs paints Britain as a reluctant imperial power playing a role as a global policeman more than a conqueror. Contrary to those who view the Empire as a period of plunder and national enrichment, Tombs describes the economic impact on Britain as neutral or negative.

He portrays a more benign view of political and military leadership in the First World War than one normally reads. He argues that leadership was not catastrophic, Britain and the other powers were locked into a logic of conflict that they couldn’t escape, and the British soldiers were sincerely supportive of the war effort. In the Second World War, he portrays Britain as making a distinct contribution, the only nation to be fighting on all fronts. Its refusal to settle with Hitler was pivotal to defeating Nazism and saving democracy. The war left a legacy of centralisation and state capitalism that was unusual in England’s history. It took the Thatcherite revolution in the 1980s to dismantle it.

Tombs presents – to my mind – an iconoclastic and nuanced view of the English Civil War. Where historians such as E.P. Thompson portrayed the revolutionaries as romantic forerunners of the left, Tombs characterises them as dogmatic fundamentalists – more akin to the jihadists of today. The royalists were driven to some degree by an attachment to continuity and simple pleasures, a desire for people to be left alone to live their lives as they chose. The convulsions led to a nuanced political culture which, when it became revolted by violence, nonetheless maintained sectarianism in peaceful form. The emergence of the Whigs and Tories created contradictory political principles that – at least until recently – still influence us:

“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 because they disagree with it. Combining these seemingly conflicting principles produced characteristics of English political culture: suspicion of Utopias and zealots; trust in common sense and experience; respect for tradition; preference for gradual change; and the view that ‘compromise’ is victory, not betrayal.”

I don’t know whether to take comfort from this view of England or to lament that the culture it describes may have passed. The characteristics Tombs describes have been little evident since the referendum and we seem to be entering a period of culture wars.

Tombs is insightful in describing England as a strange instance of a powerful nation without a state:

“England has long been a powerful, cultural and economic entity. But oddly, it has rarely been a self-contained and autonomous nation… England’s changing attachments to its neighbours have resulted today in a rare political phenomenon: a nation without a state. Until recently, it shared this ambivalence with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but since devolution England has attained a special place in Europe: as the largest nation without its own political institutions. It therefore resembles in some ways a much bigger Flanders, Catalonia or Castile.”

Perhaps this sense of England being diminished by devolution is an under-appreciated factor in the Leave impulse. Tombs certainly questions the thesis that globalisation and immigration (commonly attributed factors) are alien to England’s culture. He says England’s present multi-ethnicity is ”as much a part of its heritage as thatched cottages and cream teas.”

This book helps elucidate some of the currents that led to Brexit. But the political culture that the result has unleashed seems alien to that which Tombs describes. My lasting impression of such a long sweep of history is how Tombs summarises the impacts of upheavals in brush strokes of decades, even a century or two. England’s being a fractious and semi-detached member of the community of Europe may be consistent with this long perspective. But so too is the oscillation of this relationship over cycles lasting several lifetimes. It’s likely that few of us alive now will live long enough to see where the national (mis)adventure on which we are embarking will lead.

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs. Available from Amazon

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