What are the roots of this orgy of self-grievance?
A taste of where this extraordinary crisis of national identity and sense of decline has come from was beamed out this week as Patrick Wright continued his series’ The English Fix’ about the history of the sense of ‘threatened Englishness’ on Radio 4.
This week he interviewed the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. In previous programmes he focused on the views of George Orwell, GK Chesterton, Barbara Castle and John Betjeman. The series itself if a beautifully produced indulgence, but if the self-mythology is now in overdrive, Scruton’s contribution brought a new aspect to the programme.
He kicks off his story explaining that he discovered his own Englishness through his love of hunting. Casually dropping in a bit of Blut und Boden he explains:
“It was all so exciting this old world of dour inarticulate people with roots in the soil with so little in common with those sneering Marxists I’d been associating with for the last few decades.”
Neither he nor his narrator mentions it but he used to lecture philosophy wearing Enoch Powell’s riding boots. He revels in his own vision as a kind of prophet in the wilderness, confirmed in his pronouncements by the degree of disagreement his views provoke, Yet he is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature and has recently been knighted by the Queen.
He views himself as a sort of Warrior Philosopher astride his steed having ridden away from the Marxist Citadels in triumph! He once stated:
“My life divides into three parts. In the first I was wretched; in the second ill at ease; in the third hunting.”
Feminism is among the ills of the post-1968 cultural revolution – which he described as the “deconstructionist, feminist, counter-cultural” ideas that encourage the destruction of all hierarchy.
On women he has said:’The disappearance of female modesty and sexual restraint has made it hard for a man to believe, when a woman yields to his advances, that her doing so is a special tribute to his masculine powers, rather than a day-to-day transaction, in which he, like the last one, is dispensable.’
On homosexuality he has said: “I took the view that feeling repelled by something might have a justification, even if it’s not a justification that the person themselves can give. Like, we’re all repelled by incest – well, not all, but most people are. And there’s a perfectly good justification, if you look at it in terms of the long-term interest of society. And in that essay I experimented with the view that maybe something similar can be said about homosexuality. And I don’t now agree with that, because I think that – it’s such a complicated thing, homosexuality. It’s not one thing, anyway. So I wouldn’t stand by what I said then.” Though yes, “people got very cross”.
So far so crusty.
“He now watched on through the 1990s as his old enemy the Soviet Union collapsed and new threats to England seemed to emerge” intones the narrator.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales is cited as a threat and a ‘repudiation’ of England. The evils of Marxist academia may have been slain (or at least fled), and Sovietism vanquished but now the European Union and the Celtic nations and beastly Feminism have reared up, all of which was gathered in his book England, an Elegy (2000).
In the Irish Times Terry Eagleton said of it: “Few books are as odiously self-satisfied as this one.”
In the Evening Standard James Wood said: “There is always a danger of confusing one’s childhood with the universe.”
In the Independent on Sunday Blake Morrison wrote: “If there was a kinder, wiser, more equable place than Old England, he [Scruton] can’t think of it. And if a people ever matched the English for ‘their stoicism, their decorum, their honesty, their gentleness and their sexual puritanism’, he hasn’t met them.”
But here he is – explaining the terrible crimes done against Olde Englande without context or explanation as if he is just a sort of retired tweedy genius.
At one point the interviewer describes the resourcefulness of an immigrant he met recently. Scruton’s response is as follows:
“Migrants are by nature the more enterprising members of their community. So their stories are always going to be more interesting than the stories of those they leave behind. So they will awaken sympathy individually, but en mass, they won’t…and that’s human nature and only right”.
It’s a paragraph so riddled with prejudice and misconceptions it’s difficult to know where to begin.
There’s allot of assumption about the natural order of things, there’s a slur that migrants are ‘leaving people behind’ and there’s an explanation that codified racism is basically ‘right’.
“If you think about what defines England most of all, its that it has had clear geographical borders and been occupied within those borders as a home. ‘Home’ and ‘Abroad’ are constantly contrasted in literature. You can welcome someone into your home as a guest but of course that puts on you an obligation to provide things for them … but if people come in vast numbers into your home uninvited so as to threaten your identity … its ony natural and right that you should resist this.”
And so Blood and Soil nationalism is presented on your radio as if it were no more unusual than the Shipping Forecast, or a particularly challenging episode of The Archers. Here’s a great aside about the connection between the supposed ‘philosophical right’ and their commercial cheerleaders.
Referencing Tony Blair’s recent comments and chiming gladly with Scruton’s rhetoric, the presenter explains: “The view that immigration is a burden on our way of life appears to have prevailed.”
Just after a section where a Polish speaker describes the experience of facing hostility in the streets of England in 2017, Patrick Wright explains: “So we’ve seen that the English are rarely more conscious of their national identity than in moments of danger.”
“Sometimes the encroaching threats have been overwhelming, as they surely were in 1940.”
You may have noticed the segue.
Polish person facing racism and hostility in Britain in 2017 = England under threat = back to the war when we really were at threat (and no mention of the Polish peoples role in that war).
It’s a sublime transference.
Martha Spurrier, the Director of Liberty interjects towards the end with a rare positive contribution:
“How about saying to be British is to be fair and decent and compassionate?”
“I was talking to an American colleague who thought that the resilience of ‘the Brits’, which she thought was a genuinely English characteristic …”
After being unable to disentangle Britishness and Englishness – in a programe specifically about English identity – they then ramble on again conflating people coming over here to work with Nazism – before concluding with a plea for perpetual vigilance saying “as soon as we’ve relaxed its finished.”
In short to be English or British (who cares about the difference?) is to be perpetually in fear against encroachment, ill at ease, on guard.
Little of this is coherent or even rational. It’s just a barrel-load of hate rolled into a half-hour of daytime radio, pleasantly presented and produced. Fintan O’Toole, writing in the New York Review of Books gets near the mark:
“Crudely, passionate nationalism has taken two forms. There is an imperial nationalism and an anti-imperial nationalism; one sets out to dominate the world, the other to throw off such dominance. The incoherence of the new English nationalism is that it wants to be both. On the one hand, Brexit is fueled by fantasies of “Empire 2.0,” a reconstructed global trading empire in which the old colonies will be reconnected to the mother country. On the other, it is an insurgency and therefore needs an oppressor to revolt against. Since England doesn’t actually have an oppressor, it was necessary to invent one. Decades of demonization by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and by the enormously influential Daily Mail made the European Union a natural fit for the job.”
But if Sir Roger Scruton acts as a sort of higher figure to some of the others on this Breitbart interview list – that reads like the lost of the far-right in Britain, his sophistication shouldn’t mask how crazed some of this is. O Toole continues:
“English nationalism is also naive. Wrapped up for so long in the protective blankets of Britishness and empire, it has not had to test itself in the real conditions of twenty-first-century life for a middle-sized global economy. Unlike Irish nationalism, it has not been forced to rethink itself and imagine how it might work in a world where collective identities have to be complex, ambiguous, fluid, and contingent. It does not know how to articulate itself without falling back on nostalgic notions of Britishness that no longer function. And since it is not sure what it is, it is not good at adding those crucial words “or both” and becoming comfortable with an identity that is European as well as English. It gives the most simplistic nationalist definition of “us”—we’re not them.”
A fix can be a temporary repair to something that you think is broken, or a drug need.
In a world where Boris Johnson is challenging Jacob Rees-Mogg for the Tory leadership we’ve ended up living in an unpublished Dickens novel, or the rejected manuscript of a Jilly Cooper bonkbuster, this is a drug need.
It’s a political class highly dependent on two Class A drugs: Grievance and Exceptionalism.
Grievance if taken regularly absolves you of all responsibility, masks all social and political relations and allows users to indulge in racism and othering. Sideffects may include long term depression and paranoia.
Exceptionalism is the drug par excellence for the confused and the childish. Users may experience an exaltated state and sense of euphoria but a difficult comedown.
Listen to the whole programme The English Fix here.
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