● Nations enable liberty
● Elite disdain for the nation threatens the social covenant
● Government should nudge our institutions towards patriotism
Brexit was a revolt against the pan-national idea. Yet the EU was not the real target of the Leave voter. The enemy was the British establishment which had surrendered its role as the champion of the British people, in favour of a leading but ultimately subservient role at the court of pan-nationalism. David Goodhart tells the story of sitting at an Oxford college dinner between the head of the British civil service and the head of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and hearing them agree that their responsibilities were not to the British people but to the world at large. The suspicion that this was exactly the sort of thing that bigwigs said to each other over dinner was the principal reason for the Brexit vote.
The culture of elite estrangement from the patriotism of ordinary people is a paradox. Our elite is overwhelmingly liberal, in the terms expressed in the introductory post, and ‘progressive’, in the sense of leaning in to modernity. And liberalism and progressivism were, traditionally, allies of nationalism. In throwing off pan-national control, of empires and polyglot European dynasties, people united around common languages and common geographies. The Reformation emboldened the rulers of territories to break the chains with Rome and the Holy Roman Empire: Luther’s ideas, as Herbert Butterfield said, ‘chimed with the ambitions of princes’. But in time nationalism chimed with the ambitions of liberals and progressives. Dr Johnson’s expostulation, ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’, came from a Tory perspective: to be a ‘patriot’ in the 18th century was to oppose the Crown and the Church in favour of ‘the people’. In the next century, the national idea – the kinship of language and geography, charged with a sense of modernisation and even equality – overwhelmed Europe’s petty principalities and delivered Italian and German unification. In England the Tories came to embrace patriotism too, and with their allies, the well-named ‘Liberal Imperialists’, articulated an idea of empire that, under the Union Jack, spread the light of liberty and progress to the dark places of the earth.
The 20th century saw a correction within liberalism. The danger of ‘the nation’ as a cry for scoundrels, whether princes or populists, was obvious. Liberal Imperialism came to be seen as a horrible contradiction in terms. And indeed the threat of the demagogue, whipping up national feeling against elites, or immigrants, or foreign opponents, is an essential argument for the rule of law and an independent civil society.
Yet it is only by accepting ‘the nation’ as the object of loyalty that we can maintain those things. Only with the sense that we all belong to a common community can we persuade people to submit to the rule of law, and to respect the fragile yet ego-inhibiting institutions of civil society.
Nations are the largest political units that command popular legitimacy, and are therefore the essential condition for liberty. They represent an agreement among many people, over a large area, to trust each other, and therefore to tolerate both personal freedom and cultural diversity. This toleration is only possible because of the prior, broader agreement, never ratified but a fact of life, that makes the nation coherent. It is because the people are patriots that they resist the appeal of demagogues; the nation is not afraid of the state, nor wants to be. Orwell wondered why the British Army had never adopted the goose-step, and answered himself: ‘because the people in the street would laugh’.
The great threat to liberty is elite estrangement, the supercilious disdain for patriotism by leading public servants, academics, and the lobbyists who gain airtime in our public debates. And so, if we are to defend liberty, we need to be more robust in insisting on the implicit deal that is the basis of their privileges.
The social covenant safeguards liberty by hedging it about with approvals and disapprovals that, within the broad parameters of free speech, ensure the public conversation reflects the customs of the country. The trend within academia to systematically denigrate our country’s history and heroes is an abuse of the social covenant. So are religious teachings that do not just exhort believers to live apart from mainstream society but to live in active enmity towards it. So is the new politics of race, sex and gender that has adapted the economic analysis of Marxism (based on class) to the cultural sphere (based on ‘identity’), pitting groups against groups and almost everyone against the institutions of the country.
Of course, these breaches are in the sphere of civil society, where the state should fear to tread. The independence of universities has been a primary cause of their, and Britain’s, greatness from medieval times till now. So is our tradition of religious freedom, and the right of business and civil society to manage their own interaction with the public, even to the point of cultural Marxism.
Nevertheless, government would be right to nudge elite culture in a more popular and patriotic direction. It has immense cultural assets of its own, from the power to lay on public festivals and celebrations to the conditions it attaches to grants of public money. It is the principal funder of civil society.
Our democracy and our liberal norms depend on the sense that ‘the system’ respects ‘the people’. This is not to insist on a uniformity of culture, still less to build up the British state as a cultural bully insisting on the old ways only. ‘The people’ are a diverse bunch and indeed our past, let alone our present, has many streams, currents and counter-currents.
It is necessary to modernise our patriotic presentation and assure that the public culture reflects back the realities of modern Britain. I set out in later posts (Propositions 3 and 9) the principle that local communities need far more power. This should include more power over their public spaces and statues, albeit tempered by the principle that the social covenant extends back in time as well as forwards: the current generation cannot entirely disinherit its ancestors.