'We need a national debate about the kind of country we now hope to be; and we need it now.'
As the British take their leave of the European Union, the temptation to become obsessed with the process to the detriment of the destination must be resisted. Important though the terms of Brexit undoubtedly are, they are less significant in the long run than the uses to which we may put our new-found freedom to shape our destiny. We need a national debate about the kind of country we now hope to be; and we need it now.
It is at such moments that nations turn to their philosophers, particularly those thinkers with the widest frame of reference and the deepest insight into their predicament. High on any such list is Sir Roger Scruton, who has earned his place in public esteem by virtue of sustained reflection on the condition of humanity in general and of England in particular—a life not merely of contemplation but of action, too. His convictions have been forged in a lifetime of ideological battles: some lost, a good many won.
At the heart of Scrutonian thought, however, lies the insight encapsulated in the title of his latest book: Where We Are. For this is above all an analysis of what we mean by a sense of place, of identity, of country. The British, Scruton argues, are indeed an insular people, but that is a cause for celebration rather than apology. Their distinctive legal and political system, their culture and character, are uniquely bound up with their islands: the home where they belong.
Scruton admits that he, as a global intellectual whose livelihood is as mobile as his ideas, counts as an “Anywhere” rather than a “Somewhere” in the taxonomy coined by David Goodhart. But he insists that “anywhere people need roots as much as somewhere people” and are all the more grateful for finding them. And in a luminous chapter on “the networked psyche”, he shows how the young, who have been most deracinated yet yearn to belong somewhere, react angrily to global “spectral powers” that undermine the economic and political basis of a homeland, which is accountability.
Upon this extended meditation on the meaning of nationhood, Scruton builds his case for a post-Brexit healing of internal divisions and an opening to the wider world. He is enthusiastic about Britain’s role in European civilisation, especially in establishing its foundation: the nation state. The EU, however, has evolved to meet the particular needs of the Germans for a new identity and the French for security. Brexit poses an existential threat to both, so he sees the task of British diplomacy as primarily one of reassurance. Freed from the iron hand of EU bureaucracy, Scruton says, the British will be able to reshape economy, environment and society to restore the common values that can enable us all to belong together in our islands.
What, though, are these values? Scruton rightly identifies the Bible as the primary source, though he is under no illusions about British religiosity. But he does not explain how a post-Christian, largely secular nation is to restore the best of biblical values to the central place they once held in public and private life. One example of how secularism may not be a barrier to national renewal is to be found in the place and the people whose story is told in the Bible.
Israel celebrates just 70 years of independence in 2018, but its values are of course much older. On a visit there in November I found that wherever I went this young nation knows how to treasure the land and its history. In Jerusalem, for example, I visited the excavations outside the Western Wall, where astonishing discoveries are revealing the city of David in all its glory. One may now follow the route that pilgrims took up to the Temple from the Pool of Shiloah. Such reminders of this continuous presence over several thousand years strengthen the unique bond between the Jewish people and the Holy Land.
In Britain, the Priti Patel affair revealed profound ignorance about this bond, with much nonsense talked about Israel’s “occupied territories”. A century ago, the Balfour Declaration, backed by the League of Nations, gave Jews the right to settle throughout Palestine. UN Resolution 181, the basis for the claim that Israel is not entitled to have its capital in Jerusalem because the city is under a “special international regime”, was already a dead letter when it was passed 70 years ago. It is high time that the UK recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Golan Heights were annexed from Syria after the 1967 Six Day War for strategic reasons that remain valid today. The West Bank has not been annexed and might yet become a Palestinian state, but Israel will never deny the right of Jewish settlers to live in the biblical Judea and Samaria.
Ms Patel may have been naive, but she was trying to shift British policy towards Israel in a more realistic direction. She believed that such a shift was long overdue and she hoped to facilitate humanitarian cooperation in Syria, where Israel has saved many lives.
Not for the first time, the Foreign Office seems to have sabotaged any official abandonment of a failed interpretation of history first diagnosed by the late Elie Kedourie in 1970. According to the “Chatham House Version”, the Judaeo-Christian West was to blame for the violence of the Arabs, who, like the rest of the Muslim world, deserved our support. “The Balfour Declaration was both impolitic and immoral, and . . . the Palestine problem was the key issue in the Middle East.” The Foreign Office is still in thrall to this amalgam of self-hatred and self-deception. Yet there is a certain irony in the fact that, a century after Balfour inspired the early Zionists, whose nascent Jewish state followed the British rather than the German or Russian example, the roles are partly reversed. It is Israel that can teach Britain much about how to thrive as an independent nation state in the 21st century.