What, if anything, has Britain left to give the world? Our ancestors have already bequeathed humanity so much, from the rule of law to the laws of motion, that it might seem presumptuous to claim that in our time we could still make a comparable contribution. Yet if we did not still believe that Britain’s best days were still to come, who would bother to stay on our damp little Atlantic island? At a deeper level than that at which politics and economics are normally discussed, the British people has not lost its unspoken confidence in the strength of our traditions, our character and our common sense.
The British are at their best, indeed, in a tight spot. However depressed the national mood may be, no true countryman of Shakespeare can fail to thrill to the sentiments of Henry V in his speech on St Crispin’s Day (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”), just as no countryman of Churchill can hear his Battle of Britain speeches (“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”) without emotion. Note the emphasis on “the few”: the fate of our nation has always depended on a handful of brave souls, in war and peacetime, to do what they knew to be right.
How, though, could these happy few have acquired that moral courage, except by holding fast to their liberties, rather than plumping for ideologies, as others have? In his lectures of 1828, The History of Civilisation in Europe (now republished by the Liberty Fund with an introduction by Larry Siedentop), the great French historian François Guizot paid tribute to the English people, “the soundness of its good sense and practical ability”, by contrast with “its lack of general ideas and its distrust of theoretical questions”. Guizot acknowledged that the English had established a “government at once regular and free” much sooner than most of their Continental counterparts. He attributed this to a more general cause of European ascendancy, namely that no one principle had been able to dominate, but “the various elements of the social state were modified, combined, and struggled with each other, and had been constantly compelled to agree and live in common”. He continued: “This fact, the general characteristic of European civilisation, has above all characterised the English civilisation.” Like earlier French thinkers, such as Montesquieu, and later ones, such as Tocqueville, Guizot found much to admire in the British. But in his History of England David Hume had already scotched the myth of Anglo-Saxon liberty as the source of the English constitution, insisting that these barbarians had only received “the rudiments of science and cultivation” from the Norman conquest. Hume conjectured “that both the chief privileges of the peers in England and the liberty of the commons were originally the growth of that foreign country”.
Whoever was right — the French Anglophile or the Scottish Francophile — there is no denying the distinctive contribution of the English-speaking peoples. Daniel Hannan, whose article on Europe appears on page 40 in this issue, has written a book about the Anglosphere entitled Inventing Freedom, to be published by HarperCollins in November. Among the fundamental ideas for which he gives the Anglophones credit are free and regular elections, equality for women, freedom of contract and private property. While others may dispute this or that detail, the overall achievement is undeniable. The world would be unrecognisable without the cultural matrix of which the English language is merely the most visible manifestation.
Can the British themselves, who make up an ever-diminishing fraction of more than a billion people who speak English, still offer something unique to the world? In an exchange with Robert Conquest in the New York Review of Books in 2000, Michael Ignatieff argued that Britain had irreversibly joined Europe and hence diverged from English-speaking countries such as the US or Canada. He accused Conquest of nurturing the “romantic illusion” of a union of English-speaking peoples. Thirteen years later, that idea may still seem romantic, but it is much less of an illusion than the chimera of European unity. There the scales have finally fallen from British eyes, enabling us to see how divergent our interests are from those of the infernal contraption that the EU has become.
British leaders of public opinion need to think again about the Anglosphere in political as well as cultural terms. “Go West, young man,” was Horace Greeley’s advice to Americans after the Civil War, and many young Britons are drawn to the Western hemisphere rather than the Continent. But the fastest-growing region of the Anglosphere is actually India and the Far East, where British talents are in demand.
The glittering prizes of tomorrow will go to the politicians who can best articulate the case for embracing with enthusiasm the inevitable realignment of British interest and interests towards the Anglosphere. Our best hope of renewing and defending Western civilisation is to play to our strengths, above all the fact that we have the good fortune to speak the modern world’s lingua franca. “Our tongue is rough,” says Henry V, and so it is; but English has conquered the world without a drop of blood being spilt. If the British cannot turn that fact to advantage, we do not deserve to regain our independence and our pride.