Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 May 2016

European Union: A latter-day Unholy Roman Empire

Boris Johnson was right the other week when he somewhat haplessly linked the European Union to previous attempts to bring about a Europe-wide polity, stretching back to the Roman Empire via Napoleon and Hitler.

Napoleon’s and Hitler’s attempts to ‘unify’ the Continent through conquest did harp back, quite consciously, to the Roman Empire, many of whose symbols, iconography and self-descriptions they associated with their own political projects: Napoleon’s ‘Empire’ and cult of the Emperor’s personality, and the idea of France as the modern embodiment of a superior, rational, ‘classical’, pan-European civilisation; Hitler’s ‘thousand-year empire’ that passed the flame of imperial Rome on – or back – to a ‘pure’ European race (the Aryans or Teutons) that were supposed ultimately to have originated it.

Of course, the project that is the EU (founded, significantly, by the Treaty of Rome) does not seek its realisation through conquest (although the EU does have aspirations to being a military superpower), nor does it embody ideas of European racial superiority (although it does see itself as the flag bearer for a distinct, essential, and inherently valuable European culture).

But the idea of Europe that the EU seeks to bring about is inspired by Ancient Rome; that is, the pre-Christian and anti-Christian (one might almost say ‘Antechristian’) Rome: the ‘Unholy Roman Empire’, as opposed to the subsequent unification of Western Europe around Roman Catholic Christendom and the various incarnations of the Holy Roman Empire.

Ancient Rome provides the template for the idea of a European polity that underlies the EU – one based on the humanist ideals and achievements of the Greco-Roman world (as viewed through the modern lens), including qualities such as: rationality; Enlightenment; arts and culture; technological advancement; republicanism and democracy; human and citizen rights; engineering excellence; military prowess; social progress; and law.

Never mind that the Roman Empire extended its reach through military conquest, not consent. Or that imperial rule was autocratic and bureaucratic, not democratic. Or that the rights of Roman citizens applied only to citizens, and to some extent freemen and -women, while creating an underclass of slaves with no such rights or dignity. Or that imperial Rome, up until the 4th century AD, persecuted Christians and fed them to the lions.

Roman Law, while one of the finest achievements of Ancient Rome, relied on the workings of an elite class of legislators and legal experts. In its turn, EU law – much reviled by supporters of Brexit – draws heavily upon Roman Law via the Civil Law tradition that informs many of continental Europe’s legal codes. In accordance with this long tradition, EU laws are elaborated and executed by an elite civil service (the European Commission), along with the EU’s Supreme Court, the European Court of Justice. This is in stark contrast to the traditions of English Law, built on the pillars of statute (laws initiated and passed by the democratically elected Parliament) and Common Law (laws shaped and modified by precedent established through judgements in court at every tier of the judicial system, and not just handed down by the supreme authority).

It is not only national traditions of parliamentary democracy, judicial independence and Common Law that are overridden by EU law making and giving, but also the Christian foundations of EU member nations and, in particular, those of England. Throughout most of the Christian era, the nations of Europe were founded on the ‘divine right of kings’: the belief that the absolute rule that monarchs exercised was a duty entrusted to them by God, which needed to be fulfilled in obedience to the divine law and will. While few if anybody now advocate absolute monarchy, this belief in the Christian foundations of political power (meaning literally that power should be exercised in obedience to Christ) lives on in the British monarch’s status as temporal head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith throughout the realm.

Similarly, the other surviving monarchies of northern Europe reserve a religious, if somewhat ceremonial, role for the king or queen as representatives of their countries’ traditional Christian values and as reigning by the grace of God. By contrast, the Catholic countries of Europe have largely got rid of their monarchs, and enforce a separation of church and state. And often, those that have confined the church most forcibly to the margins of political life are those that have styled themselves at some point along the lines of imperial Rome, conquering all of Europe and North Africa before them: the above-mentioned Napoleon and Hitler, to which one could add Generalissimo Mussolini.

The equation here is irresistible: if you reject a Europe of many nations united by a shared Christian faith, under the custodianship of the Catholic Church or of national-Protestant monarchs, the model for a united European polity you look to is inevitably that of pre- or non-Christian Rome. Accordingly, the EU aspiration to end the division of Europe into many, historically frequently warring, nations by uniting them in a new pan-European polity goes hand in hand with the desire to terminate the historic role (admittedly, at times more aspirational than actual) of the Church and of Christian faith as the focus for unity and the foundation of political authority. If you no longer have Christianity as the unifying force, there is only the force of political union.

And so the EU does belong in the line of post-Enlightenment political projects that, like the Rome they mimicked, sought to banish Christianity from the public square in the name of a secular-humanist order harking back to Europe’s would-be ancient roots and core identity. The EU is both anti-national and anti-Christian in its fundamental mission and philosophical underpinnings. And that means specifically that EU membership runs counter to any sort of project to reassert England as a self-governing and (I would say) Christian nation. Christianity and ‘little’ nations no longer belong in the EU’s pan-European-universal-humanist new order.

At root, I believe any true supporter of – one might even say true believer in – the EU project (as opposed to lukewarm, pragmatic supporters) wants to bring about pan-European political union and a secularised society; or, if they are Christians, they are either naïve about the extent to which the EU is counter-Christian or are prepared to accept the marginalisation of Christian faith from political discourse and institutions for the sake of the ‘greater good’ of European unification.

But if you do not want this, and if you want there to be an England in future (whether with a Christian head of state and established church, or not), there is only one option: to vote to leave the EU. The EU is indeed a latter-day Unholy Roman Empire that has set its sight on being the power in our land.

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4 September 2007

Unmasking the English: Another Catalogue Of England’s Terminal Decline?

Listened to the first programme in Andrew Marr’s new BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English yesterday (as I write, still available as a podcast). Moderately interesting, with one or two insightful comments. I liked the one where he said that the English were the only nation on earth where ‘understated’ and ‘patriotic fervour’ went hand in hand. But on the whole, despite the title, I found it pretty unrevealing fare, in fact.

The series is attempting to get to grips with hidden, less immediately obvious aspects of Englishness from the avowed perspective of an ‘outsider’ – Andrew Marr being completely up front about his Scottish origins and standpoint. The series aims to achieve this by looking at fictional characters that appear to typify English characteristics. Yesterday’s programme focused on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. She was presented as an exemplar of English upper-class understatement, self-deprecation and muddling that tactically conceals a steely intellect and purpose determined to see through to the end whatever it has undertaken. Interestingly, and topically, Boris Johnson was offered as an illustration of a modern version of these traits.

However, the danger of basing a programme like this on fictional characters is that you end up with clichés and outdated caricatures of Englishness rather than something of contemporary relevance. Of course, we do all recognise that there is something ‘quintessentially English’ about Miss Marples, a character for whom there is a great deal of popular affection. But our understanding of what constitutes quintessential Englishness has itself to a large extent been formed by fictional characters such as Miss Marples.

A more interesting approach would have been to take ‘typically English’ detective fiction itself as the mask that in turn conceals and reveals something about the English – not to view Miss Marples as if she was a ‘real’ type of Englishness, of which Boris Johnson was a modern manifestation. Andrew Marr’s programme did touch upon these issues in a round-about way; for instance, when he described the typical scenario of a Miss Marples drama: where the spinster sleuth just happens to be around as a gruesome murder is committed, usually in an ‘idyllic’ English village setting; and pursues her investigations in a self-deprecating, unobtrusive but ruthless fashion until she unmasks the villain.

This sort of scenario is indeed typical of a form of English fiction – a particular manifestation of English culture – and there are many modern English dramas that take up the baton from Agatha Christie’s heroine, e.g. Midsomer Murders, Morse or Parsley & Thyme. But the more potentially revealing question would be to ask why the English have such an enduring fascination for such tales, and why do we like to present such an image of ourselves (rural, traditional idyll with underlying current of homicidal violence) to the rest of the world? And why are murder dramas – whether of this traditional variety or the more modern forensic kind – invariably screened either on Friday or Sunday evening: the times of the week when we’re most likely to let off steam and vent our frustrations about the working week? If our daily lives of drudgery are ‘murder’, then the murder mystery is where the disappointments and disaffections of ‘real’ English life are acted out in a surrogate way on an idealised stage matching how we’d like our experience of England to be, but which it mostly isn’t.

But because Andrew Marr ended up considering Miss Marples as a real type of Englishness (despite her fictional status), and an outdated one at that, the programme ended up in a logical paradox that it failed to acknowledge: Miss Marples was an example of quintessential English character traits but at the same time, these were seen as increasingly on the wane in modern Britain with its supposedly more thrusting, self-assertive culture, particularly in the world of work (which is opposed, as I have argued, to the idealised world of the murder mystery). As if to imply that Englishness itself – as defined by the programme – is on the decline and is no longer relevant to the real world of contemporary Britain?

On top of this, I felt uneasy about the series’ title: Unmasking the English. Is the implication that the amiable, bumbling image of a Miss Marples or Boris Johnson is, precisely, a fiction concealing real ‘new English’ characteristics that are in fact more adjusted to the modern world that the English have done so much to shape: tactical shrewdness, ruthless determination, ambition, cold calculation and aggression – precisely the kind of negative traits of which the English are so often accused by foreigners and outsiders, such as Mr Marr? Just as Miss Marples eventually unmasks the murderous villain beneath his or her villagey respectability, are these characteristics the reality of modern English society concealed beneath the mask of a Miss Marples?

Or should that be Miss Marr-ples? For it seems to me that it’s Andrew Marr who is playing the detective here, attempting to strip the English of one layer of our deceptive self-image of harmless amiability and revealing the brute beneath. But is not the whole polarity – murderous class-less reality of the mercenary modern world versus upper-class effortless, toil-less, sophistication – not itself the fiction? The reality of the English is not going to be revealed – at least, not directly – through such myths, which Andrew Marr seems to buy into. Perhaps in so doing, he has succumbed to the real deception that such fictions represent: appearing to reveal the English while concealing the realities of modern English life – and, at the same time, making excellent business from it!

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