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This essay was written at the request of Gordon Lucy of the Ulster Society and published, together with a wide variety of other 'contemporary reflections on Britishness' in their book Cool Britannia, Ulster Society, Lurgan, 1999
As I was musing on how best to present my ideas on the subject of what it means to be British, my eye fell on the following sentence in an article in The Times, talking about 'the original protesters at Drumcree':
'They were for the most part middle-aged or elderly, many former servicemen imbued with a deep sense of duty and tradition, who genuinely believed they were fighting for the freedoms for which their forefathers died on the Somme.'
The article went on: 'They were also hopelessly naïve'. Which left me wondering if the Orangemen 'who genuinely believed they were fighting for the freedoms for which their forefathers died on the Somme' were any more naïve than their forefathers who genuinely thought that they were dying for freedom.
I have always had great difficulty knowing what the First World War was all about. It is strange to think that our century begins with this enormous event in which millions of people died, and nobody can explain why. The immediate pretext, as we all know, was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. Ferdinand was assassinated by Serb 'terrorists' agitating for a 'Greater Serbia' which would include the Serb populated territories of Bosnia, then part of the Austrian Empire. The Austrians wanted to pursue the people who had killed the heir to their throne and they did not trust the government of Serbia to do it with sufficient vigour. They therefore demanded rights of investigation which overrode the national sovereignty of the Serbs. The Austrian position resembles that of the British and Americans of our own time with regard to Libya and the Lockerbie incident; or even of the 'international community' with regard to the Serbian 'war criminals' [fn] of Bosnia today. Yet in 1914, Britain sided with the Serbs and their allies, France and Russia, against the Austrians and their allies, Germany and Turkey. In this way of looking at things, the 'freedom' for which the forefathers of the Orangemen died on the Somme was the freedom of the Bosnian Serbs, forefathers of Radovan Karadzic and his followers.
But of course there was more to it than that. The First World War has often been presented as an absurdity, in which all these millions of people died in atrocious circumstances for nothing. But in fact the consequences of the First World War were enormous, and permanent, and desirable from the point of view of the general direction of the British political and intellectual tradition.
The First World War destroyed what was left of the three great religiously based empires of the western world: the Roman Catholic Austrian Empire which represented the last stage of the Holy Roman Empire; the Ottoman Empire, given legitimacy by the Caliphate, notional centre of Sunni Islam since the death of Muhammad; and the Orthodox Russian Empire, which had been largely put together in the nineteenth century.
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the collapse of the Austrian and Ottoman Empires (and consequent opening up of their markets) had seemed to be inevitable. But things changed when the newly united, dynamic power, Germany, decided to support the Empires as its own sphere of influence and thus to prolong their existence. That, it seems to me, was Britain's main reason for engaging in a quarrel which was not, apparently, its concern. It is not obvious what it had to do with the 'freedoms' of the men who died on the Somme.
Russia, on the other hand, was our ally, and the existence of its Empire was to be prolonged in the form of the Soviet Union. But it participated in the general trend through the destruction of its religious base, personified by the Tsar. And this, the work of the February Revolution, seems to have been supported by the Tsar's supposed 'allies', Britain and France.
If we think of the First World War as having had an 'end', as being part of a great historical process which transcends the intentions of individuals, then that is what it was: the final destruction of the already greatly weakened idea that political authority requires a religious sanction. And this seems to me to be wholly consistent with the 'end' of the British tradition despite its holding on to the external trappings of its own church-consecrated monarchy.
The history of 'Britain' as such begins with the coming to power of Henry Tudor and the end of the Wars of the Roses. It was a completely new moral entity, and it soon affirmed its novelty in the most dramatic form with the dissolution of the monasteries, a radical destruction of the past, comparable in every respect - except that it was much more thoroughgoing and successful - with the assault on the monasteries which took place in Russia after the 1917 Revolution. It then became what would now be called a 'rogue state', engaging in piracy and the slave trade in defiance of the then generally recognised system of international law - the Holy Roman Empire. In the following century, it was an Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, who formulated the first political theory not based on the axiom that all authority derives from God.
It was in Britain that Isaac Newton developed a method of treating time as if it was a property of space, thus facilitating the emergence of a mechanical view of the world. After him, John Locke developed a theory of perception which attributed more reality to the abstract analysis, the measurable qualities, of an object than to the real sensory experience of it. The observation became more 'real' than the consciousness that was making it. The dangers of this to a religious view of the world were pointed out soon afterwards by George Berkeley, who was to have much more influence as a philosopher in Germany than he did in Britain. Subsequently, Britain, or at least England, was the first country to destroy the peasant as a human type, in the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth century; and it was also the first country to destroy the craftsman as a human type in the industrial revolution. Britain was thus the first country to experience a crisis of overproduction and to feel the need to unload its surplus production on other countries, and even to wage wars to unload its surplus production on other countries. Responding to the needs of the age, Adam Smith went on to argue, and even proved, that serving one's own material interest is the best way of serving the interest of the society at large. And Jeremy Bentham gave what remains the best philosophical account of the distinctively British contribution to world culture - 'Utilitarianism', the 'greatest good (meaning the greatest quantity of material comforts) for the greatest number' - an ideal that is now everywhere triumphant, so triumphant that the reader probably thinks that it is and always has been the only possible aspiration of the whole of humanity.
Yet it has not always seemed so obvious. Christianity, for example, in the form in which it arrived on these islands, taught that Eternal Life is the highest good and that material comfort is an obstacle to it. Even if an individual was seeking to obtain as many material goods as possible, he would count it among his sins, or, at best, he would regard it as a shameful necessity. He knew that the Saint, living a 'useless', ascetic life, often in solitude with no material possessions, is the highest type of humanity. Such a notion seems incomprehensible to most of us nowadays. There is a gulf that separates the Christianity of the 5th and 6th centuries (a Christianity which still survives to some extent in the Orthodox tradition) from the utilitarianism - and utilitarian Christianity - of our own time. It has taken many centuries and a great deal of bloodshed to pass this gulf but, in its later stages, Britain has been in the vanguard of the process.
It is impossible in the space given to me to argue that the Christian world view is superior to the British Utilitarian world view; or to discuss the respective merits of the British civilisation and those of the great world cultures on which it has had such a very disruptive effect. The whole process has, in any case, such a feeling of inevitability about it that the question of right or wrong hardly seems to arise. In this respect, it resembles the rise of Babylon, as seen by the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, both of whom, while refusing any compromise with the Babylonian power, also vigorously opposed any attempts to resist it militarily. The Biblical Babylon was, so to speak, the principle representative of the inexorable course of human history, of what we now call 'progress', and, over the past two or three hundred years, that role has been played by the 'English speaking peoples', first by Britain, now by the United States of America.
I would, however, like to finish by observing that, if this is an accurate way of thinking about what it means to be British, then much of the mainstream British culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been 'anti-British'. It has been a series of doomed attempts to construct an anti-utilitarian world view. I cite the names of Blake, Coleridge, J.H.Newman, Ruskin, Morris, Yeats (in this context it is a mere quibble to insist that Yeats was Irish), Eliot, David Jones, Eric Gill. And I note - as the merest observation; the reader can draw his or her own conclusions on the subject - that in our day, the series seems to have come to an end.
[fn] I put the words 'war criminals in inverted commas, not because I don't think they were war criminals but because I don't see that their pursuers, the 'international community', are in much of a position to judge, guilty as they are of the massacre of a retreating army on the road to Basra and of the subsequent peacetime murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children. I put the words 'international community' in inverted commas because it is only a euphemism for the United States of America on those occasions when it can find allies. Almost all the countries of the United Nations, except the US, are opposed to sanctions on Cuba, yet I have never seen it said that 'the international community' is opposed to sanctions on Cuba. Back