Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — Lewis Carroll
The idea of being American is to think of yourself as the master or mistress of your personal destiny. The idea of being English is to know your place, which includes knowing that a viscount is less important than an earl.
Somewhere between these two ideas is the idea of being British, which is to think of yourself as playing a small but important part in a blessed assembly of men and women chosen to teach the rest of the world how to behave itself. You have a degree of American-style autonomy within the specific remit of your role, but you are fully conscious of its limits, and its station in the greater whole. The lowliest private can earn himself a Victoria Cross, but no number of medals can make him an officer. Gordon Brown lost his job for publicly pondering the nature of Britishness.
All Americans are Emersonians whether they know it or not. All English men and women are the ideological descendants of Edmund Burke, but only the privileged classes know it. All men and women who think of themselves as British are the ideological descendants of Rudyard Kipling, and most of them are satisfied with that.
The French Revolution was ideologically inspired. The American Revolution began as a revolt against taxation, evolved into republicanism, and ended with independence. The ideology came afterwards, crystallising in the Constitution of the United States. It was constructed in opposition to Britishness; in spirit it is more French than it is English.
But the decisive moment came in 1792, twenty-six years after the American Declaration of Independence, when Prime Minister William Pitt’s Tory government issued a Royal Proclamation against Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man on the grounds it was “wicked and seditious”.
Challenged in Parliament to explain the reasons for the Proclamation, Pitt argued that the principles espoused by Paine threatened to destroy the hereditary nobility, the monarchy and the Anglican Church, thereby threatening a “total subversion of the established form of government.”
Outside of the English aristocracy, a few European principalities, Saudi Arabia and the world’s other crackpot dictatorships, Rights of Man doesn’t seem particularly radical today. The essence of it is that institutions which don’t benefit the nation, such as monarchy and aristocracy, are undemocratic and therefore illegitimate. It espouses the universality of human rights, believing them to be founded in human nature. As such, they take precedence over any legal or political charter:
It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few … They … consequently are instruments of injustice … The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
Paine was an Englishman, not an American. Early on in the development of his political thinking he developed a friendship with Burke, believing the latter to be sympathetic to the cause of American independence. Burke’s subsequent betrayal of Paine, and the dissolution of the friendship into bitter enmity, still defines the difference between the English and the American political temperament. The former puts tradition before individual rights, and “manners” before laws. The latter puts the individual before government, and the Constitution before the privileges of inheritance and class.
Before they began the witch-hunt that closed down the printing presses and jailed the more visible followers of Paine’s political principles, Rights of Man was briefly the best-selling book in all of England. Paine himself escaped to France and was tried and convicted in absentia.
America sought and found expiation for McCarthyism in films, novels and political debate. The persecution of Paine and his followers in England has, to my knowledge, yet to be dramatized for public consumption. And probably for the same reasons that there are no British films about the Boer War.
Skip forward from 1792 to 1855 when America found its bard in Walt Whitman, and Leaves of Grass became the enduring touchstone of the American creative spirit. In his preface to the first edition, Whitman writes:
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
In the same year Tennyson, the poet laureate of England, published The Charge of the Light Brigade, making immortal the mantra of jingoism:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die
The contrast is exquisitely painful, but history isn’t that simple. Tennyson’s poem was considered a disgrace to society because it criticised the generals who sent the “the six hundred” to certain and pointless death in the Crimea, and was banned for eight and a half years.
These two examples help to clarify what Bourne meant when he contrasted American democracy with the “hopelessly moral and complacent English” preconceptions that had clouded his earlier judgements. But they also help to explain the tension between my English inheritance and my unconscious fascination with those rare examples of American individualism that found their way to South Africa.
I developed my political views in opposition to apartheid, out of all the component parts of what apartheid was not, and I assembled these oppositions into a loose association of ideas that didn’t fit neatly into a recognisable, nameable ideological position. It was made of an antipathy to racism, nationalism and all codified religion; an inarticulate suspicion of all bureaucracy and all institutions; a distrust of government; a hatred of hypocrisy and cant; a rage against entitlement, greed and moral carelessness.
It was more Khalil Gibran than Karl Marx; more Lobsang Rampa than the Book of Common Prayer; more John Lennon than John Ruskin; more Robert Zimmerman than Robert Owen; more anti-Nixon than pro-Jimmy Carter; more Walt Whitman than T.S. Eliot; more Left Field than Left Wing — an opposition rather than a position; always a rebellion, never an orthodoxy.
I looked to the two great Anglophone powers to provide me with a political home. Very briefly, in October 1968, I vested my faith in Hubert Humphrey. When he lost to Nixon I turned my attention to the UK. But Wilson’s England looked dreary, the Conservative alternative looked blind to the egregiousness of John Vorster, and my cultural homelessness eventually found its correlate in a political homelessness that transcended names, parties, borders and economic theories.
Oddly, obliquely and unconsciously, I found my way into a community of people who were as homeless as I was, and the questions around my political identity became moot.
Global advertising is borderless, race-blind, gender-neutral, and politically dumb, deaf and blind. Its business is finding commonalities of interests across continents and cultures, and discarding the dross of national differences. When it comes to their choice of washing powder, housewives in Turkey are more similar to housewives in Utah than they are to their husbands. Getting rid of grass stains turns out to have a redemptive power more gratifying than prayer, and a little Knorr stock cube turns out to be the universal antidote to social anxiety, self-doubt and fear of failure.
I can see now that I came to take it for granted. By the end of those two decades of global travel and global meetings and global thinking, I assumed that, barring the obvious exceptions, the whole world understood and embraced the multicultural, multilateral, interdependent imperatives that made it go round. The national politics of this or that country seemed trivial by comparison. We lived in a world united by common needs, wants and aspirations. Neoliberalism had achieved in a few years what no brand of political theory could have dreamed of. Apartheid was over, and my anti-apartheid values had triumphed. Racism, nationalism, religion, bureaucracy, institutional hypocrisy and even government itself, the very idea of national government, had collapsed like a house of cards in the first breath of global creativity.
They gave us our British passports in 2004, but we thought of ourselves as a citizens of a world that would have seemed inconceivable in South Africa before the release of Nelson Mandela.
It felt as if I had spent my entire life holding my political breath. I lapsed into English life like a fish returned to water just before its final dying quiver. Compared to the black and white ideological dichotomy that divided South Africa, the differences between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat seemed trivial to the point of laughable. I didn’t understand them, and I didn’t care that I didn’t. They were, in the parlance of the English, none of my business.
I discovered that the unexamined life was worth living. Thought is burdensome, and what is there to think about when the sun is shining on Lord’s and the whole of London is at your feet? — when the grass is mown and the kids are happy and the mortgage is paid and Sunday roast awaits; when there’s a place for everything, and everything is in its proper place?
We underestimate the power of complacency. Complacency is more profoundly satisfying than all the accidents of happiness combined. It is more reliable, more enduring, more certain of its gratifications, more constant and more rewarding than any passion of faith, ideology or sensuality. Complacency makes a mockery of earnestness, and an idiocy of restlessness. Complacency’s roots are deeper than the roots of history. Ideas come and go like blossoms tossed in an April breeze, but complacency is unmoved. Complacency has no hopes or expectations, and is surer for that. It is an anchor in a sea of doubt, and a rock in the shifting tides of idealism. Complacency gives permanence to a contingent world. It conserves the ephemeral and rejects the conjectural.
Complacency is the music from Nero’s fiddle excerpted from its historical context, a jaunty tune to whistle away the days.
Complacency flooded my veins like morphine after surgery, and nothing compares to the relief of that. It was indescribable not only because I couldn’t put it into words, but because it removed the need to put it into words.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I’d tasted the Kool-Aid of conservatism; I was as drunk on it as the Tory lord in the carpark behind Twickenham late on the Saturday afternoon when the Three Lions gave the Springboks the hiding of their lives.
Michael Oakeshott, once of the LSE, is generally regarded as the most reliable modern interpreter of the conservative instinct, that is, the temperament of English conservatism rather than the ideology of the Conservative Party:
“The disposition to be a conservative is . . . warm and positive in respect of enjoyment, and correspondingly cool and critical in respect of change and innovation. The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better. He is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no impulse to sail unchartered seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered or shipwrecked. . . What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence; what other interpret as inactivity, he recognises as a disposition to enjoy rather than to exploit.”
This extract from his essay On Being a Conservative (1956) is often quoted today as evidence that warm human hearts beat beneath the Saville Row suits of the Tory elite. Ten years ago I would have been charmed by its self-deprecating frankness. Before Trump, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg it would have chimed nicely with my blithe detachment from the affairs of governments at home or abroad. I had good friends who would have said more or less the same thing in defence of their indifference to the petty foibles of Blair, Brown and Cameron. The weather was more interesting than that.
Cameron thought that complacency would prevail when he offered the EU referendum to the British electorate. He had so much faith in complacency that he didn’t bother to put a position or a plan in place for an alternative outcome. What he failed to recognise was that English complacency wasn’t a generalised acceptance of Burkean conservatism or a passive submission to the status quo. It is an active engagement in the politics of class, a powerful attachment to an English identity defined not by individualism but by its psychological opposite, which is an investment in one’s social role as both victim of the class above and oppressor of the class below, a co-dependency of personal worth trapped within the limits of the Dickensian parody:
O let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations.
This is same peculiar kind of English masochism that Emerson observed so brilliantly in 1856:
The feudal system survives in the steep inequality of property and privilege, in the limited franchise, in the social barriers which confine patronage and promotion to a caste, and still more in the submissive ideas pervading these people. The fagging of the schools is repeated in the social classes. An Englishman shows no mercy to those below him in the social scale, as he looks for none from those above him; any forbearance from his superiors surprises him, and they suffer in his good opinion.
At Estcourt High School in the 1960s and ’70s, fagging was not only permissible, it was institutional. It probably continues today in many South African private schools, but hopefully to less brutalising effect. I accepted it the way I accepted caning, as one of the facts of boarding school life, as morally repellent but institutionally necessary. And I know it taught me submissiveness because I developed a fear and hatred of all authority that stayed with me for the rest of my life. But the fear overwhelmed the hatred, so I could never turn my hatred into healthy anger. I learned to expect no mercy, and none was granted.
For Emerson the American to have seen fagging not only as a ritualistic expression of the English feudal instinct but as the psychological mechanism that sustains the class system, was extraordinary then and illuminating now. It explains how the Brexiteers have been able to cast themselves as the victims of EU oppression in the current negotiations, as if, somehow, they hadn’t brought it upon themselves. Combine English masochism with a religion that worships suffering and you have a perfect storm of self-victimisation.
Brexit, in this context, is not only the public face of English nationalism, it is the outrage of mums and dads deprived of the right to beat their children.