Like some of the emeritus professors who have recently steamed into the Conservative party’s “anti-woke” campaign under the name of History Reclaimed, I grew up in a less fractured country, in which, stately occasions apart, waving union jacks seemed largely left to the National Front.
In English classrooms, we were encouraged to be more moved by the famous list of “characteristic fragments” that George Orwell pulled together in the first months of the second world war, as he searched for a unifying “pattern” in the diversity of English life. He wrote of old maids biking to communion through autumn mists and the clatter of clogs in a Lancashire mill town.
Orwell admitted that a Scottish or Welsh reader might be irritated to find his list was made of entirely English materials. Yet it was urban as well as rural, northern as well as southern, and definitely not centred on the values of the social elite. His working class may have left “the flag-wagging, the Rule Britannia stuff” to small minorities, but its members also shared the “connecting thread” of patriotism on which the warring state must rely. They may have had the foulest language in the world, but they bore no resemblance to the image of “idlers” condemned as “among the worst in the world” by present cabinet ministers Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss in the 2012 tract Britannia Unchained.
For a couple of decades after 1945, Orwell’s England Your England remained a defining text for a nation that had set out to turn the patriotism of the war effort into a driver of social democratic consensus. That world had been largely dismantled by the end of the 20th century, and politicians who continued to appeal to Orwell’s “connecting thread” for a transformed and hugely different present were often faced with guffaws of disbelief.
There was, however, one aspect of Orwell’s vision that is by no means so exhausted. His “England” was given urgency and coherence by the threat of an apparently triumphant Nazi Germany. That habit of defining England against a sharpening sense of encroaching danger has proved dynamic as well as enduring.
I had reason to notice how changeable the perceived enemy might be while researching my book The Village That Died for England in the early 90s. Situated in a little valley on the Dorset coast, Tyneham was evacuated shortly before Christmas in 1943, and turned into a training ground for American and British forces preparing for D-day. The local officials and volunteers engaged in the painful task of counselling the last residents out of the valley reassured them they would be able to return once the war was over, and this promise would not be forgotten.
After the victory, the landowners wanted their property back, and many in the area rallied behind them. The campaign was joined by Arthur Bryant, a popular rightwing historian and columnist whose reputation was still overshadowed by his prewar enthusiasm for Hitler’s Germany. It was Bryant, more than anyone else, who launched Tyneham into its postwar career as a radiant embodiment of all that had been best about England. In his version, the promise of return became Churchill’s personal pledge. The subsequent “betrayal” became the responsibility not of the Nazis but of the postwar Labour ministers who decided, in 1948, that, with the cold war under way, the War Office must keep its requisitioned land.
Conservationists would rally to the defence of the flora and fauna, but it was not really on their account that Tyneham’s story would be rehearsed in countless articles and broadcasts over the postwar decades. It endured because it served as an allegory for those who believed that England had won a vast and costly war only to face destruction from within.
In the early postwar years, this polarised way of telling the story of England had entered the political mainstream and was being put to work alongside “monetarist” reform by Tory revivalists. It was used to pitch the memory of the war at various embodiments of Thatcher’s “enemy within”, a term that she at first directed against the striking miners. Repeatedly, this was an England that blamed many of its woes on immigration but its memory was also rallied against the reforming agencies of the postwar state – centralised planning, comprehensive education, tower blocks, the anti-racist bureaucracy in local government, the arts establishment with its preference for arcane music and poetry that didn’t even rhyme. And when the domestic state was “rolled back”, the narrative of England betrayed came to be concentrated more fully on the European Union, understood through “Euromyths” of the sort peddled by freeloading English MEPs and an overpaid young bullshitter named Boris Johnson.
As I suggested in this paper back in 2005, it is not Orwell who should be counted the enduring prophet of this resurgence, but the writer GK Chesterton, who portrayed the English as a “secret people” in the opening years of the 20th century. His blameless English aborigines had silently endured the yoke of baronial power and were then suffering under the Fabian state, with its metallic expertise. Chesterton initiated a vision of the English as a virtuous but silenced majority, largely innocent of their own imperial history, but surely capable of one day breaking out into a revolution that would make the Russian and French versions seem tame.
Consider Nigel Farage on the morning after the 2016 referendum, hailing a victory for “real people”, distancing himself from the £350m-a-week-for-the-NHS-pledge, before settling down to a victory breakfast of kippers and champagne. In the Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, Andrew Roberts (who is among the brave-hearted historians of History Reclaimed) hailed the Brexit-voters as “bloody-minded insurgents” who had risen up in the tradition of the peasants’ revolt. It was left to the former editor of that paper, Charles Moore, who has never born much resemblance to a revolting peasant, to confirm the link: “I can testify how hard it is to assert our right against those in power.” No thought there for the looming difficulty of reconciling this abrasive English uprising with the view from Northern Ireland or Scotland.
Whether its leaders knew it or not, Brexit was a performance mounted by politicians who used Chestertonian fables to take down a country that their policies had already turned into a land of seething resentments. Detailed plans for the separation were always in short supply, but the message was there in the insouciance of David Davis turning up to negotiate in Brussels with no papers, or Jacob Rees-Mogg sprawled like an etiolated dandy over several seats in the House of Commons. You could see it in Johnson’s unkempt mop of boyish hair as well as in Lord Frost’s union jack socks and Farage’s proudly brandished fag and pint. It is still there in the causal preference for plausibility rather than truth, the careless shrugs, the blending of dog whistle racism with the cod-heroism of no longer submitting to codes of conduct dismissed as elitist or “politically correct”. It is surely this proudly “unwoke” outlook, which happily appeals to the worst in people, that has proved the prevailing Englishness of recent years.
And the future consequences? You can take your pick. “global Britain”, if you can believe it, and if Johnson is able to manage the unruly English mount he has created for himself. For myself, I keep remembering the degraded Dorset valley Bryant described in 1954: “a desolate, uncared-for, rabbit-haunted wilderness of deserted, weed-ridden pastures, ruined houses and shell-swept, barbed wire entanglements.” History Reclaimed, indeed.