In The Lion and The Unicorn, his great 1940 essay on the nature of Englishness, George Orwell, in Hampstead, as the German Bombers flew overhead, was trying to define the identity of something that was in real and present danger of being lost. Perhaps this is why it is the definitive statement of identity that it is, why it had to be definitive. The very survival of England was at stake.
(It wasn’t just England whose survival was in question, of course…the survival of Europe and of civilisation was up for grabs…but we’ll get to that, and Brexit, in a minute.)
Among Orwell’s most memorable observations was that the support of the “average Englishman” for the British Empire was expressed by being barely conscious that it existed, and that this blithe disregard for the complex reality that supported “his” simple way of life was one of the things foreigners found so maddeningly incomprehensible about the English. It wasn’t a wholly new thought. The essayist Sir John Seeley in a book of 1883 made the famous and connected observation that the British had “conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” Absence of mind had extended to historical matters nearer home too, of course. The name of the book in which Seeley had made this observation was “The Expansion of England.”
Orwell, in a rather irritated aside, addresses the anomaly, when he acknowledges that readers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may object to the expansion of Englishness to include them in his essay on identity. He argues, with some justice, that to the rest of the world, the differences between us are insignificant to the point of invisibility, and moves on, having dealt with the absorption of the minor Celtic nations into the big one purely as a matter of identity, and not as a series of political, historical and cultural events. Rather in the way he fondly accused his countrymen of their not knowing that the British Empire existed, Orwell treated the Expansion of England as a fact of nature, rather than as a political process that could, as is the nature of processes, be reversed.
This is all in my mind this morning as we approach what future historians of identity in these islands may, (or may not, depending what May does in Florence on Friday) identify as a defining moment as much as 1940 – “Dunkirk and All That” – was definitive for the relationship of 20th Century Britain to itself and to everybody else. It seems to have been on Boris Johnson’s mind as well. Not only is he ferociously, personally ambitious, he is also rather a gifted and passionate writer on English history and identity. Churchill is his hero and role model in this as well as, he hopes, finding himself summoned to the Palace to assume the office of Prime Minister in Our Darkest...and Our Finest Hour.
May was being widely trailed as finally making the statement of British Intent on Brexit that the aforementioned Maddened Foreigners had been waiting for. Finally, it was promised, more than a year after voting for it, they would be told definitively, what the British wanted out of Brexit. There would finally be clarity in the negotiations because there would finally, actually be a real and conscious policy that Britain was pursuing.
And this is where we get back to absent-mindedness. The entire historical success of Britain, or England, has been in not really being conscious of what Britain, or England, was doing. The famous preference for “muddling through”, “buggering on” and so on, is not just a charming cultural trait like warm beer and cricket on the green. It’s actually at the heart of how Britain, or England, gets things done.
The centre of things, the way things are, must not be challenged. The way to deal with change is always, ALWAYS to act as if nothing had changed. The Scots, Welsh and Irish may have been conscious of the particular circumstances of their absorption into greater England, but it is the genius of England barely to have noticed. The British Empire was not only absent-mindedly acquired over two centuries, it was as inconsequentially and easily abandoned in two decades in exactly the same way, as if it had never been.
The perennial question, since 1950, of “why are all these immigrants from India and the West Indies coming HERE?” is testimony to this sound cultural policy of forgetting. In a similar way, the consequences of the End of Empire on the immediate borders - the slow and differential self- assertion of the previously quietly absorbed peripheral nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland over the last century or so - has been equally irritating and inexplicable.
As for Europe, and what is or is not going to happen on Friday, Greater England joined the EC in 1973 with exactly the same strategic self-persuasion that “nothing has really changed” with which she has been attempting to leave the EU. “Britain” – the economic and administrative oligarchy that bestrides Greater England like an invisible colossus – may well have known that joining the EC was absolutely essential, if politically inadmissible, as a SUBSTITUTE for Lost Empire in connecting to the imperative yet invisible wider world. But England, like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, is inevitably, as the Empire fades from memory, asserting a distinct identity, and will be having none of it.
It turns out that Britain understood “England” just as poorly as it understood its other colonies, and with catastrophic results.
What the other Europeans, the foreigners, may have failed to understand is that unconsciousness, NOT having a fixed policy on Brexit, was absolutely essential not just for holding Britain together, but for Theresa May holding her cabinet together. David Davis was never specific in his negotiations with the EU because he and the Cabinet had never been specific with each other. They had never even really discussed it outside of algorithmically isolated cabals of Europhiles and Eurosceptics who only ever talked to people they already agreed with.
All that, by force majeure, was due to change on Friday. The Prime Minister was going to get specific in Florence on a phased transition deal that once again try to keep the cracking edifice of Britain, and the cracking edifice of Her majesty’s Government together, that once again, would change everything, while changing nothing at the centre. And Boris Johnson, on Saturday in the Daily Telegraph, spoke for England, and said he and England were having none of it.
This is only Wednesday, as I write. Not, like Orwell, with German Bombers flying overhead, but just before what might be the next moment of crisis in Britain’s long, more or less managed post war decline. Boris has drawn a line…the moment we get specific on Brexit, hard or soft, one way or the other, the Cabinet and Government split like an over ripe melon. It is entirely possible, even probable, given past precedent, which Theresa May will follow in the grand historical tradition of putting off till tomorrow the reality that she would rather not face today, and that her speech on Friday will be as gutted of content and specificity as almost everything else she says. But if Theresa May screws her courage to the sticking post and goes ahead with Speech A, make no mistake, the Tory Party Conference in Manchester in the first week of October is going to be a bloodbath that it is hard to see her Minority Government surviving.
As for the Labour Party, every bit as split on Europe, every bit as dependent for unity on “not really talking about it”, they must be thanking God and the Ghost of Clement Atlee that their conference isn’t the week after, but the week before. They will be able, if it happens, to fully enjoy watching the Tories explode into acrimony and accusations of treason while pretending to be unconscious of the thought “there but for the Grace of God…and the traditional scheduling of Conference Season…go I.”
As a footnote the subject of reality, it has just occurred to me that the name we might give to England leaving Europe on its own might be just "Exit"...but that's a thought for another time.