John Lilburne

England’s fair and pleasant land

It’s not cricket; it’s the murky world of identity


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

An English Tradition? The History and Significance of Fair Play, Jonathan Duke-Evans (Oxford University Press, £35)

Jonathan Duke-Evans tells us that the first recorded use of the phrase “fair play” is to be found in an obscure mid-14th century poem called “Titus & Vespasian”. Having taken their leave and went their way, “He thanked [t]hem of [t]here faire play”. Duke-Evans goes on to say that there are 39 printed mentions of “fair play” in English for the 16th century, 600 for the 17th , 1,400 for the 18th , and (with no equivalent databases to draw on) British Periodical samples indicate an Edwardian peak of mentions, a 20th-century levelling off, and a 21st century falling off.

What all this tells us I couldn’t really say.

As for the great writers, Shakespeare comes out top with a very creditable five mentions, but there are ducks all round for More, Sidney, Spenser, Hooker, Marlowe, Burke, Johnson, Gibbon, Paine, Hume, Wollstonecraft, Austen, Wordsworth, Keats and Byron, with only quick singles for V. Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and G.B. Shaw. If “fair play” were cricket, and this were the best we could do, we’d try another game.

It’s not cricket; it’s the murky world of identity. Duke-Evans claims that for the past 300 years, fair play has sat “at the core of our national identity” as “one of our most deep-seated qualities”. For my own part, I can only say there are stronger contenders as expressions of national identity, and when I have come across the phrase, it usually has been in rarefied or rhetorical contexts.

Of course, if I’d been looking for it, it might have been different. My family had a thing about male toupées. We found them funny and fascinating (there’s another story here’ but thankfully we were not the only ones sharing in this madness: see how Anthony McGowan taught philosophy to his dog). They were seemingly perched everywhere we went, but we didn’t think they were at the core of male fashion. It’s true, of course, that modern sport gave the English a global reputation for fair play and rules, but all sport needs rules — or it isn’t sport. Whether it needs fair play as well is an open question. In any case, historians have better things to do than count mentions.

Once we turn from mentions to meanings, the game gets more interesting. We find notions of fair play in The Iliad and The Odyssey, in Plato and Virgil and, in a list as long as your arm, at the Ancient Olympics, in French-inspired mediaeval chivalry, at the heart of Rawlsian philosophy and in all the various manifestations of the “gentleman”, from Chaucer and Mallory to Sir Walter Scott and James Bond.

No empire was ever won by fair play, and no country ever said it won by cheating

In a lot of wrangling over meanings, Duke-Evans moves his argument from fair play being at the core of being British, or English, or the UK (he isn’t clear), to the altogether more modest contention that “There is indeed in British culture a deep layer of attitudes and customs which are grouped together under the heading of fair play.”

Which is reasonable, although there are still problems because meanings change according to context. The author is aware of these difficulties and pins some, but not all, of them down in the first two chapters. Is fair play about mutual respect, or equality between sides? Is it about justice, or respect? Is it procedural, or summative? Was it spoken more than written, or vice versa?

Is it the same as “fair dos” or “fair’s fair”? The Aussies built a country on a “fair go”, but fair go for whom? How might it differ from other notions of mutual obligation? We are told there is no fair play without honour, but honour is just as sticky a concept. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone reminds his enemies where family honour lies by getting someone else to shoot his brother in the back. Mind, he’s not English.

Erroll Flynn as Robin Hood

Duke-Evans writes well and clearly enjoys the challenge of the argument, but you only have to turn away in order to snap out of it. We all know the Brits played football with the Germans on Christmas Day 1914, but what about other days? What about fair play and poison gas? What about fair play and flying shrapnel? No empire was ever won by fair play, and no country ever said it won by cheating.

All countries have their own ways of getting their histories wrong (although in the English case, Hollywood does it for us), but it all depends on how you want to be heard. The French say “franc-jeu”. The Spanish say “jugo limpio”. The Germans and Italians say “fair play”. The Argentinians say “Maradona”.

So we go from Beowulf and King Arthur to Robin Hood and Terry McCann (Minder, ITV). It’s a nice stroll through the various points of view, but a more severe estimate would see it as the tracking of a meme. As everyone knows, the whole point of a meme is that it has a life of its own. If you try to track it across time and space, the number of entities becomes too heavy, and soon it is time for Occam.

To be fair, the analysis suddenly sharpens up when, in the middle chapters, Duke-Evans concentrates on English social structure and common law in the making of that “deep layer of attitudes and customs” he talked about earlier. Serfdom ended early to bring the aristocracy down a peg or two, whilst in the towns, the guilds and fraternities grew in wealth and authority.

In other words, from early on the English were relatively more able to move around, run their own affairs, resort to law, speak freely, think of each other and take responsibility. Duke-Evans takes this further by invoking E.P. Thompson’s valuable work on “the moral economy” of the 18th century poor. Rather foolishly perhaps, people believed the country belonged to them as well. They said they were “freeborn” under an English common law that came from below, not from above. In that common quality, some sense of liberty and justice as one and the same was possible.

Dennis Waterman as Terry McCann (here with George Cole as Arthur Daley) in ITV’s Minder

In a superb section, we are reminded how the gentleman soldier John Lilburne went to trial twice in the name of the English and their theory of justice: once, in 1638 against Charles I, the man in whose name the court sat; and again, in 1649, against the Lord Protector, the man who had brought the king down in the name of common law over divine right.

Confirmed, as Lilburne put it, by both Magna Carta (1215), and the Petition of Right (1628), he asked the court for fair play and “not be wound and screwed up with hazards and snares”.

For all its snares and hazards, in the end you have to admire Duke-Evans’s attempt to say something serious and good about his native land. For once, here is an intellectual alive to the possibility of a history which is not distasteful and might be exceptional. Fair dibs to us, and fair dibs to him.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover