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Artillery Row

The matter of Britain

Britain must rediscover its stories and dreams

Adapted from a speech at the National Conservatism conference

Nationhood is a harder question for the British than for most countries, because we are not one nation, but several — England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Add to this the crown dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, overseas territories like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, not to mention 15 commonwealth realms which are ruled over by the same King, including Jamaica, Australia and Canada; or for that matter the parliamentary republics of the Commonwealth, many of which share the Common Law, the Westminster system and the English language.

For opponents of British nationhood, this complexity is a basis for denying us any identity of our own — this is the “St George was a Palestinian, Fish and Chips are Jewish” crowd, who claim that because British identity is drawn from many sources, that we have no identity of our own. This is equally the idea of “fundamental British values” reduced to tolerance and diversity promoted by our conservative government. This is a nation without a story, a people without a shared object of reverence.  

I would argue, to the contrary, that the global scope and complexity of Britishness is precisely a reflection of the strength and exceptionalism of our culture and history. Whilst other countries are the product of modern revolutions and nation-building, Britain uniquely retains a mediaeval constitution; an organic mode of sovereignty and belonging that far precedes the liberal, absolutist ideas of statehood proposed by Hobbes and Weber. 

Our mediaeval constitution and ancient, sacred idea of nationhood, is under attack by extremists of both Left and Right. Whilst fanatical progressives seek to deny us our history, there are also plenty of nationalist foes of Britishness, from those who deny our European identity and would subordinate us to America; to those who seek to reduce it to an English ethno-nationalism.

For Britishness is as much Celtic as Anglo-Saxon, and despite the claims of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English nationalists, the hybridity of Germanic and Celtic culture applies to all four nations, who formed a religious, literary and intellectual unity long before they were joined politically. Englishness itself has always been an imperial, and not just national culture. Where American conservatives look to their Declaration of Independence as informing their national origins, Britons today should recall our own moment of rupture and refounding in 1534, when parliament declared that “this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king…unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people, divided in terms, and by names of spiritualty and temporalty, be bounden and ought to bear, next to God, a natural and humble obedience.”

It would be just as convenient to many nationalists of the right as it is to progressives of the left to ignore or historicise the Christian nature and origins of British nationhood, but it is inescapably central. The uneasy truth is that though it may be easier to sell a Britishness shorn of theological particularism, Britain is a Christian nation, or it is nothing at all. 

Our nation was born from several directions at once

Our nation was born from several directions at once, and at the frontier between paganism and Christianity. St Augustine of Canterbury’s mission in Kent created a toe-hold for the Christian faith, and Roman missions extended northwards. 30 years after Augustine landed in Kent, St Paulinus converted the Northumbrians. In the black, swift-flowing waters of the river Swale, thousands of Saxon noblemen were baptised. But soon thereafter the tide of faith was thrown back, the kings of Northumbria returned to the old faith, and the kingdom fell to civil war. 

One refugee from this disaster was a young St Oswald, a prince of the royal household, who was fostered in the Gaelic Christian court of Del Riata. He was baptised, and educated by the monks of Iona, who were advisors and mentors to the whole gaelic royalty, and whose island became a favoured burial ground of Irish Kings. This Celtic, gaelic faith, inspired by the rigours of the Desert Fathers, a Christianity of hermits and living saints, followed Oswald southwards. And there, in the fields of Heavenfield, gravely outnumbered, on a largely forgotten crusade in the twilight darkness of our early history, he drove back the heathen armies and re-conquered Northumbria for Christ.

Celtic Christendom poured southwards like a pure, dark tide, meeting and mingling with the bright spring waters of Roman christianity, and so England was born, and Britain with it. This first chapter of British history is just that — a hundred more follow on from it, from the Normans, to the Reformation, to the Union of Crowns. The boundaries of British identity are certainly blurred, to the triumphant pleasure of those desperate to debunk it. But if Britain is complex and many layered, so are humans themselves. No country’s literature has more profoundly delved into the complexity of human psychology than Britain’s. And at the heart of this identity is a human person, and a living constitution — our recently crowned King. 

In defining nationhood today, we are used to the abstraction of sovereignty, severed at the apparently arbitrary point of borders, a hard logical line drawn across human complexity, to order the chaos that would otherwise unfurl. But British sovereignty, that power which raises up borders or embraces new citizens to the heart of its life; the power of mercy, the power of temporal and spiritual justice;  is found in particular places, particular people, and particular things. 

Beneath the apparently irreducible complexity of Britishness, lies a solid anchor — the Matter of Britain: the story of how we came to be. The Matter of Britain is the name used for the great mythic cycle of the British isles, first identified by mediaeval french poet Jean Bodel, who wrote “With only three matters should man concern himself: Of France, and of Britain, and of Rome the great.” Respectively these “matieres” were the stories of Charlegmagne and his paladins, of Aeneas and his Trojan exiles, and of King Arthur and his court. The etymology of Matieres is matter, substance, subject, source and mother. The French philosopher Michel Serres, writing of founding myths, talks of the “black box of origins”. A black box is a sort of closed symbol, a dot rather than a dash, an irreducible self-contained point which, like the container of Schrodinger’s cat, can conceal contrasting, unknowable potentials. It is what we start with, but, like the black box of an aeroplane, it is also what remains when the structures built around it are destroyed and fall away. 

The structures around Britishness have certainly fallen away, and the superstructure that exploded out from the rise of England-becoming-Britain-becoming-Empire is now trembling apart around us. The centre has shifted violently westwards to America, an unstable and divided vortex whose pull seems to drag all world culture towards it, yet seems unable to define itself.

It was Yeats, in whose own lifetime Ireland broke away from Britain, who wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Britishness has been put to the challenge, it is being put to the sword. Think of what was lost, and what can no longer be. Receding behind us, we see the magnificent coronation of Elizabeth II, in full Tudor pomp. All Britain in fancy dress, a country pulled taught and proper into the glory of insular wartime resistance, joining hands in the happy circle of the Commonwealth; spiralling ever outwards to a world of shared humanity, democratic equality and global prosperity. A British future that never was, a new Elizabethan age whose promise was never fulfilled. 

Britain built a worldwide empire in its own image, and is now becoming an image of the world. Britain was a country which burst its banks, a great dark well of the stars, a black cauldron, a bright sun that never sets, a white grail raised above the altar of the world — cosmic flood, universal baptism. Now, hollowed out, an empty cup, it feels as if the world has flooded back into Britain, but it is equally hollow, echo answering echo. 

We have forgotten our history, we have forgotten our origins, we have lost the Matter of Britain.

Kate Bush, in her song “Lionheart”, the vision of a dying soldier dreaming of England, sings:

Oh! England, my Lionheart!

Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge

What is left at the end of history, at the end of a nation? In the wreck of the aircraft, nestled in the boat departing our island for another, is the mystery, the black box, the grail. What is in the black box? The story of King Arthur is not a story of England as an untroubled garden. The myth of Britain, as Tolkien knew so well, is of beauty already dying, of hope unlooked for and unexpected bursting forth in an age of universal conflict and collapse. 

It is not enough to oppose the fluid abstractions of global capital, which pulls human souls helplessly along with it, with the hard cold abstraction of the modern nation state, a thing as distant and ungraspable to most of us as a star. Neither global market nor sovereign state can dispense justice or offer mercy, they cannot be petitioned or debated, they are forces which render judges mute and rulers helpless — a sentence without appeal. 

True nationhood, true justice and true democracy rely on an old and noble notion — the res-publica, from which we have our word republic. It means simply a public or common thing, a shared object of reference, reverence and love. A life lived in common is precisely the one desire that liberal modernity denies to us, and it is the most urgent counterweight to the forces arrayed against the way of life that we in Britain and the West are in the process of losing. 

What you may ask, at this point, does all of this have to do with the price of milk? What have myth and religion to do with public life and policy? The same Western classical tradition that bequeaths to us the republican ideal, presents us with the ideas of mythos and logos, the unity of faith and reason. The state must be rational, certainly, but the unity and popular consent upon which it relies is built on shared sentiment. It needs a common frame of reference, and a sense of fellow feeling; a civic bond that the Romans called the vinculum. This bond is maintained by the songs we sing together, the symbols we all recognise, the saints and heroes that we model our lives upon. 

British nationhood cannot be recovered — as in the Brexit vote — simply by some legalistic reclamation of powers, nor can it be renewed — as with the dreams of the globalists — by evacuating our traditions to make way for a rationalistic, borderless egalitarianism. All the best and fondest dreams of left and right alike — from the relief of poverty, to the suppression of crime — rely on a Britain that is again fraternal, in which neighbour trusts neighbour, in which we cease to be subjects of impersonal forces and again become fellow citizens. 

Against rationalisms of both left and right, this can only be achieved by a renewal of British culture, identity and religion. At the very roots of our proudest, most just and rational institutions, from parliament to the common law, we discover potent and lasting myths. Were the ancient rights of Englishmen truly discoverable in the roots of Common Law? We may never know, but the power of that story and others like it have animated and enchanted British politics ever since. 

Labour could never have declared its great war on the five “giants” of “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”, if Britain was not the Britain of Jack the giantkiller and St George who slew the dragon. The great conservative housebuilding programme of the 50s might never have been if the English did not feel, at some level, that their homes were also their castles. 

Britain must draw again upon the hidden roots of its shared stories and dreams if we are to rebuild our country, and learn to love and trust one another again. A new Britain must be built from the Matter of Britain.

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