In defence of nationalism Derek Turner meets David Conway of Civitas
In defence of nationalism Derek Turner meets David Conway of Civitas

In your new book (In Defence of the Realm: The Place of Nations in Classical Liberalism, Ashgate, 2004 – see review and advertisement, this issue), you seek to reconcile what are often seen as opposites – nationalism and liberalism. Yet surely possessing a sense of national identity necessitates a considerable degree of state involvement in the private lives and thoughts of citizens.

I agree that nation states require cohesion for their viability and they therefore require patriotism from their citizens. It is a legitimate interest on the part of those who administer the state to seek to inculcate the appropriate attitudes. I argue in my book, in the case of the Anglo-Saxon countries and those in that tradition, that, since they have for many centuries – and, arguably, in the case of England, for even longer – been liberal in character to a striking degree, those two demands ought to be compatible. Liberal values are the values of these states, and the values that these states need to inculcate. I don’t see that there is any inherent tension between the two. I think we need to differentiate between classical liberalism and what is often today denoted by the term ‘liberalism’ in an unqualified sense, as often used in America and now here.

I am only defending the compatibility of classical liberalism and nationalism, and I don’t see the kinds of tensions between these that you correctly identify between nationalism and other kinds of liberalism. In the book, you describe both multiculturalism and the EU as being threats to liberty. Can you expand on these topics? Is it to do with Lockean “positive engagement”? So far as multiculturalism is concerned, I think I have previously indicated the reason – that viable nation states, including those that enshrine liberal institutions, require social cohesion.

The multicultural project is about destroying social cohesion by encouraging different groups and ethnicities to identify with their difference rather than what is held in common. What I want to argue is that there should be a common public culture and that this public culture ought to be – in the case of Britain, America, and the other Anglo-phonic states – traditional English, Anglo-Saxon culture. As far as the EU is concerned, I think I am following in the footsteps of other thinkers who have expressed similar views – like Roger Scruton or, to take an earlier example, Sir Arthur Bryant in his The Lion and the Unicorn – that British traditions are very different from the traditions of other European countries. Culturally, we are more aligned with the United States than with the rest of Europe.

Those French and German statesmen who have been most instrumental in creating the European Union, and in determining its policy agenda, have always and quite consciously neglected to ensure that its structure and policies accord with liberal canons. It is quite evident that in every respect Britain is being made to come into line with the EU much more than the EU is coming into line with us. Those who maintain that we need a place in Europe in order to make them more like us are barking up the wrong tree. I hope the European Constitution is defeated; if it is, it could be a turning-point. Apart from its uncritical fondness for both multiculturalism and the EU, in what otherways is our present government curtailing both liberalism and nationalism? The present government has managed to engineer an ideological coup which makes the legacy of Thatcherism pale into insignificance.

It has managed to get cross-party consensus for the subject of citizenship as a mandatory subject in the national curriculum. In principle, I have no particular objection to that, but unfortunately it was done by allowing the likes of Bernard Crick – the ex-tutor of our current Home Secretary – to call the shots. He has a conception of ‘active citizenship’ which downplays the traditional approach towards civics education – an emphasis on history and an inculcation of patriotism – and is rather more like political activism. In 16th Century England, it was mandatory to take a part in civil society and local politics, but those who did loved their country and participation was not so confrontational. What about the ‘reform’ of the House of Lords?

The more I have studied English history, the more appreciative I have become of Britain’s mixed constitution. The virtue of a hereditary component in a second chamber such as the House of Lords is that it injects a genuinely politically independent spirit in the scrutiny of proposed new laws. All of these ‘modernising’ trends come together in the transformation of the country. Before the 1997 election, thinkers like David Marquand made no secret about their desire to destroy the ‘Tory state’. Some of the bastions of traditional Britain – like the Church of England – shot themselves in the foot, but others needed a helping hand! We are in a bind. The country has been captured, and is in the hands of people who do not wish it to remain a country. A sub-text of your book is an almost Miltonian English exceptionalism.

How do you define the English character? That’s an interesting question. Independence, tolerance, love of liberty, of course – but these aren’t unique to England. What is unique to Britain is the country that is loved! The likes of T S Eliot have indicated that Britain is a deeply Christian country; in many ways, the populace are unaware of the extent to which they are Christian! Of course, other European countries are also Christian, but they have mostly Roman Catholic traditions, and since the time of the Reformation Protestantism has been formative of Whiggism. That has been a very important factor in our history. But what about Protestant countries, like Morley’s celebrated Dutch Republic, or the Scandinavian countries – which likewise regard themselves as independent-minded? How do their various concepts of liberty differ from those obtaining in England? Historically, they weren’t surrounded by water. Our geography informed Britain’s political culture and accounts for many of our differences.

The Dutch of course had colonies, but they didn’t achieve anything like the same degree of global dominance as we did. That was extremely important in formulating Britain’s national outlook. The Dutch were too busy creating magnificent paintings! But the British character you speak of is really an English character, isn’t it? TheScots, Welsh and Irish are rather out on the edge of this notion. I have addressed this issue in the book. For much of Britain’s history, the terms Britain and England have of course been used interchangeably. To some extent, my thinking has been informed by the work of Adrian Hastings, who argues, to me quite convincingly, that Wales and England, despite their superficial differences, have really been one country since the time of the Tudors. As far as the Scots are concerned, the Lowland Scots were more like the English than they were like the Highlanders – while Northern Ireland is of course predominantly Anglo-Scots. So the various ‘nations’ of Britain are more or less really one people. You lay great emphasis on forms of government and Christianity.

But it seems to me that you perhaps underplay the impact of such other cultural influences as Celtic and Germanic paganism – and that genes also have an important role in the formation of national identity. Aren’t nations really tribes at heart to some extent? As a keen student of the works of William Mac- Dougall, I am aware of the subtle links between genetics and culture and the claim that there is something that makes liberal institutions ‘fit’ the Nordic peoples, of which the Anglo-Saxons are one. Since the Second World War, this is a domain which it has almost been taboo to broach in institutions of higher education. MacDougall himself said that there is a spectrum. At one end, with certain genetically ‘pure’ sorts of people – he cited the Japanese – genetics may determine national character to a much greater extent than at the other end of the spectrum, where culture will predominate. I would like to believe – for all our sakes – that culture is the greatest determinant.

Take Afro- Caribbeans. Leaving aside the dysfunctional ‘gangsta’ and Yardie elements, they are as imbued with what are to me the right kinds of values as the most prim and proper Englishman. I suppose it is the faith of the classical liberal – that culture will prevail. Having said that, I don’t believe we’re all identical. A lot of it is, of course, to do with numbers. America succeeds because the majority of Americans are still of essentially Anglo-Saxon descent, and the culture imported by the English settlers (as described in David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed) is still dominant. It is rapidly diminishing though; it’s now reaching about 63% of the population.

This is a preoccupation of scholars like Samuel Huntington who is, as we know, very prescient. Yet we must hope that the Anglo- Saxon cultural imprint can be transmitted onwards to non Anglo-Saxons. In some respects, if that’s not the case, we’re doomed. In your book, by citing historians like Alan Macfarlane and Michael Wood, you seem to imply that the English love of liberty predates the Normans. What evidence is there for this? I don’t think I committed myself! I was tracing classical liberal conceptions of English nationhood, and this persistent idea of a pre-Norman, relatively liberal order was for long something that English patriots had – projecting themselves back into the past to give themselves and England a kind of ‘legitimacy’. This is a very good political ploy, and may, in fact, be politically necessary in the formation of a national idea. I am interested that what seem to be reputable historians are now prepared to give countenance to this idea. History is always selective, and that is why it is such an openendedopenended subject.

On this subject of the origins of liberalism, I have also found a lot of Judaic sources for the liberal tradition. So maybe there is more than one source for liberalism – or maybe it’s all spurious! To move on to something more directly topical – even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Anglo-American model is the best possible model for society, is it right that we should seek to export liberal democracy, if needs be at gunpoint? John Gray, amongst others, thinks that liberal culture is only for Westerners, certainly not for export beyond Europe and America. I have to disagree. I have long thought – and I say in my book – that in the long run the world can only become more peaceful if the world becomes more classically liberal. I am aware that this sounds almost Trotskyite! Given the nature of classical liberalism, and its ability to permit pluralism – and provided the public culture is unitary – there is room for global diversity and development.

Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh were both murdered for saying that Islam is a grave threat to liberal values. I presume you agree with their analysis. If so, what can be done? Like the Irishman who is asked for directions, I feel like saying “If I were going there, I wouldn’t be starting from here!”

Like all religions, Islam is one that is capable of being reformed. I don’t think it is fundamentally illiberal, but in its unreconstructed state it is capable of being exploited for illiberal purposes. Islam has yet to undergo appropriate reformation. As far as Muslims in this country are concerned, I think the vast majority of them ought to be given the benefit of the doubt – in the traditional English way! – and be allowed to get on with their lives. We know there are hardliners in their midst, but it is not easy to say exactly what we can do about them – apart from not encouraging separatism and seeking to bring about maximum integration. In your 2000 book, The Rediscovery of Wisdom, you sought to revive an earlier understanding of education – as inculcating religion and civilisation rather than being mere vocational training.

And in your latest book, you describe John Locke’s list of what the educated gentleman of his time was expected to have read or at least to know about. One of the greatest calamities of modernity – and especially post-modernity – has been the extent to which the dimension of the divine is being excised from higher education. The point about Locke’s conception of what it was to be educated is that we no longer have these expectations. To illustrate the state of modern education, I like to recount a story of someone I met as long as 20 years ago, when she was in the final year of her D Phil at Oxford. We were looking up at the night sky once, and she asked me “What’s the difference between a star and a planet?” I don’t want to sound as if I am some kind of gloating know-all – I’m not – but it is worrying that basic knowledge like this can no longer be taken for granted among educated people.

David Conway is Senior Research Fellow at Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society and emeritus professor of philosophy at Middlesex University. He contributes to journals and is also the author of several books – A Farewell to Marx: An Outline and Appraisal of his Theories (1987); Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal (1995); Free Market Feminism (1998); The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia (2000) and In Defence of the Realm: The Place of Nations in Classical Liberalism (2004).

Derek Turner, 37 year old journalist and editor of ..... - That is sadly no longer with us.
An independent, London-based magazine of politics, ideas and culture set up to articulate unfashionable and politically incorrect ideas of all kinds.

Forum Jump: