The new arguments over a federal more centralised Europe pose again the biggest question of UK politics. What type of country do we want in the future? What should our relationship be with this new emerging state? Over the next week I wish to examine British foreign policy.
I come to this proud of what England has stood for over the centuries. I come to this proud of many of the things that the UK has achieved in the last two hundred years.
My pride in country swelled some years ago when I was taking a Russian visitor around the Palace of Westminster. I told him part of the story of our natio. I illustrated it from the way the Victorians told it in the very fabric of the Palace building and the works of art they acquired. He responded, saying he liked the way the UK was at peace with its past.
There on the walls at Westminster are the outs and the ins, the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, the Catholics and the Protestants, Tory and Whig, Conservative and Labour, Establishsment and rebels. They have all helped mould what we are. They all are represented with their causes. Revolutionary societies do not merely re write history. They write the losers out of the script. Older democracies which evolve like the UK also continuously rewrite history, but there are always those who represent the losers as well, giving them their place in the plot.
Let me describe my starting point for this examination of the UK’s sense of national purpose. Before you can define the “national interest” you first need to say what you think is at the heart of the nation.
I am brought to my feet or moved to sympathy by the British love of liberty. There is in our national character a sense of fairness, a love of the underdog, a gritty determination to stand up for our beliefs when challenged. There is at one and the same time a deep democratic instinct, and an unruly anti clericalism that undermines pomp, questions authority and is suspicious of claimed expertise. At our best there is that sense of enterprise, a buccaneering can do approach, which lay behind our maritime prowess, our sporting innovation and our commitment to the wider world. England has led through her industrial revolution, through her early development of more democratic government, and by inventing so much that brings prosperity and pleasure to the many.
I would have wanted to ride with the chariots of Bouddica. Her cause was to free our land from the Roman military occupation. They may have brought us baths and commerce, but they also brought slavery, and an eclipse of local political freedoms. I would have wished to stand with Harold at Hastings, rooted to the sacred turf as Norman cavalry and archers fought for mastery.
I would have felt miserable as I saw the kingdom torn by the war of Lancaster and York, unsure who to back but certain that England was the loser whatever happened. I would have led the cheering for Thomas Cromwell’s Reformation. I would have played court to Elizabeth, urging both caution and steely determination in seeing off the Spanish threat to our independence.
In the civil war I would have started as a supporter of Parliament, but ended in disagreement with regicide. I would have been keen to restore the Crown, and equally keen to change personnel at the Glorious Revolution, limiting the power of the monarch.
I would have given full support to Pitt the elder as England established her wider global role and to Pitt the Younger as he led coalitions against French domination of the continent.
Both my grandfathers fought in the mud of Flanders. They were the relatively lucky ones, both surviving. The pointless slaughter of the First World War has always appalled me. Why did the UK involve herself? Did the balance of power on the continent matter that much?
The UK standing alone against the evil tyranny of the Nazis has inspired several generations. So too has the eventual victory of the mighty coalition assembled, once the USA was forced into the conflict. There were some arrangements and threats on the continent that we could not ignore.