Today and tomorrow I am reproducing a talk I have given to Wokingham Conservatives and in Dorset in recent days.
ENGLAND THE ONCE AND FUTURE COUNTRY
England is my country. Like many of my fellow citizens, I am at peace with its history. I understand its past struggles, take pride in its many achievements, and can live with its past mistakes. I see England as a beacon for freedom, a pioneer of democracy, a country of enterprise and adventure, a country of global ambitions with human scale and understanding. To many around the world Magna Carta, the Restoration settlement of 1660 after the civil war, the long struggle against Napoleon and the resistance to Nazism are legendary victories that reverberated well beyond our shores.
England willingly merged much of her identity into the United Kingdom in a series of progressive changes to her relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland. On her own in the early medieval period, England was one of the first European countries to take political shape with a unitary government commanded by a King. This kingdom soon developed a doughty independence of mind. It took early and influential steps towards the rule of law, recorded and extended the rights of citizens and progressed to eventual democratic control. The story of England in its early days is one of how powerful men managed to control the executive and carve out for themselves and others inalienable rights.
The USA took up the cause of freedom through its War of Independence from the very country that had tutored it in the ways of freedom the young USA looked back with reverence to Magna Carta. England stood for the idea that everyone should have a fair trial if accused of crimes. No-one, however mighty, is above the law. No-one can be imprisoned without due process. All are innocent until proved guilty.
England threw off the legal and political power of the Roman Church by Acts of Parliament in the 1530s. By Shakespeare’s era England was a leading Protestant power resisting the Spanish superpower of the age, full of the joys of freer trade on a global scale. The country fashioned a language of freedom and cherished the idea of an Englishman’s liberties. Parliament favoured limited government, rejected standing armies at home, and saw to its own defence at sea. Step by step Parliament wrestled authority from the Crown, primarily by gaining control over the raising of tax and the spending of money.
In the twentieth century England was one with the United Kingdom. Representing 86% of the people and income of the whole. England willingly waved the Union flag, sang the Union’s National Anthem at its own events, and showed tolerance to the smaller countries that had joined the Union. The loss of the Irish Free State after an unfortunate and bitter struggle determined English politicians thereafter that our union has to be a union of volunteers. In recent years Scotland has tested its own wish to remain in the ballot box, and all three of the other parts of the Union have been given substantial devolved powers.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the long march to votes for all adults, first claimed by Levellers and radicals in mid seventeenth century. I conceived the popular capitalism movement of the Thatcher era as part of the parallel long route to property for all, a stake in the economic life of our country.
Devolution has left many in England asking, what for our country? As we celebrate St George’s Day. I will receive some St George’s day cards. Fans of English teams now know and display the English flag at games. There is a movement to adopt an official English anthem from amongst the many good songs we hold dear. The present government has recognised the rise of an English political awareness by taking the first steps towards English devolution.
To me England is the once and future country. One of its most famous kings is Arthur, a figure more of legend than of historical record. No-one today expects Arthur to come again, but many now anticipate an awakening of England as a vibrant democracy and cultural centre. Removed from the maps of the European Union, it has not proved possible to erase England from people’s hearts or to forget its impressive contribution to world freedom and democracy today. The more some have tried to split England up into artificial regions and to balkanise the great country, the more there has been a resurgence of belief and love for it. Where once many were persuaded our flag had been demeaned by extremists, today we can be proud of it again.