There’s been much discussion recently around Englishness, Britishness and the future (or lack of it) of the English. This is my contribution to that discussion.
Because of my own character and experiences, my perspective is a little different from most people’s. So I’ll, necessarily, begin with some brief personal history.
A potted autobiography
I am English born and bred; though, from a genetic point of view, I’m only five-eighths English, the remaining three-eighths being Scottish. I had an unusual education, which sent me on a state funded scholarship to private boarding schools. (The state, in the aftermath of Sputnik, wanted to create as many boffins as it could; and I happened to show the right kind of promise at the right time.) I eventually studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where I just about managed to scrape a First.
Deciding that academic boffinhood wasn’t for me, I looked for a job in the (at that time, young and vibrant) software industry. My first professional job – for Ferranti, programming on-board systems for the Navy – was interesting, but the pay was rubbish, and some of the people weren’t very nice. Old Labour were in power at the time, too. So, in 1977 I moved to Holland to work for a software house there.
I spent three years in Holland, and they changed me. For a start, I had money in my pocket for the first time. And I enjoyed sampling the different cultures of Holland and Belgium, and a bit of France and Germany. By the end of three years, I had come to think of myself as no longer English or British, but European. (That was not, then, the heinous crime it might be seen as now; for “Europe” at that time was the EEC, which was a Good Thing. The evil EU was still only a glint in the eye of Brussels bureaucrats).
I moved back to the UK in 1980, and my work began to take me further afield. To Indonesia, Italy, the US and Australia, to name but four of my assignments. During that time, I came to see myself no longer as a European, but as a citizen of the world. If I had known of it back then, I would have echoed Tom Paine’s dictum: “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
In 1990 I went to work in the US, with the intention of staying there. But it took me less than a year to see that the US was already going to the dogs as a place to live. So I returned; and have suffered the predations of Messrs Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron and their hangers-on ever since.
These days, most of what I do is testing and QA, so I don’t need to travel much on business. But I’m still accustomed to working in a highly international industry. Furthermore, the main company with which I do a lot of my work, though small, has clients all over the world. And its staff are as international as the clients, and they aren’t just confined to Europeans. It’s a bit of a United Nations in there.
My odyssey of the 1980s also introduced me to various liberty organizations in both the US and UK. Thus, I had plenty of opportunity to learn the ideas and theories of liberty. But I’m not, by nature, a particularly avid reader of other people’s prose. I prefer, following Richard Feynman (one of my heroes), to learn just enough about a problem to understand it, and then to try to solve it in my own way.
As a result, I developed my own particular slant on the ideas of liberty. This is not just a political philosophy, but sets out its stall to be a complete system of thought, from the ground up. I eventually managed – with a lot of hard work – to get the basics of it written down in a book called Honest Common Sense, which I published last year.
Nation, state and culture
So, what do I think these days about England, Britishness and all the rest?
I find it important to separate out three concepts: nation, state and culture. And, within culture, to separate values and conduct from customs and institutions.
I’ll take the state first. The way I look at it, the concept of state arises from the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is, per Webster’s dictionary, “supreme power, especially over a body politic.” The idea goes all the way back to Jean Bodin in the 16th century.
In this view, the sovereign – i.e. the ruling élite – is fundamentally different from, and superior to, the rest of the population in its territory, the subjects. In particular, the sovereign has rights to do certain things, which others do not. Among these are: to make laws to bind the subjects; to make wars; to levy taxes; and to issue a currency. Furthermore, the sovereign isn’t bound by the laws it makes, and isn’t responsible for the consequences of what it does (also known as “the king can do no wrong.”)
So, what is the state? The state is the implementer of sovereignty in a particular territory. Or, as I have recently come to put it: “the apparatus which enforces the hegemony of a ruling élite.”
In a British context, pundits would tell you that the sovereign is an old woman called Lizzie, who lives in a castle at Windsor. But this is ridiculous. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d bet that Lizzie is in reality all but a prisoner in her own castle. Even Cameron has more power than Lizzie does. And a cabal of bureaucrats, whose names we do not know, and whose faces we have never seen, has far, far more power than Cameron.
The biggest single philosophical gripe I have with the state, though, is that its existence is incompatible with moral equality, and so with the rule of law. For a vital facet of the rule of law is that what is legal, and what is not, must be exactly the same for everyone. Yet the state routinely allows itself moral privileges. If you or I extorted money from people like the taxation system does, for example, wouldn’t it be seen as theft or worse? Or if you or I premeditatedly killed an innocent person like Jean Charles de Menezes, wouldn’t it be seen as murder?
And consider, if you will, the huge progress which we humans have made over the 400+ years since Bodin died. We have made great strides in science, in medicine, in technology and communications, in our understanding of human rights, in finance, in the economy, in the ability to blow each other up, and in much else. We’ve even been through the Enlightenment, for goodness’ sake! So why haven’t our political institutions made similar progress in all these centuries? Why are we still suffering a system that allows a ruling élite to do to us exactly what it wants, with no come-back? And as for the charade called democracy, that’s the last straw, giving as it does a veneer of apparent legitimacy to the whole shebang.
So, what do I think of the British state? I reject it. It’s a hangover from a way of thinking that pre-dates John Locke by 100+ years. In the wise words of Gregory Sams: “The state is out of date.”
So much for the state. Pcha! But what of the nation?
I do identify myself as English; but that’s mainly for convenience. For reasons above, I’m not prepared to tar myself with the label “British.” So, as there’s no English state, I find “English” an acceptable substitute; and one that most people understand.
That said, though, I don’t feel part of any English nation or people. One reason is that I’m an individualist, meaning that my focus is on the individual rather than the collective. Because of this, I have never liked the idea of “a people” in the singular. For me, the word “people” is always plural, and means the same as “persons.”
Furthermore, it’s only through happenstance that I came to be born in England. I could just as easily have been born in Australia, or Holland, or Indonesia, or Italy, or the US – all places I’ve lived in for months or more.
Another problem is that “nation” today has come to mean both a geographical community in a state, and a racial or tribal community. I find these two to be incompatible; and this is the root of the British versus English dichotomy, which I’ve long felt keenly. Furthermore, the EU makes things even more confusing.
Indeed, I find the idea of geographical community, in an age of mass migration and of the Internet, to be no longer helpful. It may have been workable in the days of walled city states, when the safety of one really was the safety of all. But today, does it really make sense to judge individuals as friend or foe simply by where they live? I think not.
And I’ve never approved of tribalism. In a cynical mood, I like to say that lovers of tribalism ought to go to Africa and start playing Tutsi v. Hutu. So, I don’t find judging friend or foe by bloodlines terribly appealing either.
In any case, we are all mongrels now. And that would still be so, even if not one single immigrant had passed the borders of England in the last 50 years.
Thus, I have come to see nationalism – all nationalism – as rather silly. And, historically, very destructive.
Institutions and customs
On to culture. And here, the outlook is a little more positive. As to English customs, I eat an English breakfast each morning; though I wash it down in the Dutch style with black tea. I used to play cricket for 30+ years. I still do play in a brass band. And I take pride in my command of the English language, though I’m prone to using it in a somewhat mid-Atlantic way.
As to English institutions, I am a lover of the English pub, having walked to no less than 400 from my home over the course of little more than a decade. (Though my taste in beer is European rather than English).
And I have respect for the English common law. At least, as it was before it got corrupted. Blair’s abolition of the double jeopardy rule, and Cameron’s secret courts, are egregious recent examples of these corruptions. But I think these issues go back to the 19th century, at least as early as the introduction of strict liability in criminal law.
Nevertheless I know that, in honest hands, the common law can still work well. I once watched, from a privileged position in the jury box, a judge go about his business of making absolutely sure that justice was done in his courtroom. Without going so far as to use the nuclear option of instructing us to acquit, he made it quite plain what he thought of the case. And it was a fine performance. (Though ultimately unnecessary, with me on the jury. But the judge didn’t know that).
I can’t, however, feel any respect at all for those institutions which have become politicized. The kicking out of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, for example, has removed yet another small plank of defence against the state’s destruction of our rights and freedom. For, whatever you may think of how they got there, it is undeniable that many hereditary peers both took their jobs seriously, and didn’t have any party political axe to grind. But the Lords now? Political operatives, almost all of them.
As to the Commons, I suppose there may be a few half decent individuals on the Tory back benches. Perhaps one or two among the Lib Dems too, and maybe a few UKIPpers in the future. But my feeling for MPs in general is one of contempt. They are supposed to represent us, the good people of England; and they don’t even damn well try.
And as to the BBC and other mainstream media, I don’t believe anything any of them says any more. Unless I can verify it for myself.
So, I feel no sense of “we” with either the British state or the English nation. But being an individualist doesn’t at all mean that I wish to be a hermit, to shut myself away from others. Where, then, shall I seek community?
My answer is: The people I’ll accept as my fellows are those who share my essential values. What are these values? I see two strands. In one strand, my “conservative” side if you will, I look to the past for my inspiration; and, specifically, to the values of the 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment. In the other, my “progressive” side, I look to the future. It was in order to develop this strand of my thinking that I set out to write my book of philosophy.
As to Enlightenment values, I will give a brief list of some which are important to me. Reason and the pursuit of science. Toleration, particularly in religion. The idea that society exists for the individual, not the individual for society. The idea that human beings are naturally good. Freedom of thought and action. Natural rights and human dignity. Government for the benefit of the governed. Formal equality and the rule of law. A desire for progress, and a rational optimism for the future.
As to the progressive strand of my thinking, I could just say “read my book.” But to make life easy for my readers, I’ll here give a very brief summary of the philosophy I call Honest Common Sense.
I begin with individuality and with tolerance of difference. My motto here is: Be yourself, and let others be themselves. Next, I say: Seek the truth. I try to focus on the facts. I aim to use my mind, and its capacity for reason, to find out as much of the truth as I can. And to go wherever the truth leads. Furthermore, I strive always to tell the truth as best I know it.
As to Politics – with a capital P, meaning the science of social organization and government, as opposed to the small-p politics we suffer today – I set out four principles. These four principles, I affirm, ought to be followed by any society worthy of the name civilization.
First, justice; objective, individual justice. That is: Each individual, over the long term and in the round, should be treated as he or she treats others. Second, moral equality: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa. I see this as the foundation of the rule of law, as opposed to rule by an élite. Third, I put rights. That is: Provided you behave as a civil human being, you have the right to be treated as a civil human being. And fourth and last is Freedom: Except where countermanded by justice, the rule of law or respect for rights, every individual is free to choose and act as he or she wishes.
In economics, I follow Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction between the economic means, “the equivalent exchange of one’s own labour for the labour of others,” and the political means, “the unrequited appropriation of the labour of others.” I distinguish Makers – that is, productive people who earn an honest living – from tax funded Takers that do nothing (or worse) for those who pay their wages, and from those such as crony capitalists, whom I dub Rakers.
I strongly support property rights, the free market and true capitalism – that is, the condition in which no-one is prevented from justly acquiring or justly using wealth. And I am uncompromisingly against re-distributory taxation, which I find to be a taking – indeed, a premeditated taking – of that part of the taxpayer’s life, which he or she used to earn the money taken. Taxation is far worse than mere theft!
Finally, the centrepiece of my philosophy is Honesty. That is, being true to your nature as a civil human being. And the law of honesty is: Practise what you preach. Those that fail to live up to that law – hypocrites, users of double standards, call them what you will – are enemies of civilization.
My friends and my enemies
So, who exactly will I admit into my community? The answer should be obvious. My brothers (and sisters) are those who, broadly, share my values. That is, those who conduct their lives according to ideals similar to mine, and who behave in a civil manner towards me and others. My fellow human beings are the civil or civilized people.
And I look to judge individuals by their conduct, and only by their conduct. Not by the colour of their skins, or by their birthplace, or by their social class, or by their sexual orientation, or by what religion they were brought up in.
Here’s the description of my sense of “we” from the book:
We are the economically productive people, the Makers. We are the promoters and supporters of objective justice, moral equality, individual rights and freedom. We are the honest, gentle, peaceful people, who deserve to inherit the Earth.
Besides, on the personal level, I care about those who care about me. Those who treat me as the individual human being I am; those who treat me with politeness and kindness. And those who make the effort to understand and allow for my particular foibles and idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, I make every effort to do the same for them.
But brotherhood is a two way process. I don’t feel any fellowship with, or caring for, those that treat me badly. Here’s my description, also from the book, of my enemies the uncivil:
They are the users of the political means; they are the Takers and their cronies, the Rakers. They are the dishonest, the unnatural, the inhuman. And they are the statists – promoters and supporters of the out of date political state and its violent, dishonest, collectivist politics.
And this applies on the personal level as well. So, I count as enemies those that promote or support political policies that damage me, inconvenience me or restrict my freedom in any way, or are intended to do any of these things. Those that vote for politicians and parties, that make such policies. Those that take my earnings away from me, yet give me nothing that I value in return. Those that commit or support any violation of my human rights. Those that behave as if they were a superior species to me, and want to control me. Those that demand that I make sacrifices for good sounding causes like “helping the needy” or “the environment,” yet make no such sacrifices themselves. Those that want to impose on me any kind of political correctness. Those that lie to me, or try to deceive, bullshit or browbeat me, or to manipulate my emotions against my will. Those that try to cover up the truth, or to offer lame excuses or rationalizations.
These are my enemies, not my friends or my brothers or sisters. They owe me compensation for what they have done to me; I don’t owe them anything. And by their conduct, they have forfeited all right to my concern, my compassion or my charity. I feel no more fellowship for them than a Jew would feel for nazis.
Lastly, I’ll give you my personalized, updated version of Tom Paine’s famous quote. It is, if you will, the “elevator speech” version of my entire philosophy. Here it is:
“The world is my country. All civil human beings are my fellows. And honest common sense is my religion.”