“And we then, what are we? What is England?”

Matthew Arnold wrote the above words in his work Celtic Literature. His question was repeated by Leslie Stephen in a lecture given in 1915. Now, more than a century after the questions were posed, they seem very pertinent as now Britain is attempting to exit the European Union, with the country divided over which course to take.

In Leslie Stephen’s lecture, in which he discussed English national character, we see that the traditional English attitude, perhaps more true to the innate character of England, was to remain aloof and independent, not part of the European system.

“The governing characteristics of the Englishman are not greatly in dispute. His sturdy nationalism, for example, has all along and everywhere been acknowledged. The earliest proof of it lies in the ‘withdrawal,’ to use Bishop Creighton’s word, the ‘withdrawal’ of England from that marvellous fraternity of the Middle Ages, feudal and Catholic Europe. By the fourteenth century she had become a separate nation, committed to the voyage of her own destiny. At a price the Englishman purchased his freedom. Deliberately he stood aloof from the centre, from the main stream of ideas, from the light and warmth of European civility. He remained, as it were, the country cousin of the family, preferring, one might say, the rough, free out-of-doors life to the elegance and refinements with the accompanying restraints of the town. “

I’ve often asked, can the national character of a people change, or be changed, completely? We can ask that in the American context: where did the old American character go, the ‘don’t tread on me’ side of America? Are we our father’s children, or does the propaganda and conditioning override or overwrite our innate character? We can ask Arnold’s questions, ‘And we then, what are we? What is England?” or ”what is America?” in 2019?

To return to Stephen’s lecture,

“He declined the advantages of the best Latin society. Unattracted by the mediaeval vision of a united Christendom, of races held together by common acceptance of the same laws, the same religious creeds and observances, the same chivalric ideals, he set over against the abstract perfections of this dazzling scheme his own liberty, his own habits, his own interests. He had no eye for the beauty of a universal, an ideal order. His talent has ever been for life rather than logic. Of general principles because they tend to imprison the individual he is suspicious. “My case is always a special case. Why should I be treated as one of a number, I, who am unlike all the rest? “

He preferred, too, the old “laws of St Edward” to any legislative novelties, his own priests and bishops to foreigners, his own language to Norman French. He knew his mind and achieved his ends, not indeed so much by way of argument as by patient indifference to argument, and the gradual development of national consciousness only stiffened his original prejudices. His country satisfied him as the best, his race as manifestly the bravest and the handsomest in the world. To go his own way, think his own thoughts, conduct his own undertakings is all an Englishman asks, or used to ask, and if he interferes in the affairs of others, it is only that he may not be interfered with. By this early withdrawal from the comity of European nations, England led the van in liberty…”

It is noticeable that many of the tendencies of the English character, as described above, seem familiar to Americans, as being part of what motivated our English forefathers to seek independence: the desire to govern our own affairs locally, and to be ‘left alone’, preferring smaller government. It would seem that is part of our ‘old inheritance’, a legacy of our English forebears.

But can national traits re-appear after seeming dormant for so long? Can England be England again? Or are national traits so easily overridden or overwritten? Judging by the reaction of many of the younger people interviewed after the Brexit vote, many were distraught and tearful about being torn away from what they thought of as their European identity. Obviously there are very different ideas of what it means to be English, or British, or is it European? How this can be reconciled is quite a conundrum.