Matthew Arnold asked that question in his Celtic Literature. “And we then, what are we? What is England?”
Leslie Stephen, in a lecture given in 1915, repeated Arnold’s question, and then went on to examining the English national character, as manifested in English poetry. His observations are very pertinent to this present time, as the majority of the people of Britain attempt to re-establish their sovereignty, to go their own way rather than remain a part of the European Union.
“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.
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? ” ‘
It would seem that Britain, specifically England, had long felt that he was separate from the continent of Europe, and not so very long ago this feeling still existed; Britain may in some senses be a part of Europe, though it was an island, disconnected by natural barriers from the Continent. Yet the people who stubbornly cling to the idea of being ‘part of Europe’, particularly those younger generations, seem very emotionally attached to the idea of being ‘part of Europe’. Some of the media interviews with the younger ‘Remainers’ found them tearful about the idea of leaving the EU. Yet traditionally Britain preferred to be separate and distinct, not a part of the European continent and its political systems.
Again, from Stephen’s lecture:
“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….”
Where did this independent spirit, this ‘national consciousness’ go? Is it only dormant, or will it die with the older generations, the last remnant of the England or Britain that used to be? We can ask similar questions in the U.S. now.
Reading Leslie Stephens’ words, it is evident that much of what we Americans traditionally thought of as quintessentially American (the desire to be ‘left alone’, the preference for less government, etc.) is also part of our ‘old inheritance’, the legacy of our English ancestors.