Some while ago, about sixteen centuries ago in fact, a fisherman out of Gesoriacum, becalmed among the northern banks of an evening, looked out over a fogless sea and saw the dancing light of the great beacon at Rutupiae. Then in a moment as he watched, it was gone. It was not to shine again.
To those on the shores of Gaul who saw the light go out, the whole island had been plunged into darkness. Seeing the single ember of Roman Britannia disappear, it was as if the whole island had gone.
After the voting finished seven years ago, I went along to the count. Our MP was there, and we chatted cheerfully enough, though he had campaigned on the other side. I have respect for honest, reasoning Remainers who had the national interest at heart, though they were wrong, as it turns out, and their fears came to nothing. The evening was pleasant – so I was stunned in the morning to see hysteria amongst some of defeated side. They had claimed to be the rational ones, something the BBC repeated without thinking. The months went by and the fury remained, all through into the general elections that followed, and all up to the gleeful political assassination of the Big, Blond Brexiteer-in-Chief, all beyond reason. There are political causes to be angry about: I hope I would have been as vehement in defence of British unity had the Scottish vote gone the other way all those years ago, but to spit bile in the name of a trading bloc suggests that there is something else behind it, in a different vision rejected, which need not be that of the disciples of Monet across the Channel.
No world-changing event has taken place: we have merely adjusted our trading treaties, as any nation may. Some feel deep in their hearts though that a light has gone out in Rutupiae. There may be those who looked across from the Gallic shore too and watched the twelve stars go out in our land and thought of it as an end, but the lights are blazing across our islands, brighter indeed than those in Europe.
In the days of the bewildered fisherman, when there was no world beyond Empire, Britannia falling dark might as well have sunk in the sea. This though was not a little island. This was the one nation within their borders whom the Romans feared, amongst whom the Romans garrisoned more legions than the whole of Africa, whose wild-eyed people were never trusted with office, and the one which had refused to stop speaking its native tongue. The Britons were raising their own kings in their own land and would not be gone so easily. In later ages it was the Britons who would remake the world.
One half of my ancestors of course destroyed this happy vision, striding the sea, driving the native Britons off their land, displacing to the mountain wastes the tongue which had survived even the iron boot of Rome. In time though, when the Church had calmed the heathen English a little, the name of Britain was heard again on the lips of these new farmers and kings and an ancient concept of unity within the band of the sea was sought out. Irish monks taught the English to read and to pray. Across the island scholarship and invention flourished, so that the Dark Ages were less dark in Britain than in most of Europe.
It was an English monk who taught Charlemagne to wear his crown, and English missionaries who sailed to Germany and later to Scandinavia to reform those nations. We are still remaking the world.
Charles de Gaulle thought that “c’est l’Europe, depuis l’Atlantique jusqu’à l’Oural, c’est toute l’Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde”, but it has not. The English-speaking nations have shaped the world while Europe has shrunk in on itself.
De Gaulle’s phrase, echoed unthinkingly by innumerable European leaders since, has caused this current war in the Ukraine. It sounds to Russian ears like a deadly threat: “to the Urals” says to their ears “we will come to cut your country in half”. It would be wiser to say with modesty that the European vision is from Brest en Finistère to Brest-Litovsk.
However expressed, we lie off de Gaulle’s Atlantic boundary, the end of his vision. While Europe may be content to lie between the two Brests, our roving hands have wider ambition. For us, outside the Atlantic Wall, the sea is no boundary but the beginning of our endeavours. We are born upon and borne upon the sea which laps the world. Britons are in every port and a Briton by blood and culture outside these shores is as much a Briton as I am, though he be born in New York or Darkest Peru.
I pause before saying that we will “remake the world” but we will do so, not by force but perhaps in a fit of absence of mind. We are far beyond the convulsive Georgian age of politicians negotiating shifting alliances to exchange provinces between covetous neighbours and to roll from war to war, nor thankfully the Victorian age presiding over the dissolution of decrepit empires while sparks leapt between the ever-filling powder kegs of Europe. In contrast, ours is an age our nation built. The greatest peacemaker of our time, indeed the most effective since that light guttered and died in Rutupiae, has not been a statesman in his pomp, but our own Adam Smith of Kirkcaldy. Amongst commercial, democratic states, he made war both redundant and repugnant.
If we sit back, content in a Fukuyama daze of peace and liberality, we forget that these are not universal nor inevitable: they are British, values, and American values by inheritance from Britain. A British-made world with our values is not inevitable. Rival visions, cruel visions, are rising. Nor even is civic peace inevitable: a sharp blow can shatter even a civilisation three thousand years old: Syria is still at war several years after the cameras left. Such torn nations are not comprehensible within our cultural assumptions and so we must step back, outside our culture to our raw humanity. British values are needed more than ever.
Malicious naïvity is displayed by political voices which assert that evil must be an aberration explicable in Freudian terms within the narrow Western preconceptions of behaviour. Rage, cruelty, oppression and lust for power are the base material from which man is made: the suppression of our animal nature is the achievement and the object of culture and society. To smash a society is to unleash the animal. If a commentator implies that those who slaughter villages are not responsible for their actions, that they are good men at heart reacting to the actions of the civilised West; that scribbler should be drawn from his comfy salons to face the widows and the orphans, and let them speak. They may tell what Thomas Hobbes knew over three hundred years ago, that men live without other security than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal: there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
The idea of universal human values is a comfort blanket, but it has no root in reality as it is certainly not universal in place nor time. Those values of peace, respect, fair dealing and democracy are values developed over centuries by the English-speaking nations and our gift to the world.
Even more today, we must express our values and not be subsumed in a bureaucrat’s barren conception. Evil is never further from us than space between the heart and the head, and the evil in the heart of man is to be cooled as it was in our nation centuries ago, by the building of society in prosperity that is prized by all. It is not to come from the babbling idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone every century but this and every country but his own; criticism is helpful and constructive but one must be critical of one own criticism as one must be cynical of ones own cynicism.
Whatever faults may creep into individual actions over the ages, honesty can never disparage the great good that our nation has done in the world, and which we will continue to do. Freed from gazing inwardly, we have new found lands to reach for again, to do good in spite of ourselves.
As the twelve stars go out in our land there should be no tears for the old familiarity with such idle idols. When the stars begin to fade, it is because the dawn is coming.
- Five years, and who would have imagined?
- 4 years ago we voted
- Where the Remainers were right
- Quiet, smug anniversary
- Statesmanship, a lost art
- Brexit moments in history:
- How to get things done
- All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman
- Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
- Brexit: How the Nobodies Beat the Somebodies by Sebastian J. Handley
- Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tom Connelly
- Beyond Brexit by Vernon Bogdanor
- From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland by Donnacha O Beachain
- Brexit: Its Necessity and Challenge by Tony Kosuge
- Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era by Liam Fox
- By Boris Johnson:
- For the Record by David Cameron