Are we European though, or Anglospherical?

The one thing that met a glum response in Boris Johnson’s speech was a statement that “we are European”. Are we?

We inhabit our islands close to Europe, and have borrowed a great deal of our culture from Europe, although in latter years they have taken more of ours than we theirs.  Our native languages are descended from those originating in Europe, and English in particular is a German language spoken with French and Latin vocabulary. That must settle it, surely? Not all our languages are European though: the next most common are not. In fact as Boris looked out, many in the audience were not European at all by culture or mother tongue, but Asian.  All though had been born to or absorbed our British culture and all of whatever origin passed undistinguished amongst themselves in the hall.

There is a continuum between European culture and British culture, born of frequent flows of trade, scholarship and warfare. We are familiar with the names of their great cities and may have holidayed there, and if not visited will have seen photographs or heard tales of when our grandfathers liberated them. We may listen to sublime German and Italian opera – perhaps this explains the more pro-European bent of the cultured classes – or watch their football teams, or both. Europe is there, close by.  It is part of our consciousness.

The cultural links only go so far though. Our social and political cultures are very different.  As was described on this blog a while ago:

We are not on any continent. Britons are a people of the seas:  we may dream at night of the endless ocean, and when beside the sea, and we are never far from it, then our hearts thrill at the sound of the shrouds hammering impatiently on the spars and lurch with joy at the draw of the wind in the taut sail. Beyond the sea, there is another home.

Yes, we eat French and Italian food, but also Indian and Chinese, just as voraciously. We are not limited to identifying with one continent.

The English-speaking world, the Anglosphere, is built on the inheritance of freedom which is fundamental to our culture. In continental Europe though, democracy is a modern accretion grafted roughly on from the example of Britain and America: strip it away and you are left with feudal tyranny as the basic norm of life. Strip modernity from the English-speaking peoples and you have the ancient rights of free Englishmen. It is no wonder that Europeans cannot understand the Britons: ancient authority for them was a tyrannous ancien régime, but for us it was a time of greater personal freedom.

Our closest cultural connections are not with Europe, which is not to deny cultural connection, but it is not so close – our closest bond is with the other English-speaking peoples, which are alike in language, culture, outlook, assumptions and attitudes, born of the same legacy, and if America or Australia has consciously moved away from their idea of British norms, actually we have been coming the same way, and as we watch each other’s films and read each other’s books, that culture grows closer, and Europe more distant.

Philologists used to look at the languages of Europe and said that as Latin had become divided across Europe and become separate, mutually unintelligible languages, so English would evolve into separate tongues across the world, but they wrote that before Hollywood and the BBC – nation shall speak English unto nation. We can find plenty of differences between the way Americans do things and the way Britons do, but they are petty cultural differences compared with the yawning gap we both have with Europe.

The truth is that parts of our culture are shared with Europe, but our whole culture is shared across the Anglosphere. If we are European, as we may be, then so are the Americans and the Australians. We cannot just divide the world into convenient geographically neat continents and allocate each country to its closest – the English-speaking world, scattered across the globe, and making the world more prosperous in all those corners, is a more realistic ‘continent’.

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