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Speech to the Traditional Britain Group, Saturday 13th September 2014
My speech today, to the Traditional Britain Group, is about the basis of culture - a very difficult subject for any speaker, as the matter is very complex. Many elements go toward the fabric of culture, but perhaps I could begin with a comment made by Christopher Howse of The Daily Telegraph. As you may know, Christopher Howse is the distinguished writer of a column entitled, Sacred Mysteries, and is a chronicler of Christian Britain (and Europe - as he also follows the pilgrims’ route to Spain). Recently, he travelled to Luton on the trail of an interesting piece of church history. But Christopher Howse says this of Luton...
“The glorious structure pictured here stands in one of England’s most miserable town centres. Inside St Mary’s church, next to the vile blank sides of The Mall shopping centre in Luton, a 20ft octagonal stone enclosure from the 1330s rises above the font, with thin pinnacled buttresses and richly crocketed steep gables. I’d mentioned recently that, though I’d left it a bit late to visit India, which should take a life’s work to understand, I might perhaps manage a visit to Luton.”
Well, this amusing aside certainly gives you an idea of one element of what constitutes culture. It is of course, the ancestral identity which you have, which in the case of the British Isles derives from a mixture of influences. The case is best put in a remarkable archaeological survey, written about Sutton Hoo is Suffolk - the extraordinary burial places of Saxon kings, near Woodbridge, on a part of the Suffolk coast known for its quiet creeks, mediaeval churches, and reedy marshes. In the atmosphere of this profoundly English place, it is difficult not to feel drawn to - what the French philosopher Maurice Barrès termed, “a cult of the soil and the dead”.
The author of the book, archaeologist Charles Green writes...
“It is a commonplace that in the veins of most modern Englishmen there runs the blood of many ancestral peoples. We may turn for example to Daniel Defoe who, in 1703, gave us ‘The True-born Englishman’ –
‘The Western Angles all the rest subdued
A bloody nation, barbarous and rude,
Who by tenure of the sword possessed
One part of Britain, and subdued the rest,
And as great things denominate the small,
The conquering part gave title to the whole;
The Scot, Pict, Briton, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English Saxon all unite.’
And then he [Defoe] goes on to satirise at greater length the Norman strain in the hotch-potch. But this mongrelism, as it is often called, can be and often is somewhat exaggerated. For Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, Danes and Norsemen were little more than tribal names of folk of closely-related stocks, of cognate speech and culture. Normans, too, were transplanted Norsemen, somewhat modified by admixture with Saxons and Franks, another northern tribal group. And though the ancient British element, itself compounded of many strains, has modified the ‘Nordic’ mixture, it has still to be shown that its proportion is considerable in the English amalgam….”
And, Green continues…
“In a famous passage in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Bede (A.D. 672-735), the monk of Jarrow, says: “Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations in Germany – Saxons, Angles and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and of the Isle of Wight… From the Saxons, that is from the country now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons and the West Saxons...
With this passage must be considered another, Procopius, a writer of the early sixth century in the Eastern Roman Empire, that Britain was people by the Angles, Frisians and Britons.’ ”
We may also consider the romantic sense of the past and of national identity, evoked by Enoch Powell. Powell spoke eloquently of the faces and stone carvings in our churches which gaze back upon us, whispering as it were, a message from beyond the grave and beyond our time. I can recall a television discussion in which a variety of liberal-leftists were taking issue with Enoch, on historical matters - claiming that Powell’s idea of the nation being more than the current sum total of its parts was a fallacy. Powell retaliated, asking his detractors a simple question: “Are you part of the same nation that defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar?” One opposing historian seemed to be stopped short by this, tripped up somewhat by this interesting counter-question. Quickly she composed herself, and defiantly - although unconvincingly - stated “No” to her questioner. Enoch remained silent, but had a faint expression of satisfaction. Clearly, we are part of the same nation which won at Trafalgar, and indeed, at Agincourt – part of the same nation that waved goodbye to its soldiers in 1914.
Nationhood and what Professor Roger Scruton has called “belonging”, or “the settlement of England”, is overwhelmingly a matter of common characteristics, and it is possible that some of the civic virtues that flow from this may, on a small scale and in small numbers, be extended to others. But what we have seen in Britain, and what Christopher Howse hinted at in his Telegraph column, is that in many places in Britain today, there is very little indigenous culture with which newcomers can integrate. As Enoch said in a BBC Radio 4 interview in about 1985: “If you have ten Chinese people in your town, your town is still recognisably your town” But if you multiply that number vastly, your surroundings and the people who surround you cease to be recognisable.
Sadly, unceasing multiculturalism and over-population is not confined to our capital city: cities in the Midlands – Birmingham and Leicester – and towns in the North, such as Bradford and Oldham have all undergone a forced transformation. And the SNP in Scotland is busily and enthusiastically working to make the land of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace into an open-door, multicultural society. If you are an ancestral Scot living in England, you don’t get to vote in the referendum. But if you arrived from Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, Pakistan etc at Glasgow airport a few months ago, astonishingly, you have a vote on the future of the 300-year-old British Union.
As I mentioned at the outset, it is difficult to produce a doctrine about the basis of culture, and often it can sound a little like amateur philosophy and amateur science if you try to do so. So I want to illustrate what I mean by culture, by telling you some of the things that I have been doing, and some of the experiences that I have had - to try to illustrate a general point about what I believe makes for an identity.
On the 3rd August this year, which was almost the 100th anniversary of the declaration of what was known as The Great War, I participated in a special commemorative service at my local church in Kent. The church itself stands on Saxon foundations, but it is essentially a Norman and mediaeval church. And just under the chancel arch, is the memorial to one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers, who - despite accompanying Charles l to his execution - was able to keep his life following the fall of Cromwell's republic, because the officer was so liked by His Majesty.
The officer, Col. Matthew Tomlinson, was not responsible for the death of a king, and was simply told to go and live quietly in Kent, in East Malling to be precise, and that is what he did! Outside, on the village green, the church's war memorial has inscribed upon it the names of the men of the parish who gave their lives for their country, and I am proud to say that a large number of villagers, in addition to the normal congregation, came along to participate in this act of remembrance, and ultimately, national loyalty and togetherness. The music at the church service was beautifully executed, with great feeling in the singing of hymns – hymns such as Sir Hubert Parry's Jerusalem (written in 1916) and I vow to the thee my country, which is set to music written by Holst. [Incidentally, it is distressing that so many of Britain’s young people have no idea of our heritage of hymns. The quiet withering away of morning worship and assembly in our schools, and the removal of Christian culture from daily life of our multicultural society has meant that tunes such as Jerusalem, or Onward Christian Soldiers, or Praise my Soul the King of Heaven – once well-known – are unknown.]
On the 4th August itself, at 10pm, the church also held a candlelit vigil, with the church bells tolling - one chime for every soldier from the district killed in the war. The strange thing was that in the ancient church, the echo of the ringing bell through the church tower brought with it a curious and unsettling “boom” - an echo which reminded me of the sound of distant cannon fire.
A combination of the event which we were commemorating, the rural outlook and aspect of the church, and its eventful history and atmosphere of the past enabled me, and many others, to express something of our common identity, feelings, inheritance.
Thirteen days later, I attended a promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall, a building which symbolises the high-water mark of Victorian grandeur and hope. Opposite the hall (opened in 1871), a short stroll down the south steps, now called the Queen’s steps, is the Royal College of Music which was opened in 1882 by Queen Victoria’s son, who became Edward Vll. The Royal College of Music was an attempt to establish in England and Great Britain, a power-house of performance and composition, and a base from which a national school of music might grow. Sir Hubert Parry’s name, once again, springs to mind (he was Professor of Composition at the Royal College).
But in mid-Victorian times, Prince Albert believed that a form of Britannic-German-dominated European union might be conceived, an alliance which would protect Europe and ensure that its Royal houses and common civilisation would prevail. How painful it would have been for him, to see all-Europe convulsed in a war in 1914, which saw the deaths of millions - including the loss of some of Britain and Europe’s most promising young composers.
A brief word about the Proms concert I attended… The music I heard was by the English composer, an Edwardian, imperialist, traditionalist, folk-song collector and morris-dancer, George Butterworth - his settings of A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad - poetry and music that is suffused with an English melancholia, and a longing for a land of lost content. Butterworth was killed in action in 1916. Also in the programme, was the music of the almost unknown German composer, Rudi Stephan, who died on the Russian eastern front. He was just 28 years old. It was clear from hearing Stephan’s Music for Orchestra of 1912, that here was a man who could have carried on the tradition of German high-romanticism, the music of Wagner or Richard Strauss - and yet music that had the mark of the new age upon it. The juxtaposition of composers, British and German, reminded me very much of the writings of two great authors, Henry Williamson - his Patriot's Progress – his account of the wasteland and warfare of the Western Front – and Ernst Junger’s similar experiences, in Storm of Steel - a work that was a
great favourite of the late Jonathan Bowden.
I would like to read a little of Henry Williamson’s account of the war. Its style is stark, even brutal – a far cry from the Nature-worship of novels such as Tarka the Otter:
“The wind drove the rain over the dark, crumbled hollows and rubble heaps of Ypres. Long-range high-explosive shrapnel cracked and drifted in woolly-bear smoke over the station where an ambulance train was waiting with anxious driver. Troops marched past, going up for another assault; they marched silently; troops of a division going into the battle for the fourth time. The lightly-wounded on the train watched them silently, then turned away and drank hot, sweet, milky tea, in enamel mugs; the rootlets of their minds growing in hope towards England.”
The work ends on a note of sorrow and regret…
“At this moment a very little boy ran up, waving a flag… ‘Look, daddy, look!’ cried the little boy. ‘The poor man hasn’t got only one boot on!’
‘Sh! You mustn’t notice such things!’ said the toff. ‘This good man is a hero. Yes,’ he went on, ‘we’ll see that England doesn’t forget you fellows.’
‘We are England,’ said John Bullock, with a slow smile. The old gentleman could not look him in the eyes; and the little boy ceased to wave his flag, and stared sorrowfully at the poor man.”
After the war, and during the Depression of the 1930s, Williamson became attracted to the ideals of Sir Oswald Mosley, who whilst believing very much in the British traditions of Empire and monarchy, conceived of a new politics, a new way of life, and a radical alternative to what he termed the old political parties. The First World War’s aftermath was one of mourning and loss, but also a desire to fill the void created by the war with revolutionary new art, music and political ideas. And yet, within Britain, political stability was largely maintained - Britain avoiding revolution and the overthrow of society and religion. In fact, soon after World War One, audiences flocked to Canterbury Cathedral to hear a work by Gustav Holst, The Coming of Christ - proof that our society sought ultimate reassurance in its enduring symbols and music. The Coming of Christ provided a solace, and a benediction, just as Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony provided a similar spiritual refreshment in the midst of the Second World War.
My belief is that our culture has been shaped by what might be called the “bedrock” identity of our country, which stretches back for centuries if not for thousands of years. In fact, a short distance from my home is a Neolithic burial mind which is occupies a prominent hill at the edge of the North Downs, not far from the River Medway. The structure is some 5,000 years old. The short journey to this remarkable place takes in several beautiful churches, one of which at a place called Trottiscliffe, has a stained-glass window which commemorates the 11th-century Bishop Gundulph of Rochester. The landscape of the area - chalk downland, woodland, and roadside verges with rare orchids - evokes an unchanging sense of Southern England, perhaps the visionary England - and the common British identity. As Stanley Baldwin put it – “England is the country, and the country is England.”
To most of our managerial politicians, Britain is simply a place which can be built upon, or changed, and where a shifting, changing population can be brought in and out, almost like replacing a part in a car or machine. Yet in the countryside, and to a certain extent still, the suburbs and the greenbelt (Orwell called them the “invincible green suburbs”) the feeling remains of a settled, intrinsic, “Englishness of England”: the essence of landscape, and identity, the place where our history was made, and which we identify, quite rightly, as our country.
I hope some of these ideas have helped to outline what I understand by the meaning of culture.
But finally, on the eve of the Scottish referendum, I would like to quote from H.V. Morton’s In Scotland Again (first published in 1933). And I dedicate this passage to Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister!
“Scotland’s battles have been desperate. They have been national. Flodden turned Scotland into a graveyard. One of the most interesting recent books on Flodden is a small volume called The Secret of Flodden, by W. Mackay Mackenzie. No one can deny that this writer is a good Scotsman, but he has the detachment to take a new and impartial view of Flodden. He thinks that the Scots should have won. They are superior in numbers and in artillery… As you stand on the green hill of Flodden it is not difficult to imagine that September day in 1513, with the rain falling and the English army begging James to descend and fight on the plain. You look at lovely Twizel Bridge – the most beautiful Border Bridge – and you can, in imagination, see the English forces crossing that bridge to take the Scots in the rear. That bridge is one of Scotland’s saddest relics. Evening falls over this green hill and the battle is over. Kings James lies dead and round him lie the bodies of ten earls and three bishops, eleven barons, the archbishop of St. Andrews, three other church dignitaries, the Treasurer and sixty-eight knights and gentlemen.”
Traditional Britain Group
BCM Box 9045