Why I am not a Total Cynic

Perhaps the best Fry & Laurie sketch ever. I wonder what a foreigner would make of this. They actually play it pretty straight for the first minute. My favourite line is the last one, “And Eric Bristow steps up to the oche now.” At first I thought that was a silly throwaway line, just an absurd joke to close the scene. But I’ve come to realise that it’s absolutely key to the whole thing – after all, darts is every bit as English as cricket. But darts, Blackpool pier, fish and chips, and smoking behind the bike sheds is a very different vision than cricket, Garboldisham, strawberries and cream, and vaulting over a style in a country lane.

Still, I like Test Match Special, even if Henry Blofeld is indulging in upper-middle-class patriotic porn. Hell, I like it because it’s upper-middle-class patriotic porn! So is the Globe, and the National Trust, and even Lord of the Rings… minus Legolas of course. And in fact Fry and Laurie are on shaky ground in that sketch, considering they starred in Jeeves and Wooster!

One of the greatest exponents of patrio-porn was of course Kipling (and yes, I am a fan). “The Land” is a classic example. Naturally, it’s nonsense, but if you can read it without getting a little misty-eyed, you’re a better man than me. Of course, one of the interesting things about Kipling is that he grew up in India, and was acutely aware of his slightly outsider status. Perhaps that is why he found the concept of Englishness so romantic.

But for me the romance is political too. Macaulay said that the blood of the uttermost settler in the northern deserts of Australia flowed more freely in his veins as he lay beneath the Southern Cross and read: “To no man will we sell, to no man deny, to no man delay, justice or right.” Or Pitt the Elder, who famously said:

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it. The rain may enter. The storms may enter. But the king of England may not enter. All his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.

You can go ahead and mock, but ultimately I’m with Macaulay’s settler, and Pitt’s commoner. These are noble sentiments.

It’s fashionable to talk about “Western values” or “Enlightenment principles” or whatever, but what people really mean by this is liberty, democracy, and the rule of law – i.e. traditional English values. They’re actually the opposite of the Enlightenment, most of whose leaders favoured so called “enlightened despotism,” whether in the hands of Joseph II or Saint-Just. And they’re not particularly Western either – where does this tradition exist in the history of Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, etc? These are English (and to a lesser extent Dutch) values, that got spread around Europe and then the world in the past 200 years or so.

And it’s not just in the big things, it’s in the little things. The Common Law is sublime. Take the doctrine of consideration. Basically, if you go to court and say that John promised you £100,000 and demand that he pay, the court will ask what you promised John in return. If you didn’t promise him anything in return, then the court will say that the promise is between John and his conscience, and none of the state’s business. But if you promised John something in return – like your house, say – then the court will say that the two of you made a bargain, and force you both to honour it. The rule is brilliant in the true sense, in that someone who had never heard of this doctrine would surely never think of it. And indeed, it doesn’t exist in civil law systems. So where did it come from? Ah, the genius of the Common Law.

I should point out that I am in no way claiming that England has had more than its fair share of wonderful men. Perhaps the contrary. Henry V and William III apart, our monarchs have mostly been a mediocre lot, even downright evil at times, and our ruling class, like everywhere else, has been generally malign and corrupt for most of the past 300 years. And yet, somehow they have produced something great despite themselves. It’s hard to view Simon de Montfort as more than a warlord… and yet we have him to thank for our democracy. It’s hard to view Henry VIII as more than a tyrant… and yet we have him to thank for our religious freedom. And so on.

Perhaps this thinking appeals to me because, like Kipling, I am very conscious of being an outsider. Perhaps it appeals because it’s an emotional short-circuit of an intellectual argument. Perhaps it appeals because it’s contrarian. But whatever, I can’t shake a profound sense that England is special. And I don’t say this because I’m English. On the contrary – this sense is why I choose to be English. Cue Henry Blofeld waxing about cream cakes!

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One response to this post.

  1. […] her? Sure, it would be nice to do so, but do you have any obligation? One of the reasons I think the Common Law is sublime is that it gets this question precisely right. It says that if you’re the child’s […]

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