‘England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.’ This classic Eurosceptic statement was made, as Daniel Hannan reminds us in his excellent book Why Vote Leave, by a great European, Charles de Gaulle. He was explaining why France was rejecting our attempt to join the EEC in 1963. The General understood what the European project was, and why Britain was not a natural part of it. More than 50 years on, is there much to add?
An enjoyable aspect of the EU referendum campaign is the nervous condition of the Financial Times. Unable to maintain its usual pretence at judicious balance under the strain, it has become the Daily Mail of the Europhile global elites, warning of the Seven Plagues which will afflict us if we vote to leave. Rather as the Mail loves the headline beginning ‘Just why…?’, so the FT all-purpose referendum headline begins ‘Fears mount…’ Its star columnists like Philip Stephens and Janan Ganesh pour withering scorn on Eurosceptic ‘nostalgists’ and bigots. Although they — and most of the paper’s writers — are highly intelligent, it does not occur to them to take seriously arguments which, in other contexts, they would mind about, like the age-old question of who exercises power on behalf of whom. They do not realise, to adapt Matthew Arnold, that the sea of EU faith was ‘once, too, at the full’, but now isn’t. Their cries are part of its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.
As for the Daily Mail itself, more anger than melancholy — bellowings of Eurosceptic rage from the great Paul Dacre. In 1975, when we last had a referendum, the Mail warned its readers of food shortages if we voted to leave, but even Paul wasn’t editor in those days and now the horrors it threatens are all about what happens if we stay. I must say I feel rather torn. On the one hand, I share Paul’s desire to get out of the clutches of Brussels. On the other, I am a tremendous admirer of Lady Rothermere, the wife of the Mail’s proprietor. With her beauty, brains and fine horsemanship, she presides benignly over the wonderful Chalke Valley history festival, and does everything in her power to improve our civilisation. I find that Claudia, who shares the European ideal, feels sorry for the readers who don’t agree with Paul. She worries about confusing fervent personal beliefs with the future of a great newspaper. What agony this must be for all those who seek advancement in Associated Newspapers as they wonder whether to come down on the side of Caliban or Miranda. Luckily, Associated, like the United Kingdom, is presided over by a much-loved constitutional monarch, and great faith is placed in the judgment of good King Jonathan.
Much has been said about President Obama’s article in last Friday’s Daily Telegraph, in which he occupied the regular columnist’s slot to tell Britain to vote to remain. I felt the only thing missing were the words which normally appear at the end of such a piece: ‘Fraser Nelson is away.’
What is Englishness? It has only to be defined to melt away. This was the theme of a barnstorming speech by Boris Johnson — still, just, the Mayor of London — at the lovely and lively church of St George the Martyr, Southwark, last week. He was speaking at the tenth anniversary AGM of the Rectory Society, of which I am chairman. Englishness seemed a good subject because of St George’s Day (this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), because rectories, vicarages etc are very English, and because it was the 90th birthday of the Queen. Boris illustrated how politicians found it a tricky thing to encapsulate, citing Stanley Baldwin’s evocation of the plough team coming over the hill and John Major’s appropriation of Orwell about old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the early morning mist. Boris’s point was that England now had few plough teams, or old maids cycling to Holy Communion, but was still England. During questions, a woman of some years rose up and said, ‘I quite often cycle to Holy Communion in the early morning. And what I should like to say is that, because London under you is less polluted, there doesn’t seem to be much mist about these days.’ Her intervention itself defined Englishness.
In these Notes two weeks ago, I mentioned the pair of ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes which had furnished the DNA which helped prove that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is not the son of Gavin Welby, but of the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Winston Churchill’s last private secretary. My point was that they are a period piece, redolent of a past era. ‘I do not know any men under the age of 80,’ I asserted, ‘who have such a pair of hairbrushes, unless inherited.’ As I should have expected, I have been inundated with correspondence from sprightly young men of 49, or 58, or whatever, who tell me how much they cherish their ivory-backed, monogrammed pair. When they go on to tell me the life stories of these hairbrushes, however, they all reveal that they were given to them as presents, often by godparents. So my essential point stands. Christening presents still tend to hark back to more formal patterns of giving — silver napkin rings, leather-bound Bibles, cases of port. I challenge anyone under the age of 80 to show that he has a pair of ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes which he bought for himself with his own money. If he does come forward, he should be warned, he may well fall foul of modern laws about the ivory trade and of the Duke of Cambridge.
Heard on Radio 4: ‘Shakespeare was an incredible content provider.’