A few weeks ago, I went to a party at Paul and Marigold Johnson’s house and fell into conversation with Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, a journalistic idol of mine. In addition to being one of Britain’s foremost conservative intellectuals, he was my first proper boss on Fleet Street. He employed me to write opinion pieces and profiles for the Sunday Telegraph in 1990 and his editorial comments were always shrewd and helpful.
We talked about a range of subjects, including David Cameron’s premiership and whether Boris Johnson would make a good leader of the Conservative party. But the topic we spent the most time on was the future of the United Kingdom. Like me, Perry is a patriot who believes in many of the things Britain stands for — free speech, the rule of law, personal liberty, habeas corpus, etc. But he was more pessimistic than me about the survival of Britain as a nation, assailed as it is by separatist movements at home and an EU superstate abroad.
He was sceptical about whether there is still such a thing as the British nation. Legally, the United Kingdom still exists — at least until the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 — but do a majority of the citizens still feel an emotional tie to Britain? We’re not just talking about an affection for British pop music and comedy, but a blood loyalty to our land and its history that supersedes all other bonds, such as those of religion and ethnicity. Would most Britons be prepared to die for their country, bearing in mind that one in ten weren’t born here?
Perry thought the answer might well be ‘no’, in which case trying to preserve the union or claw back some of parliament’s sovereign powers is a bit of a lost cause. Better to resign ourselves to the disintegration of the United Kingdom and conserve our energy for fighting for British values in other arenas. After all, just because the cradle of parliamentary democracy ceases to be, doesn’t mean the cause of limited government has to suffer. History teaches us that the culture associated with a particular country is never more powerful than after it has suffered a defeat. Look at the way in which America in the 1960s and 70s absorbed the culture of Weimar Germany. So all is not lost, even if the British nation is irrecoverable.
I wonder whether Perry would take the same view after the glorious fortnight that was the Olympic Games? The tone was set by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. I didn’t care for all of it, but he succeeded in identifying a common sense of national identity that was strengthened rather than undermined by the ethnically diverse nature of modern Britain. And why not? The national characteristics that enable all the different groups to get along — cosmopolitanism, tolerance, a sense of humour — are in many ways peculiarly British.
As the Games progressed it became increasingly clear that while Britain is now a wholly multi-ethnic society, it is not wholly multicultural. When the chips are down, the vast majority of Britons feel a loyalty to these islands that trumps all other sources of cultural identity. I’m not just thinking of the cheering crowds and the BBC commentators, but of the athletes themselves. Who can forget the image of Sir Chris Hoy draping himself in the Union flag after winning his sixth gold medal? Before the Olympics, Alex Salmond had tried to claim him as a ‘Scolympian’, but he’ll be hard pressed to do that now.
For me, the best moment of the Games was when Usain Bolt did the Mobot after the Jamaican team won the 4x100 metre relay, a gracious hat tip from the world’s greatest Olympian to our new national hero. Mo Farah is the perfect embodiment of the new, multi-ethnic British patriotism that the Games have revealed. Shortly after winning gold in the 10,000 metres, he was asked by a journalist whether he would have preferred to have been representing Somalia. ‘Look, mate, this is my country,’ he replied. ‘When I put on the Great Britain vest, I feel proud — very proud.’ If that’s not passing Norman Tebbit’s cricket test, I don’t know what is.
Perhaps I’m being hopelessly romantic, but I cannot help feeling optimistic about the future of Britain after the Olympics. The conservative cause I believe in most strongly — the preservation of the United Kingdom as an independent sovereign state — is still worth fighting for. A commitment to Britishness and British values still runs deep among the population at large — it just has to be mobilised by the right party. And Boris Johnson is just the man to do it.