By ALAN MACFARLANE.
B is for…
(From Understanding the English; A Personal A-Z)
A comparison with the Press of most continental countries would show that we remain a singularly insular people. When, not long ago, a great storm at sea damaged the cables and communication with Europe became for the moment difficult, The Times headline ran “Continent Isolated,” and the significant fact about that superb example of sub-editorial genius is that it passed almost without comment from English readers.
—January-March 1931, The Political Quarterly, “The British Press and Foreign Affairs” by Kingsley Martin, pg. 115.
Written in Spring 2019: This is a topic which will perhaps only be of historical interest in a few years. Currently, however, it is a great enigma and source of anxiety, not only for those observing the U.K. but even for the British themselves. We all ask, how did we get into this mess and how are we to get out of it?
The reasons for getting into this hole are both long term and immediate. There are numerous and deep-seated historical and cultural differences between the U.K. and Europe. These have greatly lessened in the last two generations, but still many people sense that the English are very different in their traditions and culture from people across the Channel. This makes many people want to preserve the difference, the special law, the independent political power, the culture and identity. All these seem to be threatened by globalization. This leads to hostility and anxiety, not just in the U.K. but in many parts of the world at present.
A more immediate reason is that many who voted in the referendum to leave Europe were suffering an erosion of their lives by rapid technological changes, particularly automation and artificial intelligence. This compounded their feeling of hopelessness. Something different was offered by those who advocated withdrawal, a new world of opportunity and return to more satisfactory jobs, and many believed the promises. In this way, they were only doing what the British do every four years or so, voting against the current established party in power, throwing them out in the hope that the next lot would be better. This is what elective democracy is about.
Unfortunately, with hardly any experience of referenda, many did not fully realize that this was not a general election which, if it led to an unsatisfactory outcome, could be reversed. It was not a matter of changing the players at the top, but changing the fundamental rules of the game. It is like moving from cricket to football, not just choosing another coach or captain.
As the implication and full impact dawns, many believe that the pragmatic English are likely to find a way out of this tight corner. They have done so many times in their history. My guess in the spring of 2019 is that it is likely that Brexit will drift into a half in, half out, solution which is the usual answer to most problems – namely half way between the two extremes. The English hate all binary decisions and prefer something in-between. Compromise is central to an English person, constantly pulled in contrary directions by the divided world in which he or she lives.
Postscript: Christmas Day 2020: Yesterday, the ‘Deal was Done’ and the terms of the Exit were agreed.
It is not often that a social scientist can make a prediction and then see how accurate it was. I leave it to you to decide, but my impression is that I was more or less right in what I wrote nearly two years ago. We are still half in, and half out. Nigel Farage and others are claiming that Brexit has not been done – we are still tied in and nothing much has happened. It is a betrayal. Others are claiming the opposite. This is what a true British ‘fudge’ looks like.
Another way of putting this is in a simile. The European Union is like a British club, you join voluntarily, if the other members are happy, and you can leave. When you join, you are a member, with all the member’s rights and all the members obligations. Yet British clubs also have degrees of associate membership. For example, in my Cambridge College I am now a full Fellow. I have a room, I can vote at meetings, I can go into meals every day for free. I can use all the facilities as a ‘co-trustee’ of the College.
Yet, I decided to leave my Fellowship after only four years. My Research Fellowship which gave me great freedom was over in 1975 and I was informed that if I wanted to continue, I would have to do more teaching for the College and take on a serious administrative position which would involve at least one day a week of my time. I felt that this was too high a price. I would gain in social warmth, but lose intellectual freedom for research as I took on the extra heavy duties of a University Lecturer.
So, for six years, I became partly associated with my ex-College, in a new slot. I continued to be an Associate of the Senior Common Room, a position which some of my friends hold now. This gave me continued rights, such as two free meals a week and the right to invite in guests (at my expense). I had the right to attend a Carol Service and to take two guests with me. I could sit in the Common Room (the Club room) at any time to read papers or meet people. As an ex-Fellow I had extra rights, including to walk over the grass and to use the Library. I even had the right to buy wine in the Christmas wine sale and to store my wine in the College cellars.
Yet I had also lost a great deal – particularly the immaterial rights of calling myself a ‘Fellow of King’s’ and treating my friends as Fellows, somehow especially close, as well as the right to participate in College meetings, sit on College committees and help run the College. I was half an insider, half an outsider.
When I was promoted to a Readership in the University, this allowed King’s to invite me back to a different kind of slot, somewhat like a Professorial Fellowship. I could retain my intellectual freedom and do what teaching and administration I liked, yet I could also become a full Fellow again. I chose to do that.
The UK has done what I did when I left my Fellowship in 1975. It has half left the club. It is half a stranger, half a friend. It will find, as I found when I left and then have experienced when I re-joined, that there is something special in being a member of something larger than oneself in this cold world.
I am saddened that the British did not realize this, even if my most influential book, The Origins of English Individualism (1978), could, with hindsight, be seen to have predicted this possible outcome. In a way, that book was a premonition that such a thing would happen. It showed that culturally, intellectually, historically, Britain is still very different from Europe and that it has always valued its intellectual freedom and autonomy. It was always thus and the divergence grew over the centuries. This was a message which led, not surprisingly, to the book becoming influential among a number of the intellectuals in the Conservative party around the newly elected Margaret Thatcher.
My individual life is a mirror of what has happened. My head is, in a way, an outsider, my heart an insider in Europe. I am another British fudge — a word with several meanings, including of my favourite sweets, and meaning a blurred decision or boundary or compromise.
Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly is here.