Why the British Always Put Freedom First

Article excerpt

There was a short but very sharp row on the radio over the weekend between a panel of Euros and Neuros. Half the panellists were in favour of the European Constitution (whatever it turns out to be) and the other half were against it (whatever it turns out to be). The logic of each position turned out to be an unreliable guide as to what we should think. Both positions are solidly based on entirely romantic premises.

The Euros believe that ever closer integration will create a pan- European political class that will lead the continent into an era of peace and prosperity. The Neuros believe there is a British way of doing things that is superior to and quite at odds with continental habits. This latter idea is so susceptible to mockery that its adherents never quite come out and put it like that. Let us overcome, if we can, our fear of being labelled Little Englanders, racists, xenophobes, incipient fascists, national triumphalists and assert straightforwardly: the British are different.

Put like that, it's uncontroversial. How can we be described as anything else? Our language is different from any other in Europe, and language moulds a way of thinking. Our public services deliver different standards of care and achievement from anywhere else in Europe. The way our media treat our leaders is entirely different, and so is the way our young people behave on holiday. No other girls fall out of their brassieres by accident; no other European youth rut so drunkenly in public.

The whole march of our history and culture runs at a different angle to continental Europe's; the British empire was run on very different lines from the French or German empires and, for better and worse, with very different results.

However, there is some convergence; that too is uncontroversial. Observation confirms that we can buy Head and Shoulders in Prague. Roads and roundabouts are constructed in the same way throughout the continent; sometimes we can hardly tell whether we're driving into Brussels or Milan. Independent central banks are producing similar interest rates.

A political consensus seems to be settling over the whole area: leftish in social affairs, rightish in economic terms. Euro- politicians are producing legislation to make a more homogenous Europe. Maybe they will succeed; they've certainly succeeded so far. Life has changed a lot over the last generation. The state has made and continues to make very significant gains at the expense of civilian liberty.

Yes, the increase in the power of the political class since 1970 has constituted a silent revolution, a putsch, almost, by the clerks, the technocrats, the wonks. The massive increase in regulation has been essential to the European project but is also quite at odds with, as we shall have to call it sooner or later, the British way of doing things. And here we arrive at the controversial point. Does the British way of doing things exist, and if it does should we stop it?

The British character has a wild strand in it, we see it in ourselves and, in modified forms, in all the old Commonwealth countries. It is an almost anarchic energy that is regularly released in one of two ways: under license in our Saturnalian rituals (sporting, very often, or alcoholic), or less formally by establishing the largest empire of its time, creating an industrial revolution, or facing down the established power of the state.

Which brings us to the central proposition. This refusal to subjugate oneself entirely to the established power of the state found its original legal expression in Magna Carta. This founding document for Britain set out a direction very different to Giscard d'Estaing's founding document for Europe.

Magna Carta's purpose then was exactly opposite to the European constitution's now - it was drafted not to create state power but to limit the power of the state. …