The referendum seems to have revealed a similar kind of dialectic as between the North and South of the United States. After Brexit? The Referendum and Its Discontents by Scott Stephens offers some acute analyses of the referendum of last week. I have been brought to believe that the referendum should never have taken place – and that the EU needs profound reforms or to be destroyed and replaced with something new.
One such opinion is from John Milbank of the Radical Orthodoxy school:
Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy. Unfortunately it has duped the working classes, once again to their further ruination.
One commenter on this article expressed surprise that someone of the intellectual calibre of John Milbank should equate the Brussels dinosaur (my expression) with the “high” view. That question is debatable. We would need to ask him. Apart from that, Milbank seems to have come up with an idea of two Englands that has always fuelled my own pilgrimage in life.
I was born in Kendal at the south end of the Lake District, a small market town where my parents settled in the late 1950’s when my father found his opportunity to join the local veterinary surgeon in partnership. As I grew up, I had the impression of stick-in-the-mud conservatism in attitudes. Older people kept the young at a distance with the old idea that age brought privilege. Kendal is a predominantly Protestant town with I don’t know how many denominations: one RC parish dating from the early nineteenth century, the main parish church with an excellent musical tradition and a “Prayer Book Catholic” ethos. I was in the choir there from 1975 to 1976. St George’s is quite high with its fine Edwardian chancel and St Thomas’ (where I was baptised) is rock-bottom low. They still had north-end celebration in the 1970’s but now it just has the big screen and the place for the “praise band”. There are many pentecostal and independent evangelical communities. High church worship has never been of much appeal to Kendal people. As the years went by, young Kendal folk modernised and followed the trends of fashion, consumption, smartphones and all the rest. The Lake District voted for staying in the EU, in spite of the conservatism I knew as a child.
I went to school in York and worked there for a few years before going to London in 1978. Yorkshire seemed to be less “closed” than Westmorland and Lancashire. Older people saw young people as the future, and there were more opportunities for things that interested me like church music. There was also the difference between a cathedral city and the smaller and industrial towns producing coal or mint cake.
What now remains of the revolution of the mid seventeenth century? Milbank opposes the two sides he finds implicit in our attitudes today. The USA still has its Yankees and Red-necks reflecting the two sides of the Civil War. I meet people occasionally who seem to come from another planet. No thought is shared in common. Having lived in France for so long, I see the same dividing lines between the revolutionary republican and those who look to the old medieval order as survived until 1789. It is the dividing line between the Classicist and the Romantic. Surely we all have both head and heart!
Perhaps this is one reason why there needs to be cooperation at a cultural level, not merely economical, financial and business. These splits need to be understood and worked on from the point of view of diversity and tolerance. This fundamental divide is everywhere, not least Russia or any country that had experienced a violent reformation or revolution. The cracks have certainly appeared in England as people voted more with the guts than with their heads.
England has been a very stable country since about the eighteenth century, and shone in contrast to the upheavals in France and much of Europe in the nineteenth century. The Empire was at its height in the Victorian era, and was finally destroyed after World War II, the 1960’s and the return of Hong Kong to China. Our industrial production is only a shadow of what it was until the 1960’s. Perhaps it is England’s turn to know such upheavals and accounts to be settled between lying and treacherous politicians, “ordinary” people and those more motivated by culture and humanism than brute money.
In spite of the differences, I see a common trunk of culture in the whole of Europe. England’s music in the eighteenth century was deeply influenced by Italy. England was not all puritanical but assimilated Latinitas as a part of its quiet and reserved Renaissance. France was never far away. My own family was very Germanophile before World War I. The damage done by those two wars is incalculable quite apart from the massive loss of human life and the destruction of our culture. Europe is something real and desperately needed to reconcile the two Englands and the two Europes, the two Russias and the north and south of the United States. I hardly see this with the present EU which is all about collecting and wasting gigantic amounts of money, the scandalous waste of foodstuffs on a huge scale and dictating over us in the tiniest details of safety standards and piffling details.
Certainly, in the same way as I sought something beyond 1970’s Kendal, the heart needs to be open and eager to soar with inspiration and imagination. Wordsworth leapt with joy with the changes in France – until he saw the stinking carts of headless corpses. We truly need philosopher kings – not bankers and billionaire grippes-sous. We need a completely new constitution of principles, a new social and human contract.
Perhaps we are at the brink of something great, or the greatest catastrophe to befall humanity. Sometimes, a good shake-up can bring a lot of good.