England as lost idyll

Tory fantasies of a forsaken past are no way to address the present, argues Patrick Wright
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Last year I picked up a novel, The Aachen Memorandum, by Andrew Roberts, the Conservative polemicist and historian. It is a Europhobic fantasy in which the heroes of an "English Resistance Movement" fight a totalitarian superstate bent on extirpating all the English virtues. The German functionaries of this Euroregime force letter writers to use the postcode, discourage Englishwomen from shaving their armpits and condemn the English Christmas as abusive to pine trees. They proscribe fish and chips, free Myra Hindley, assassinate Margaret Thatcher and rename Waterloo Station Maastricht Station.

Immersed as we now are in the demented excesses of the beef war, and with the Tory press complaining because the theme music to Euro 96 was composed by a Hun called Beethoven, it might seem that Roberts's book has been upstaged by events. Yet I am still drawn up short by its cover, which shows a union flag being burnt away to reveal corrupting yellow stars beneath.

Yellow stars and burning flags, we've seen a lot of that this century, as Roberts the historian certainly knows. These yellow stars, however, do not allude to an imagined Jewish conspiracy but to the European Union - which Roberts presents as the Nazi "Reich" reborn. This is an extreme iconography, and it indicates that a toxic sense of conspiracy, pollution and threat lives on.

There are many legitimate questions to ask of the EU, but there is no chance at all of bringing them into focus through a distorting lens like this. Indeed, that burning union flag suggests different questions, which come much closer to home.

There is a characteristically Conservative form of patriotism that cherishes Englishness as the inheritance of a native people. Englishness is seen as a way of life that is complete, and which, like the historical landscape to which it is intimately connected, needs defending. This kind of Conservative patriotism has a history: 18th-century Tories looked back longingly on the old rural community disrupted by the enclosures, and in the 19th century Tories as well as socialists recoiled from urban industrialism and free trade.

In this century too, influential Conservatives have based their outlook on the idea of a rural community. Stanley Baldwin in 1924 invoked the "sounds of England ... the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone". For him, "these things strike down into the very depths of our nature and touch chords that go back to the beginning of time and the human race". The sense of danger was there, too: Baldwin was mortified to think that this pastoral experience was no longer the "childish inheritance" of the majority of English people.

English Conservatism has often been described as if it were more like an intimately known landscape than an ideology. And in the post-war years, as I see them, the fate of that deeply settled vale of Tory inspiration was to be dramatised in one location: Tyneham on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset.

This was a beautiful valley with a benign climate, an Elizabethan manor house, a small village, a few farms and an ancient landscape that, even in the 1930s, was being run as an unofficial nature reserve by a modest gentry family that had lived in the valley for 500 years. All this came to an abrupt end in 1943, when the valley was evacuated and turned into a training area for American tanks preparing for the Normandy landings. Despite "Churchill's pledge" that Tyneham would be returned to its owners after the war, Attlee's Labour government retained it, blaming the developing Cold War. Tyneham became the Village that Died for England - a place of organic Tory virtues, extinguished by the bureaucratic state.

Many of the uprooted villagers learnt to like the modern amenities of their new council houses, but to onlookers Tyneham came to symbolise the plight of England in the age of modernisation and the welfare state. No one decimalised its currency, metalled its rolling English roads or demolished its cottages to make way for tower blocks. No bureaucrat interfered with the bracing curriculum of its schools or tampered with its liturgy. Tyneham was the English village that hadn't suffered the loss of empire or been shoved into the EEC.

Its cause was taken up by senior Conservative figures, from Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, to David Mellor. Sir Arthur Bryant, the historian, was president of the Tyneham Action Group in 1970 (he also opposed coloured immigration and entry into the Common Market). For Tory patriots,Tyneham was England's last ditch.

Some of the older friends of Tyneham, including Bryant, had pre-war experience of another fight for disappearing England. They had links with a bizarre 1930s group called English Array - possibly a precursor of the English Resistance Movement in the Roberts novel. Anti-democratic, monarchical and with a strong bias towards the land, English Array set out to "give strength and health to the sound types of the nation". Its leader was Lord Lymington, a Wessex aristocrat who was also a poet, an agricultural theorist, an appeaser of Hitler and an early ecologist. The members, all male, had to be "physically sound" and prepared to vouch that they and their forebears were "of the English types and stocks bred within the four seas".

The English Array set out "to regain, preserve and intensify all those attributes and qualities that appertained to English life and the English type at the most vigorous and flourishing periods of our history". This meant breathing deeply through the nose, eating fresh fruit and salads, and avoiding artificial laxatives. Modern inventions were distrusted - "the menace of electric light" was thought gradually to be making the nation blind. They were to eat wholemeal bread, not industrialised white stuff, and runner beans were to be grown up English hazel rather than imported bamboo. The members loathed every institution of the modern state, from schools and the BBC to the new agricultural marketing boards. They hated free-market capitalism and viewed the city population as degenerates who, if war came, would stir up revolution. Lymington reckoned that Hitler was more or less on the right track, not least when it came to sorting out true German wheat from the Jewish chaff of cosmopolitan urban culture.

DESPITE its disorders, the present-day Tory party is not incipiently fascist, nor anti-Semitic. Yet many of its members seem ready to form their own kind of English Array.

This was never more obvious than at last year's party conference in Blackpool, where the idea of a beleaguered country life proved central. Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture minister, proclaimed that Conservative values were at heart rural values. John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, expressed the hope that Tory patriotism would not be further "clouded by urban thinking" and brandished the new Criminal Justice Act at "ravers, trespassers and hippy camps".

From the floor, representatives spoke out against the Labour Party's urban values and its proposed "right to roam". They worried about animal rights activists and incomers who had no respect for country traditions such as foxhunting. A man from Northumberland got up to say how proud he was to take the side of "traditional people" who measured beer in pints, butter in pounds and farms in acres. These, he said, were Chesterton's "secret people", whose way of life was under threat and whose voices were little heard.

Some Conservatives were dismayed by all this, but others seemed happy. This brings us back to Andrew Roberts, who has dipped his flag in the same sink of beleaguered prejudice.

Roberts knows better than most that the Tory English patriotism of the pre-war generation could be rotten to the core. His book Eminent Churchillians includes a vigorous denunciation of Sir Arthur Bryant as a Nazi fellow- traveller.

Roberts himself is much attached to British sovereignty. A Unionist who has declared his respect for Enoch Powell, he has tried to cleanse Tory patriotism of the taint of Bryant and his ilk. He also insists that he and his right-wing friends are anything but anti-Semitic. So what is he doing showing yellow stars burning their way through the national flag?

If you define your country as an organic inheritance, already fully achieved in the past, then your patriotism will, inevitably, also be premised on a sense of ever-present threat. The encroaching enemy may now be the usurping German Eurocrat rather than the Communist, the Jew or the Afro-Caribbean immigrant. But whatever opponent you chose, the defining pattern - in which a heritage is surrounded by pressing dangers - remains remarkably similar. And to the extent that this primitive, polarising habit of thought continues to override the facts of the situation to which it responds, then it will remain primarily a retreat from reality.

This backward-looking patriotism certainly has its uses. It is a lot easier to wave a flag around than to resolve the deeper challenges facing British Conservatism. It is easier to resort to this deep-frozen English nationalism than to come to terms with Britain's mixed lineage. It is easier to construct puerile fictions about the German enemy than to think coherently about the European Community. It is easier to run a beef war than to reconcile your cultural Conservatism with the free-market economics that have done so much to break up the traditional British settlement in recent years.

Adapted from 'Deep and Beleaguered England', to be broadcast on Radio 3, Tuesday at 10.10pm, in the author's series 'You're Just as English as You Feel'.