Or, put another way, do you need – do we need – to be taking sides at all?
We muddle along in democracies, more or less getting along with each other, tolerant in the sense that we don’t enquire too deeply about each other’s opinions, and preferences and prejudices. We give each other space. Some of my best friends are Tories, or Marxists, Corbynites, or liberals, or whatever…. Then some event comes long which polarises, an event with an emotional charge which takes us by surprise. And if we hadn’t realised before, we know then which side we’re on. We don’t have Civil Wars, inspired by tribe or religion or ideology, or simply survival…. But we do have Brexit.
Brexit is about many things, but maybe the most fundamental is identity. An exchange of letters to The Times involving Roger Scruton and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill puts this neatly into focus. Scruton hopes that Brexit will restore a sense of patriotic identity ‘in a place of belonging which we can identify as our home, where the inhabitants can be trusted, and which is protected by a single sovereign power’.
What’s remarkable about this hinges on one word, ‘restore’. This assumes a loss of identity, and if that’s what in Scruton’s mind, then that’s where it is – in his mind. There’s been an extraordinary amount of press focused on a divide between the UK and Europe, and when it comes to refugees and foreign aid, between the UK and the world. But I don’t for a moment believe that at a deeper level, certainly on the Remain side, we have lost our sense of patriotism.
Scruton is well-known as a philosopher and specifically as a writer on conservatism, the person I’d turn to first for a deeper understanding of the conservative mind. I can connect even if I don’t agree. Hearing him speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival recently I found him affable, gently humorous and lucid in the spoken word in a way he isn’t always in the written. In other words, I want to be on his side.
But I, and countless others, millions I assume, need to explain to him, to insist, that patriotism doesn’t equate with insularity. We patriots are happy in our skin, in our own land, but we’re happy also sharing it with others, and their lands with us.
There is of course another phrase in in Scruton’s letter, quoted above: ‘[a sense of patriotic identity] … which is protected by a single sovereign power’. Maybe there’s the rub – how best to share sovereignty, widen our sovereignty if you will, in an ever more globalised world. But let’s not for a moment elide sovereignty and patriotism, which is what Scruton is doing. It takes us on to dangerous ground.
Wallace-Hadrill quotes a 5th century Roman Orosius, proud of his ability to travel: ‘Among Romans I am a Roman; among Christians a Christian; among humans, a human.’
He continues: ‘Like Orosius I feel proud of my country, but I also enjoy the fact that I can travel freely in Europe as a fellow citizen, and feel a European among Europeans.’
For Orosius the freedom he enjoy was soon to disappear, with barbarian invasion threatening. We will be also be losers, if we exclude ourselves from the EU, and this would be of our own making. The barbarians (and who might they be?) are within the walls.