June 19, 2006

In England's Green and Pleasant Land

Readers of this blog already know, thanks to Helen's reportage, that I recently had the pleasure of visiting England and, although I was there primarily for the purpose of attending a family wedding, I was able to give a talk at the Institute of Economic Affairs. (This talk was also blogged, more briefly, by Phil Chaston over at Samizdata.)

Helen's writeup conveys the heart of the talk quite well -- it was primarily a look at the "special relationship" from an Anglospheric point of view rather than strictly an Anglo-American one. For anyone who has been reading my writings over the last few years what I said would be no surprise. I have thought for some time that the idea of the special relationship, which really has only had any effectiveness for perhaps half of the time during the past 60 years, primarily during the Roosevelt-Churchill and Thatcher-Reagan years, and in an odd sort of fashion during the Bush-Blair years, is now well past its sell-by date.

For each of those cheerful examples, we have the counterexamples of the dynamic Major-Clinton relationship, the Nixon-Heath chumfest, the joys of Carter-Callaghan, and then of course there's always Eisenhower-Eden...well, you see what I mean. Particularly now that the US Constitution and Blair's own announced plans guarantee that the Anglosphere's Odd Couple will soon enough be history, it's more than overdue that we look at replacing the toss of the personality dice with a more structured relationship. The precise nature of those structures is another and much longer discussion, but right now progress consists of recognizing that it's a discussion that needs to take place.

The one dimension of my talk that Helen did not go into was something about which I have been doing more and more thinking, and on which I have several articles in draft. This is a discussion of exactly what the nature of the various Anglosphere nations are, how they resemble each other and how they differ, and what this means to the mechanisms we do and might use for cooperation among orselves.

Particularly when there is substantial unhappiness with the course of Anglo-American relations in England, there is a temptation to turn to the idea of a Brtish (or English, depending) "national character" which is counterposed to an American "national character". Much of the media presentation in both nations, whether ostensibly fiction or non-fiction, of the differences between America and Britain dwell on such characterizations. And most of it is nonsense. Both America and Britain (or for that matter England) are in fact highly diverse, and were so long before either experienced much non-British Isles immigration. The major differences between the regional cultures of the US derive primarily from the regional cultures of origin in the British Isles, as David Hackett Fischer has pointed out in his book Albion's Seedlings, to which this blog's name is a reference.

The idea of a "national character" is largely a fiction of 19th-century Continental European "organic nationalism", which fit Continental Europe rather poorly (in the 18th and 19th centuries, Germans were widely considered to have a peaceful, poetic, and artistic national character, while the French were considered to have a "national genius" for military matters...) and the Anglosphere not at all. Thus the stock American of anti-American fiction is an unlikely hybrid of supposed Southern fundamentalism, New York greed, and New England puritanism, while American media created a Britain that seems to consist entirely of decayed aristocrats and royals, and working-class soccer thugs.

This is not to say that America and Britain are identical. However, the differences are not so much a matter of inherently different "national characters", but rather one of essentially similar ingredients mixed in different proportions, and with a similar but far from identical set of shared experience. Some elements are present in both nations, others are present in one while scarce in the other -- America has very little equivalent of the old Tory "wet" or paternalistic mentality, for instance. It's worth noting that the special relationship has worked best when the British prime minister has some element of the old British Liberal strain -- Churchill being a former Liberal, Thatcher coming from a family with a Liberal background, and Blair being closer to the Liberal strain of the Labour Party than to the Socialist.

Ultimately, all of the major core Anglosphere countries are what political scientists often call "state-nations" rather than nation-states; that is to say, distinct states whose principal visible differences tend to be artifacts of government. Since they are states, of course, they will have distinct state interests, which will never be identical. However, since the fundamental underlying cultural patterns lie within a wider common set (especially when contrasted against the rest of the world) there will also continue to be a set of consistent common interests. Balancing the permanently divergent interests of the individual state-nations against the also permanent common interests of our common cultural area is the ongoing political riddle of the Anglosphere. The special relationship has been the mechanism used to date; it is not obvious that it's the right mechanism now or at any time in the future.

I have begun thinking about the Anglosphere in terms of what I have begun to call "Burkean communities" and "Lockean bargains". Burkean communities are the very coherent local and regional communities, built from the bottom up by ties evolved over time between the "small platoons of society" that Burke famously described. These are counties, states and provinces, and regions -- perhaps even England as a whole might be seen as one such. We have tied these communities together into larger constructs that I think of as "Lockean bargains" -- unions and federations that were constructed by very explicitly negotiating deals among Burkean communities. Although Locke's "social contract" as a description of the emergence of government is a fiction, eventually the Anglosphere did produce genuine social contracts.

The first such was the under-appreciated Union of 1707, that produced the United Kingdom from the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. Because the Union was conscious, deliberate, negotiated, and dependent upon financial and security considerations (particularly a massive bail-out of Scotland's economy after the Darien fiasco) it has been derided as "artificial" nation-making, as if there was something wrong with that. Yet in many ways it became a model for the Lockean bargain that was the American constitution (which also involved a debt bailout, a deal on public lands, a deal on the new capital, and infrastructure committments), which subsequently influenced the very deliberate bargain that became the Canadian confederation (give us a railway, or we become Yanks, said the British Columbians...), and finally the Australian federation. In each case the national sentiment and poetics came well after the bargain was sealed, and new shared experiences on the battlefield or in development added a Burkean dimension to the original Lockean bargain.

What made the Union of 1707 different from the medieval dynastic acquisitions that were a standard part of the nation-building process of post-Westphalia Europe was the wider literacy and consequent widening of the "political nation" that was possible in 1706-7, espeically in Calvinist Scotland with its emphasis on mass literacy (probably the broadest in the world) and the broad public participation in the Church of Scotland, which was key in negotiating an acceptable Union. With widespread literacy and widespread means of public discussion (although it would seem narrow by current standards), there arose the possibility of something actually approaching a "social contract".

When stressed, what happens is usually that the Burkean units negotiate new Lockean bargains and they go on from there.  This may or may not involve new framworks. The First British Empire could have been such a Lockean bargain --
Franklin tried very hard to cut such a deal -- but Lord North couldn''t see the need to play seriously.  So the Thirteen Colonies cut a different deal.

The Burkean woof and Lockean warp creates a very strong and serviceable fabric. It's also instructive to look at the attempted Lockean bargains in the Anglosphere that didn't work out. The failure to cut a new workable bargain between the UK and the Thirteen Colonies is an obvious one. The Confederacy was another. And the various attempts to create either an Imperial Federation from the British Empire, or an English-Speaking Union including the US (both popular ideas from roughly 1890-1914) are examples of a Lockean bargain that might have been made, but wasn't.

Lockean bargains to not have to be states. It's possible that a set of structural coopeeration agreements between the core Anglosphere states, falling well short of confederation, could be a new Lockean bargain to ultimately provide a more equitable, reliable, and generally more effective means of cooperation than the old special relationship. It's time to start the discussion about it.

Posted by James C. Bennett at June 19, 2006 05:55 PM

Can Burkean communities co-exist with the EU or must Brussels dominate all aspects of life in the EU?

Posted by: Richard A. Heddleson at June 20, 2006 08:15 AM

The essence of a Burkean communitiy is that it is built primarily from local and mutual ties, with the bulk of the decisions and negotiations taking place locally. Wider-scope organizations do best if they give substantial autonomy to their branches or members in the community, so that decisions and negotiations can be undertaken by their local representatives informed by as much local knowledge (in the Hayekean sense) as possible. Most Burkean communities exist in some sort of wider organizational matrix, usually a nation-state and sometimes a unit off a federal state. History suggests that such a wider matrix is not invariably fatal to Burkean communities. However, they must always fight a centralizing tendency on the part of wider organizations, particularly ones that enjoy the monopoly of state force.

The EU claims to incorporate "subsidiarity" into its structure, which supposedly relegates decisions to the closest level possible to the community. However, to an American, Canadian, Australian, or any other citizen of a genuinely federal country, the EU's idea of subsidiarity is an odd one indeed. It is always at odds with the centralizing mindset of the French state, or Bismark's unification of Germany, as models. And losing.

In short, the Eu is not good for Burkean communities.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at June 20, 2006 02:16 PM
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