November 17th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY An election-winning policy: a development bank for Australia

VICTORIAN ELECTION The left gets ready to scream 'haters!'

CANBERRA OBSERVED Nats fracas points up need for vigilance

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Divisions undermine Morrison's leadership

SOCIETY UNDER THREAT The time is now for a real deal for the family

NCC SYDNEY DINNER Speakers spark keenness for a challenging 2019

NORTHERN DEVELOPMENT Aborigines hope to benefit in Kimberley development

CLIMATE CHANGE Rising sea levels? Pacific island data says 'no'

ROYAL COMMISSION Big banks shaken and stirred in their swamp

U.S. HISTORY Slavery: a yet unresolved legacy

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS The U.S. and China: more than trade is at stake

SOCIETY UNDER THREAT Partisan divide must vanish for defence of civilisational foundation: Christianity

MUSIC ABBA live: just not in person or on stage

CINEMA Coco: Family and home trump 'identity'

BOOK REVIEW Remnant hopes for post-Brexit Britain

BOOK REVIEW The Great War, raw and uncensored

HUMOUR A few more snippets from Forget's Dictionary of Inaccurate Facts, Furphys and Falsehoods

POETRY

LETTERS

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BOOK REVIEW
Remnant hopes for post-Brexit Britain




News Weekly, November 17, 2018

WHERE WE ARE: The State of Britain Now

by Roger Scruton

Bloomsbury Continuum, London
Hardcover: 256 pages
Price: AUD$31.80

Reviewed by Brian Coman

Roger Scruton must count as one of the most prolific writers in the modern-day conservative tradition. He has published over 50 books, on subjects as wide ranging as general philosophy, aesthetics, green ideology, music appreciation, religion and politics.

This new book is an attempt to delineate the political identity of Britain post Brexit. It does not present arguments for and against Brexit (although I sense that Scruton has sympathy for the “leavers”) but rather seeks to understand how some form of national identity and cohesion might be achieved amidst the turbulence of post-Brexit Britain.

As such, it might seem, on first sight, to have little relevance to us here in Australia. However, once you dip into the book, it is clear that many of his themes are directly relevant to our own situation.

Scruton begins by attempting to define the character of the British people. Here, he is clearly influenced by the writings of George Orwell and acknowledges his debt in this respect.

There are a number of themes that he touches on here – a general charitableness, a sense of trust, of neighbourliness, and of cooperation, being the most important. He has in mind here “ordinary” people and not the elites – the “little platoons” that Edmund Burke identifies.

He acknowledges that these qualities may have arisen as the result of an earlier and widespread application of the general Christian message but wants to maintain that, in post-Christian Britain, the remnants of these ideals remain as a sort of spiritual residue.

These remnant qualities, he maintains, are signs of hope for the future. Like Orwell, he believes that “the British people are essentially without religious belief, even though retaining a core of Christian feeling”. I am not so sure that, in the absence of belief, such qualities can be maintained in the longer term.

Scruton then moves on to the question of nationalism and national identity. He points to a radical distinction between two “types” of people – the “anywheres” and the “somewheres” (the phrases are borrowed from David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere, 2017). As the names suggest, the “somewheres” have a definite attachment to place, whereas the “anywheres” can operate and feel at home anywhere.

This, of course, is related to the concept of ‘global community’. There is an obvious reference, too, to the European Union and the idea that any form of ‘local’ nationalist feeling is detrimental to the functioning of that Union.

Later, he introduces us to another and similar classification – the “oikophiles” and the “oikophobes”. These terms denote, respectively, those who have an attachment to “home” and those that do not.

By “home” he means much more than just a sense of place. He includes patriotic sentiment, a sense of history, a love of inherited customs and so on. As a rule of thumb, ordinary folk in Britain tend to be oikophiles whilst the elites tend to be oikophobes.

For Scruton, the importance of national attachment is that it “has made citizenship possible and enabled people to exist side by side, respecting each other’s rights, despite radical differences in faith, and without any bonds of family, kinship or long-term local custom to sustain the solidarity between them”.

And here he draws a contrast with certain other countries where other notions such as “brotherhood” replace citizenship and, as a consequence, political instability is rife.

But perhaps the most important chapter in Scruton’s book deals with political freedom. He traces the history of the English legal system from Saxon times, through Magna Carta and onwards.

As he says: “From the earliest times the Common Law has been an instrument in the hands of the ordinary citizen, wherewith to combat oppression.”

Here, the question of accountability looms large: “British people have the unshakeable belief that anyone who, in the hierarchy of decision-making, has power over others, is also accountable to those others for the way that power is exercised.”

He goes on to list some of the ways in which ordinary citizens have the legal ability to oppose unjust laws or unjust treatment by those in authority over them. Indeed, there also exists a system of equity which grants “equitable remedies” when the existing laws can do nothing to help.

Scruton refers to the whole system of British law as a ‘bottom-up approach” – one which has a remarkable degree of flexibility. The law emerges from the myriad small decisions and is sensitive to the concrete circumstances that produce them.

He contrasts this approach with the whole legal apparatus of the European Union, where such flexibility is rarely on show.

In a lighter moment, he quotes Leszek Kolakowski: “In England, everything is permitted unless it is forbidden; in Germany, everything is forbidden unless it is permitted; in France, everything is permitted even if it is forbidden; and in Russia, everything is forbidden, even if it is permitted.”

Scruton believes that this British attitude to the law is deep rooted and that it remains as a positive sign for the future of the country. I must say, I am not so optimistic, but I hope he is right.

Scruton then turns to the impact of globalisation on Britain. In fact, a process of globalisation has been in train since the discovery (by Europeans) of the New World. However, that process has now vastly accelerated, not least because of the new digital technologies.

One of the important outcomes has been what Scruton terms the “network psyche” – young people, in particular, see themselves as belonging to networks rather than to places. As he says: “Their location is not a place, but a set of instructions for ignoring it.”

Nonetheless, in all of the negativity associated with the “network”, there is still the fact that young people wish to belong and to identify with something, however nebulous and tenuous that something might be.

Here Scruton sees an opportunity: “The network psyche enjoys a ‘view from nowhere’. Its vision of belonging is also beamed from nowhere, and those that share that vision will come to earth only when they have found a place, custom and neighbourhood that inspires them to belong. Trust does not come easily along a network, though fake trust can be tweeted in a flash from one end of it to another.”

What is missing from the network psyche, then, is any real sense of trust, attachment and safety. “Perhaps”, Scruton writes, “the risk to which we are put by networks can be partly allayed by encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives and to join in the ‘little platoons’ of neighbourliness.”

In his last chapter, Scruton attempts a sort of roadmap for the future of Britain. He maintains that the most important project ahead is one of conciliation with the Germans and the French through whatever way presents itself – cooperative business ventures, education, culture and foreign policy.

He then moves on to the problem of immigration policy – a hot issue during the lead-up to Brexit. Inevitably, this takes him to the issue of radical Islam. Correctly, in my view, he identifies one important reason for the whole immigration debacle – the failure of the British education system to provide the vocational and technical education required to produce a skilled and semi-skilled workforce.

The figures are staggering. In 1973, there were 250,000 apprenticeships. At the time he wrote his book, this had declined to 50,000. At the same time, universities were bursting at the seams. In 1984, 14 per cent of teenagers went to university: now the number is 48 per cent. This is patently absurd.

Many of the issues Scruton discusses are applicable to our own situation. We too face a sort of crisis of national identity, albeit of a slightly different sort. But we too have inherited the British system of law and this, perhaps, gives us some reason for hope. If enough people believe in the values of trust, of “neighbourliness”, and of the importance of the “little platoons” of ordinary folk, then the opportunity given us by that law may yet save us.

But, above everything else, what we need and what Scruton emphasises right throughout the book is the simple notion of oikophilia – the love of our particular place and culture and history.

That, after all, was the central theme of the first great epic story of Western civilisation – Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus’ men wish to join the Lotus Eaters, his main concern was that they would “forget their homeland”. And his own journey was a journey home. We all need an Ithaca.


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