Europe and the English Literary Tradition University of Texas Libraries; Simon Fieldhouse
William Wordsworth & T.S. Eliot

For many centuries the European literary and cultural tradition was alive in England and in English. At times of crisis England has been the custodian of European culture, and now those who seek to see a more united Europe should look to the English European Tradition for hints for the future. The English Literary Tradition reflects an England which is very much part of Europe, not outside it.

The so called “democratic deficit” is a recurring theme on OneEurope and in many discussions about “Europe”. Having identified the “deficit”, writers go on to suggest more bureaucratic and institutional methods to address it. But the term “deficit” is misleading, because it implies that democracy can be measured in some simple mathematical way, like a sack of potatoes. 

Democracy in the English Tradition

I think the root of the problem lies in an inadequate understanding of the concept of “democracy.” Most people are subtle enough to realise it is not simply majority rule. Otherwise, a Nazi Majority would mean a democratic Nazi Government, which makes no sense. So democracy is not majoritarianism, even in those systems where a citizen may, in Rousseau’s phrase, be “forced to be free” for his or her own good. Perhaps understanding the difference between Rousseau’s Social Contract and the English Tradition, expressed say through John Locke, might help us understand some fundamental differences between the centuries-old British democratic tradition and the modern view in Europe, which too often corrupts into Majoritarianism, or worse a sort of autocratic paternalism: government by technocrats or even by a protected elite criminal class.  

Democracy is a sort of contract, but not just between a majority and its representatives and not even of one generation. Wisdom is not an accumulating pile which each generation adds to. It is something as T. S. Eliot might say in “East Coker” (one of the four poems of his “Four Quartets”) that every generation must re-learn:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. 

I think Eliot also gets nearest a sense of what the western tradition might mean as he evokes the history of Protestant England, and finds a symbol in the tiny chapel at Little Gidding:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
Of course Eliot allowed himself the self-conscious patriotic flourish of: 
So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England. 

But this was written during the Second World War, and then indeed England was History. There was no one else left; only those who would burn books and destroy history. Hitler and Stalin were both socialist revolutionaries who held no respect for traditions and age-old institutions. As mass murderers, they were also historical vandals. They sought to destroy not only nations and peoples, but cultures and languages, most notoriously of course in the Holodomor and the Holocaust. Eliot as an American could perhaps see the uniqueness of England, and I think the European Union’s failure to develop democratic institutions is in part its failure to understand “England” or to be willing to see what Europe could learn from many English institutions. Oddly enough it is something which the Ukrainians saw during the Orange Revolution: When their politicians visited the UK Parliament, they wanted to see how the whole structure worked, not just the Chamber. Sadly they were not to prevail in Ukraine, where the criminalisation of political error and the absence of independent judiciary – as in Italy – is a serious challenge to democracy itself. 

This “England” is not the England of UKIP or even of David Cameron. This “England” is the England of Chaucer and Shakespeare, Eliot and Wordsworth. Wordsworth of course lost his enthusiasm for revolutionary France when he saw what it meant in reality. He saw that somehow revolution needed to be tempered by respect for history, just as Beethoven did when he famously tore up the dedication of the Heroic Symphony to Napoleon.. By 1842 Wordsworth could write:

Long favoured England! Be thou not misled
By monstrous theories of alien growth,
Lest alien frenzy seize thee….      

If anyone thinks Wordsworth was heir to UKIP they should read the wonderful collection of poems he wrote on his European tours in the early 1800s, starting with his “Poems dedicated to national independence and liberty”. “I griev’d for Bonaparte…” is a foretaste of the later poems on the subjugation of Switzerland: 

Two voices are there; one is of the sea
One of the mountains; each a mighty Voice;
In both from age to age thou didst rejoice,
They were thy chosen music, Liberty!
There came a tyrant….

These are not the words of a narrow English nationalist. Wordsworth writes like a European. But you have to value the deeper transcendent values which underpin liberal democracies to understand that. True democracy is as much a cultural matter as an institutional one. It is not just about how we act, but also how we think. It is not just about our responsibilities to the state, but also to our forefathers and those who are yet to be born.    

Towards a new model for Europe

There are those, indeed like several EU party leaders, who seem to imagine that by saying the same thing over and over eventually it will come true or be thought to be right. They desperately seek to revive old policies and to carry their antique drum. Their EU is the post-war model which was to prevent war. That was then, and this is now. The symbolism of the early founders is important, but we must move on, not discarding them, but taking what they have left us.

But as Eliot said earlier in the “Four Quartets”, “a people without history is not redeemed from time”. And time is both a destroyer and a preserver. We cannot escape our history. To seek to create a radical new model for the Government of Europe, without history, without that sense of responsibility to our predecessors and those who will come after us, is to seek to step outside time itself and to create a model for political society which is not truly human. This European Federal vision will not replicate “Lord of the Flies”, and it is wrong for the Greeks and others to characterise it as Germanic and authoritarian. Rather it is some new post-democratic, perhaps post-human world, in which we do not know our own history because we do not wish to.  

On the other hand, it is well and good to speak of the British democratic tradition (the worst in the world except all the others), but many European countries have no democratic tradition, some even have little experience of self-government. There is also the issue of perspective. Whilst for Western Europe the Second World War was seen in quite simple terms as a battle between good and evil, for Central and Eastern Europe it was a war between two tyrants who had previously planned to carve their countries up between them, and enslave their peoples together. That is a very different history, and has to be enfolded in the consciousness of a new Europe before it can in any way become more “united”. 

So, there are cultures: There are peoples, literatures, fine arts, architecture, social and national institutions, perhaps even religion, which create identities and which bind some peoples together in a common party. Some elements they inherited from the fortunate, some from the defeated. 

How can Europe become more united, and yet retain its fully human character? How can people come together to share common purpose? It needs, I think, a new understanding of democracy with some sense of responsibility across a period of time, not for one generation only. It needs understanding that democracy is not just majority rule. Indeed, it very clearly cannot be that, because majorities do terrible things to minorities. Democracy is about a free media, an independent judiciary, the presumption of innocence, respect for privacy, and the right to be different and to disagree; perhaps even the right to offend - I am nervous of notions that my liberty should be curtailed if it might offend someone. Some people in the UK have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the role and nature of democracy by seeking to weaken the House of Lords or to create a second chamber elected by the same people who elect the first. Checks and balances matter. Of course the main legislature needs to be directly elected, but a plurality of elites needs to be powerful enough to prevent a majoritarian dictatorship. In Britain, the Monarchy has on the whole served us well. In Europe, many presidencies have been less worthy. How do we bring together these divergent histories and enfold them in a single party - a united Europe?

The answer of course is that we don’t because we can’t. Even united kingdoms or federal republics are strained. The UK has its Scottish and its Northern Irish dissenters, Spain its Basques and Catalans, and so on. There is not going to be a final solution, and a new European Utopia set in amber to rule for a thousand years. It would not last a thousand hours.

There can be of course a more united Europe, and there can be greater federalism in the areas where federalism can work. To achieve this we must respect nations, cultures and histories, and we must begin to change the language of the debate. We must no longer look for the middle ground between European nation states, but the common ground, seeking not compromise, but consensus. Where there is consensus, Europe can move on, and build on what we have in common.

To achieve this, the European Union must have a real Parliament. It needs to be in one place, preferably at the heart of Europe (Prague, Regensburg, Linz?). It needs to become a European Parliament, not a sectarian EU one. Countries outside the EU ought at the very least to be able to send non-voting observers who may contribute to the work of the Parliament. To have real debate there must be an official language, and all MEPs must be qualified to speak it. In practice this is going to be one of the major European languages (English, French, German or Spanish), and if Europe is to speak internationally it needs to be a world international language: English or Spanish. The Parliament needs to work with established Parliaments like the British one to work out institutions that enhance the work of finding common ground. As we know in UK, the House of Commons is the theatre (sometimes even a music hall!) and the work takes place in committees. It is hard to know where the work goes on in the European Parliament if at all. The absence of a common language means that debates tend to be superficial and laden with hollow rhetoric. I have said elsewhere that Agricultural subsidies are nonsense. But, we need to do what we can to ensure that the next generation can fight to recover what has been lost, that it can develop understanding of cultures within Europe and the overarching European culture if there is one. This means Erasmus is much more important than CAP. The problem is that when federalists talk of the importance of education, they tend not to mean education as traditionally understood, but “skills” – not “ἐπιστήμη” (episteme: knowledge) but “τέχνη” (techne: craftsmanship or skill). We hear a lot about “innovation” and “technology”. Of course these matter, but I would be happier if we focused on judgement and wisdom which ought to come first, and we only learn these through the humane arts, history and languages.

In conclusion, I do not think a United Europe in an absolute sense will ever come about. If it did I would not like it, because it would of necessity be totalitarian. But Nations and groups of nations can be more or less united…unity admits degree. The degree to which Europe can be united is also debateable, but it can only happen if we stop pretending people can be outside time, outside their own histories, and somehow immunised against their own cultures and identities. Such a Europe would not be made up of real Europeans at all, because it would not be fully human, it would not be barbarian. It would rather be some new beast, which does not yet have a name, living in a society which resembles something between 1984 and Logan’s Run.

The future of Europe should not be left to technocrats

Some of my fellow Bloggers have understood what is missing, and have started again. We have a site which of course has its “technocrats”, but it has also attracted poets and artists. Perhaps the future of Europe should not be left to technocrats. We should spend much more time teaching young Europeans about European history and culture. It is more important to teach them to read Shakespeare, Schiller, Milton or Moliere, than to instruct them in skills like how to better market washing powder. W. H. Auden warned us of poets as politicians – poets relish too much in tragedies and spectacular disasters, but politics without poets and a Europe of soulless bureaucrats is an equally terrifying prospect.