Which is the wider divide, the Atlantic or the Channel? Caught between affiliations, Britain has to dig deep to discover Europe at its heartby Timothy Garton-Ash / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
In recent years, we have experienced a sprawling, almost German-style debate about British identity and Europe. What is Britain? When was Britain? Does Britain still exist? Will Britain survive? Britain has been declared “dead” by Andrew Marr and “abolished” by Peter Hitchens. For decades, people have thought of Britain as a classic nation state. Now Norman Davies tells us that Britain was never a nation state. Anthony Barnett says that Britain was never a nation, although England was. But Roger Scruton, in his extraordinary book on England, informs us that England-which he thinks is also dead-was not a nation either, just a country, a land, home. One begins to long for the pellucid simplicities of the German debate about identity, with its elementary distinctions between Staatsvolk and Kulturvolk, and so on.
More prosaically, the answer to the question, “Is Britain European?” may be very different if given from what are now sometimes curiously called “the devolved territories,” of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, Anthony Barnett argues in his book This Time that British opposition to Europe is really English opposition to Europe.
For some, Britain can only be saved if we have more Europe; for others, England can only be saved if we have less. For both, though, the question is central. Hugo Young, in This Blessed Plot, says that the underlying question for the last 50 years has been “Could Britain… truly accept that her modern destiny was to be a European country?” But what does that mean? If the noun “Britain” is elusive, the adjective “European” is even more so. This is true in all European languages, but particularly in English.
With little difficulty we can identify six possible meanings of European. Two are archaic and buried, but have a significant afterlife: to be European means to be Christian and to be European means to be white. Then there are three interlocking meanings which are more familiar. The first is geographical: Europe is the second smallest continent, a western extension of Eurasia. Are we part of it? The geographers say yes. Many Britons doubt it, for the second of those three interlocking meanings is, as Collins English Dictionary tells us, “the continent of Europe, except for the British Isles.” (One wonders where that leaves Ireland.) This is a familiar usage. We say “Jim’s off to Europe” or “Fred’s back from Europe.” Europe is elsewhere. Thirdly, Europe…