In your new book (In Defence of the Realm: The Place of
Nations in Classical Liberalism, Ashgate, 2004 see
review and advertisement, this issue), you seek to reconcile
what are often seen as opposites nationalism and
liberalism. Yet surely possessing a sense of national identity
necessitates a considerable degree of state involvement
in the private lives and thoughts of citizens.
I agree that nation states require cohesion for their viability
and they therefore require patriotism from their citizens.
It is a legitimate interest on the part of those who administer
the state to seek to inculcate the appropriate attitudes.
I argue in my book, in the case of the Anglo-Saxon countries
and those in that tradition, that, since they have for many
centuries and, arguably, in the case of England,
for even longer been liberal in character to a striking
degree, those two demands ought to be compatible. Liberal
values are the values of these states, and the values that
these states need to inculcate. I dont see that there
is any inherent tension between the two. I think we need
to differentiate between classical liberalism and what is
often today denoted by the term liberalism in
an unqualified sense, as often used in America and now here.
I am only defending the compatibility of classical liberalism
and nationalism, and I dont see the kinds of tensions
between these that you correctly identify between nationalism
and other kinds of liberalism. In the book, you describe
both multiculturalism and the EU as being threats to liberty.
Can you expand on these topics? Is it to do with Lockean
positive engagement? So far as multiculturalism
is concerned, I think I have previously indicated the reason
that viable nation states, including those that enshrine
liberal institutions, require social cohesion.
The multicultural project is about destroying social cohesion
by encouraging different groups and ethnicities to identify
with their difference rather than what is held in common.
What I want to argue is that there should be a common public
culture and that this public culture ought to be
in the case of Britain, America, and the other Anglo-phonic
states traditional English, Anglo-Saxon culture.
As far as the EU is concerned, I think I am following in
the footsteps of other thinkers who have expressed similar
views like Roger Scruton or, to take an earlier example,
Sir Arthur Bryant in his The Lion and the Unicorn
that British traditions are very different from the traditions
of other European countries. Culturally, we are more aligned
with the United States than with the rest of Europe.
Those French and German statesmen who have been most instrumental
in creating the European Union, and in determining its policy
agenda, have always and quite consciously neglected to ensure
that its structure and policies accord with liberal canons.
It is quite evident that in every respect Britain is being
made to come into line with the EU much more than the EU
is coming into line with us. Those who maintain that we
need a place in Europe in order to make them more like us
are barking up the wrong tree. I hope the European Constitution
is defeated; if it is, it could be a turning-point. Apart
from its uncritical fondness for both multiculturalism and
the EU, in what otherways is our present government curtailing
both liberalism and nationalism? The present government
has managed to engineer an ideological coup which makes
the legacy of Thatcherism pale into insignificance.
It has managed to get cross-party consensus for the subject
of citizenship as a mandatory subject in the national curriculum.
In principle, I have no particular objection to that, but
unfortunately it was done by allowing the likes of Bernard
Crick the ex-tutor of our current Home Secretary
to call the shots. He has a conception of active
citizenship which downplays the traditional approach
towards civics education an emphasis on history and
an inculcation of patriotism and is rather more like
political activism. In 16th Century England, it was mandatory
to take a part in civil society and local politics, but
those who did loved their country and participation was
not so confrontational. What about the reform
of the House of Lords?
The more I have studied English history, the more appreciative
I have become of Britains mixed constitution. The
virtue of a hereditary component in a second chamber such
as the House of Lords is that it injects a genuinely politically
independent spirit in the scrutiny of proposed new laws.
All of these modernising trends come together
in the transformation of the country. Before the 1997 election,
thinkers like David Marquand made no secret about their
desire to destroy the Tory state. Some of the
bastions of traditional Britain like the Church of
England shot themselves in the foot, but others needed
a helping hand! We are in a bind. The country has been captured,
and is in the hands of people who do not wish it to remain
a country. A sub-text of your book is an almost Miltonian
How do you define the English character? Thats an
interesting question. Independence, tolerance, love of liberty,
of course but these arent unique to England.
What is unique to Britain is the country that is loved!
The likes of T S Eliot have indicated that Britain is a
deeply Christian country; in many ways, the populace are
unaware of the extent to which they are Christian! Of course,
other European countries are also Christian, but they have
mostly Roman Catholic traditions, and since the time of
the Reformation Protestantism has been formative of Whiggism.
That has been a very important factor in our history. But
what about Protestant countries, like Morleys celebrated
Dutch Republic, or the Scandinavian countries which
likewise regard themselves as independent-minded? How do
their various concepts of liberty differ from those obtaining
in England? Historically, they werent surrounded by
water. Our geography informed Britains political culture
and accounts for many of our differences.
The Dutch of course had colonies, but they didnt
achieve anything like the same degree of global dominance
as we did. That was extremely important in formulating Britains
national outlook. The Dutch were too busy creating magnificent
paintings! But the British character you speak of is really
an English character, isnt it? TheScots, Welsh and
Irish are rather out on the edge of this notion. I have
addressed this issue in the book. For much of Britains
history, the terms Britain and England have of course been
used interchangeably. To some extent, my thinking has been
informed by the work of Adrian Hastings, who argues, to
me quite convincingly, that Wales and England, despite their
superficial differences, have really been one country since
the time of the Tudors. As far as the Scots are concerned,
the Lowland Scots were more like the English than they were
like the Highlanders while Northern Ireland is of
course predominantly Anglo-Scots. So the various nations
of Britain are more or less really one people. You lay great
emphasis on forms of government and Christianity.
But it seems to me that you perhaps underplay the impact
of such other cultural influences as Celtic and Germanic
paganism and that genes also have an important role
in the formation of national identity. Arent nations
really tribes at heart to some extent? As a keen student
of the works of William Mac- Dougall, I am aware of the
subtle links between genetics and culture and the claim
that there is something that makes liberal institutions
fit the Nordic peoples, of which the Anglo-Saxons
are one. Since the Second World War, this is a domain which
it has almost been taboo to broach in institutions of higher
education. MacDougall himself said that there is a spectrum.
At one end, with certain genetically pure sorts
of people he cited the Japanese genetics may
determine national character to a much greater extent than
at the other end of the spectrum, where culture will predominate.
I would like to believe for all our sakes
that culture is the greatest determinant.
Take Afro- Caribbeans. Leaving aside the dysfunctional
gangsta and Yardie elements, they are as imbued
with what are to me the right kinds of values as the most
prim and proper Englishman. I suppose it is the faith of
the classical liberal that culture will prevail.
Having said that, I dont believe were all identical.
A lot of it is, of course, to do with numbers. America succeeds
because the majority of Americans are still of essentially
Anglo-Saxon descent, and the culture imported by the English
settlers (as described in David Hackett Fishers Albions
Seed) is still dominant. It is rapidly diminishing though;
its now reaching about 63% of the population.
This is a preoccupation of scholars like Samuel Huntington
who is, as we know, very prescient. Yet we must hope that
the Anglo- Saxon cultural imprint can be transmitted onwards
to non Anglo-Saxons. In some respects, if thats not
the case, were doomed. In your book, by citing historians
like Alan Macfarlane and Michael Wood, you seem to imply
that the English love of liberty predates the Normans. What
evidence is there for this? I dont think I committed
myself! I was tracing classical liberal conceptions of English
nationhood, and this persistent idea of a pre-Norman, relatively
liberal order was for long something that English patriots
had projecting themselves back into the past to give
themselves and England a kind of legitimacy.
This is a very good political ploy, and may, in fact, be
politically necessary in the formation of a national idea.
I am interested that what seem to be reputable historians
are now prepared to give countenance to this idea. History
is always selective, and that is why it is such an openendedopenended
On this subject of the origins of liberalism, I have also
found a lot of Judaic sources for the liberal tradition.
So maybe there is more than one source for liberalism
or maybe its all spurious! To move on to something
more directly topical even if we assume for the sake
of argument that the Anglo-American model is the best possible
model for society, is it right that we should seek to export
liberal democracy, if needs be at gunpoint? John Gray, amongst
others, thinks that liberal culture is only for Westerners,
certainly not for export beyond Europe and America. I have
to disagree. I have long thought and I say in my
book that in the long run the world can only become
more peaceful if the world becomes more classically liberal.
I am aware that this sounds almost Trotskyite! Given the
nature of classical liberalism, and its ability to permit
pluralism and provided the public culture is unitary
there is room for global diversity and development.
Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh were both murdered for saying
that Islam is a grave threat to liberal values. I presume
you agree with their analysis. If so, what can be done?
Like the Irishman who is asked for directions, I feel like
saying If I were going there, I wouldnt be starting
Like all religions, Islam is one that is capable of being
reformed. I dont think it is fundamentally illiberal,
but in its unreconstructed state it is capable of being
exploited for illiberal purposes. Islam has yet to undergo
appropriate reformation. As far as Muslims in this country
are concerned, I think the vast majority of them ought to
be given the benefit of the doubt in the traditional
English way! and be allowed to get on with their
lives. We know there are hardliners in their midst, but
it is not easy to say exactly what we can do about them
apart from not encouraging separatism and seeking
to bring about maximum integration. In your 2000 book, The
Rediscovery of Wisdom, you sought to revive an earlier understanding
of education as inculcating religion and civilisation
rather than being mere vocational training.
And in your latest book, you describe John Lockes
list of what the educated gentleman of his time was expected
to have read or at least to know about. One of the greatest
calamities of modernity and especially post-modernity
has been the extent to which the dimension of the
divine is being excised from higher education. The point
about Lockes conception of what it was to be educated
is that we no longer have these expectations. To illustrate
the state of modern education, I like to recount a story
of someone I met as long as 20 years ago, when she was in
the final year of her D Phil at Oxford. We were looking
up at the night sky once, and she asked me Whats
the difference between a star and a planet? I dont
want to sound as if I am some kind of gloating know-all
Im not but it is worrying that basic
knowledge like this can no longer be taken for granted among
Conway is Senior Research Fellow at Civitas, the Institute
for the Study of Civil Society http://www.civitas.org.uk
and emeritus professor of philosophy at Middlesex University.
He contributes to journals and is also the author of
several books A Farewell to Marx: An Outline
and Appraisal of his Theories (1987); Classical Liberalism:
The Unvanquished Ideal (1995); Free Market Feminism
(1998); The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity
in Quest of Sophia (2000) and In Defence of the Realm:
The Place of Nations in Classical Liberalism (2004).