Travel the capitals of Europe. Go to Moscow, to Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Edinburgh. And only then, from Edinburgh, take the train south to London, the great city which for a thousand years has been the capital of England – and was, and perhaps still is, in some respects the capital of the world.
As you come into London in the train, you’ll see plenty of ugliness – you’ve seen it when approaching most of the other capitals. But also you’ll gradually realise that you’re seeing something else, which you didn’t notice in any of the other cities you visited.
Most English people still live in their own houses.
In big cities in other countries (even including Scotland) most people live in flats.
If you’re philosophically inclined, you may wonder what this has to say about the English national character. Why do the English feel that it’s important, even if you live in a big city, to live in a house, with a garden, and not in a large communal building divided into flats?
The answer is that the individual, and his private life, have always seemed even more important to the Englishman than the collective community to which he also belongs. He feels the need to have his own small territory, his garden, where can retain the personal privacy of his family, outdoors as well as indoors. An Englishman’s home – his house – is his castle. That is why, long before the Americans and the French started talking about Liberty, we English had already discovered the importance of Freedom.
It’s because we believed in freedom, that England was one of the first countries in Europe to abolish slavery. Anglo-Saxon England, like other European countries since time immemorial, contained slaves. Slaves are mentioned in Domesday Book. But within a hundred years of the Norman Conquest, there were no longer any slaves in England.
The English national character took shape in the centuries that followed 1066. This was the period which in continental Europe was the age of the armoured knight, the age of chivalry. The chivalrous knight was civilised and polite – to those he considered his equals. But he rode roughshod over his tenantry, respecting neither their property nor their women. In England, there were armoured knights too. But they were less important and had less power. The military strength of English armies came above all from the English archers.
Shooting the longbow is a great art; it requires training from boyhood and constant practice. For centuries, English laws positively encouraged all able-bodied men to practice their skills as archers. An accomplished longbowman could shoot arrows with almost the rapidity of a machine-gun and with great accuracy even at long range. The arrows were deadly and even a knight in armour was vulnerable, because his horse could be killed or disabled beneath him.
No other government in Europe encouraged its peasantry to learn archery. Archery was despised – it was supposed to be the coward’s way of fighting.I t was actually the free man’s way. An archer is a difficult man to intimidate. You can rob him and oppress his family; but he will kill you when you least expect it, silently, from a safe distance, without trace. And a large gathering of angry peasant archers can very quickly become a revolutionary army.
English kings and parliaments enacted laws to encourage archery because they did not believe that the people would use their bows to overthrow the established order. Those who ruled trusted the people not to rebel. The people did not rebel because they trusted their rulers not to oppress them. Unlike every other society in Europe, English society has traditionally always been based not upon force but upon trust.
The fundamental fact that English people value their private lives more than their collective lives is good; but it is also dangerous. We can take our governments for granted and trust them too much, for too long. Things carry on. But as they carry on, they may get gradually worse. A point can be reached when at last we have to realise that our governments no longer trust us, and no longer deserve to be trusted by us; when at last we reluctantly register that we are being conned.
We are now reaching that point. Perhaps we have already reached it.
And we are now starting to do something about it.