England is a summer’s day by a river in a wooded valley, an afternoon on the cricket field, strawberries at Wimbledon, and well kept gardens in leafy suburbs. It is seeing Shakespeare enacted at the Globe, hearing William Byrd and Handel. It is a way of life and a way of thinking.
At their best Englishmen and women believe in fair play, freedom and tolerance. We want to live and let live. We are Tolkein’s hobbits of the Shire. Our land is fertile, our climate temperate, our island disposition makes us interested in the wider world but beholden to no foreign empire. We are confident of our island, its protecting seas and its traditions. We hold our heads high because we have not been conquered for a thousand years, we are proud of our democratic traditions, we take delight in our past and present enterprise and economic success, we are pleased our ancestors fought to free others on the continent of Europe.
I remember once showing a Russian visitor the House of Commons. I talked to him about the portrait paintings on the walls: the winners and the losers, the establishment figures and the rebels, cavaliers and roundheads, free traders and interventionists, Labour, Liberals and Conservatives, monarchists and republicans. He replied after a while “How wonderful it must be to live in a country which is at peace with its past”. We see nothing wrong with celebrating Cromwell and Charles under the same roof, for their conflict produced the 1660 settlement and in turn the Glorious Revolution.
England has been settled since 1660. Our near neighbours have had revolutions, military dictatorships and radical constitutional upheavals in later centuries. I might have been a Parliamentarian in 1640, but would probably have been more in sympathy with the royalists by 1645 and would have objected to the killing of the King. I like to think I would have been a slave trade abolitionist, a free trader against expensive corn, an enthusiastic advocate of the wider franchise when reform Bills came to the Commons. I want our current Parliaments to further the long march of everyman and woman to be an owner of business and shares, as well as a voter and a property owner. The English story is far from complete. Everyman and woman has come a long way in three hundred years, but there is much further I would like him and her to travel.
The English story is now interwoven with the British story. Some of us are happy with the Union, others now chafe at it. We all agree that the future of our Union will evolve and will be settled by arguments and votes, not by guns and bullets. That is the English way, and is often also the UK way.
John Redwood is the Conservative MP for Wokingham in Berkshire.