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Remembrance Day: “What was it that gave comfort and consolation to those who lost loved ones in two world wars?” (©Yui Mok-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

With Brexit looming over the horizon, we are, as a nation, at a watershed in our long and varied story. Europe too is at a crossroads: the rising tide of immigration, problems with the euro and the resistance of a growing number of member states to the Franco-German federalising project are all contributing to the sense that the future of Europe is also at a turning point.

In these circumstances, it is entirely understandable that people are asking probing questions about identity, nationhood and the effects of large-scale immigration on how they perceive themselves. The liberal elite cannot just dismiss this as unsophisticated populism. It is of huge importance, however, that in this critical situation, we should not give in to knee-jerk reactions and to quick-fix nostrums either. If the question is not to be answered merely in terms of race or ethnicity, we must be able to say what it means to be British or, for that matter, European, that goes beyond these limited ways of understanding our identity. In every way, we need to be aware of Europe’s not- so-distant past and steer away from those temptations that led to the tragedy of fascism — a tragedy, please God, never to be repeated.

This means that the questions about national or European identity must be answered in terms of ideas, ways of viewing the world, intellectual and material culture and, of course, moral values. Such an answer cannot be given without reference to the wide Judaeo-Christian tradition which has formed not only our worldview but also our estimate of the human person, of an open and developing future (rather than the eternal cycles of ancient religions), and a sense of purpose and direction. It has given rise to the finest literature and art so that the critic George Steiner can say that everything in Europe’s art and literature is about the presence or absence of God. If so, it is because our language and our disciplines have been formed by the world view of the Bible. Even those who reject such a world view have it as their frame of reference.

Both Britain and Europe have emerged, in different ways, as civilisations based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, along with what Pope Benedict has called “purified” Hellenism mediated by Christianity and the influence of Justinian’s Christianised Roman law. It is true that the island and the continent developed differently: on the continent, a Christianised civilisation and a sense of identity emerged either out of the centralising tendencies of the Holy Roman Empire or in the fiercely independent city states like Venice or Geneva. In England, at any rate, there was an early consciousness of national identity, seen in the emergence of Parliament, a strong monarchy and the desire, even before the Reformation, to limit outside (e.g. Papal) influence over national life, taking shape already from the 13th century onwards. One picture could sum up the difference: in Europe the Poor Laws were mainly city-based, whereas England has had a National Poor Law since Tudor times.
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