Reflections on the evolution of Britain: Brexit, Identity, and the United Kingdom’s Place in the World. Insight presents a shortened summary of the 2016 Edmund Burke Lecture given by British Council CEO Sir Ciarán Devane:

A very British revolution?

Harold Macmillan once answered the question of what was most likely to throw governments off track by saying, ‘Events, dear boy, events’. 

We have had more than our fair share of events in the last twelve months. Many certainties of British life have received a shaking, and aftershocks can be expected to continue. Leaving the EU will be a 5-10 year project with a longer legacy. Whatever our personal or institutional views of the decision, it will have an effect on all of us, and on this country's relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, for many years to come. The people decided on Brexit. The question of whether that means hard or soft, or - as I would rather frame it - open or closed Brexit, is not yet clear.

What the cultural relations response should be has been occupying minds at the British Council. We now have 27 neighbours who are not entirely happy with us and we need to respond thoughtfully, clearly and well.

Our changed relationship with the EU is in many ways a revolution in how we see ourselves in the world....That is cause for nervousness among some; but also an opportunity for determination and courage

Our changed relationship with the EU is in many ways a revolution in how we see ourselves in the world. It offers us an unexpected crossroads at which to take stock and decide on our future direction. We have stepped off one path and must make another. That is cause for nervousness among some; but also an opportunity for determination and courage. All of us, whether in the 48 per cent or in the 52 per cent in referendum terms, must engage.

Edmund Burke (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797: the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher was most famous for his criticism of the  excesses of the French Revolution and has been seen in the UK as a foundational figure for British Liberalism and Conservatism) was famously a supporter of the American Revolution, but a stern critic of the French. What would he have made of the revolution in outlook that is taking place in this country: the prospect of the UK's departure from the European Union? Would he have been pleased at poking the ‘great European project’ in the eye? Would he have warned us against demagogues and populists?  

I suspect his response would be more nuanced: Burke might have recognised a strong urge to British exceptionalism, and perhaps a difference between European and Anglo-sphere versions of Enlightenment values, but also understand the impossibility of ‘standing alone’ in an era that depends on international trade, and whose technology demands components from the four corners of the globe. 

I think also that he would have taken a pragmatic approach to our departure from the EU. He might have advised us that there are two ways of leaving any situation. There is leaving to retire and indulge in introspection behind closed doors; and there’s leaving to forge a new path ‘out there’. It comes down to whether as a nation we now choose to look inwards or outwards. We cannot be half-global or half-internationalist. 

For our own sake, and for the world’s, we must strain every sinew to make sure we do look outward. The British Council has been making arguments for outwardness since its foundation 80 years ago; but we do so now with new urgency. We shouldn’t forget that we received our Royal Charter in 1940, at the moment of greatest threat from Fascism. That is no coincidence. Our job is to use the cultural resources of the UK to create a basis of knowledge and understanding of the country so that our security, prosperity, and influence is enhanced.

On the other hand I do think that the events of the last few months have revealed something about this country which means that a certain amount of introspection is also called for. A reshaped relationship between the UK and the European Union, and between the UK and the rest of the world, is a chance to ask – and answer – big questions about ourselves: who we are, and who we want to be. In other words, questions of culture, of identity, and of identities.

Burke was no stranger to such questions, in his philosophy, but also in his personal life. He was himself the product of a mixed marriage – between a Catholic mother and a Church of Ireland (protestant) father. He lived at a time when to be an Irishman was not necessarily inconsistent with being British or even English. 

This just goes to show the extent to which ideas of nationality, identity, and cultural belonging have always been fluid and fuzzy-boundaried.  Of course I'm very pleased that today someone born an Irishman can be Chief Executive of so quintessentially British an institution as the British Council. I am Irish, British, and European. And I like additionally to think of myself as a global citizen.

There is a job for us to do, as an international cultural organisation, in redirecting that urge for identity and belonging into positive channels. Again, I think we might – if we look hard enough – see the shadow of Edmund Burke over this. Much of Burke’s thought was concerned with how to preserve what is good in the world, and with a sense of continuity. And this perhaps lies at the heart of his objection to the French Revolution: its ‘Year Zero’ aspect, starting over from nothing, as if the labours of past generations had no meaning and produced no works of lasting value.

Cartoon of Edmund Burke as anti-revolutionary
Burke contrasted the ‘little platoons’ and the ‘big batallions’, but what would he have made of Brexit? ‘Smelling a rat’, cartoon of Burke as anti-revolutionary, by James Gilray. Photo ©

Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication licence.

In fact nothing – to quote King Lear – will come of nothing. Everything comes out of something else, even those seemingly magical ‘Eureka!’ moments. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and knowing who those giants are, and our relation to them, is what gives a culture its meaning. Culture is what we do and what we do is often because of our history.

Burke’s objection to the French Revolution and its tabula rasa approach derives from a feeling that past, present and future are intimately entwined. Indeed one of his best known aphorisms concerns the need to understand the past if one is to have any hope of understanding the present – let alone predicting the future. ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.’ 

Culture is the rich connecting thread between people and generations. Cultural protection is a way to strengthen communities and societies, and to counter the seductions of ‘Year Zero’ movements that seek to start the world afresh. Cultural protection may take many forms – from the physical protection of artifacts, to the recording of cultural practices, to the support of people’s intellectual, psychological and spiritual life.  

The recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union revealed facts about this country that took some people by surprise. In addition to the evident fact that a majority of those who voted felt negatively about the EU, the poll seemed to uncover political and cultural fractures within the United Kingdom itself. 

Keep calm and carry on

For me, as the head of a cultural organisation that prides itself on its bridge-building abilities, this is a worrying finding. It suggests that it is not only the UK’s relationship with its neighbours that needs some nurturing; but that we live in a country of at least two views. The question for us now is have we only worked with what might be called the ‘48 per cent’? How might we in future work not only with them, but with the ‘52 per cent’ as well?  

In the brave new post-EU world into which we are heading, their links to the wider world will be – arguably – even more important than today. We need to bring internationalism home.  

A wry and practical ‘open for business’ attitude is part of the national character – something that may serve the UK well in coming years. And being open for business means being open to the world. If there is anything that characterises the UK’s history it is this 

To return to Harold Macmillan – it is not events that define who individuals or nations are, but our response to them. In the context of the present challenges, it seems slightly flippant to quote the mock-Churchillian motto, ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’. Yet this much-imitated and much-adapted phrase does express something particularly British. It suggests that a wry and practical ‘open for business’ attitude is part of the national character – something that may serve the UK well in coming years. And being open for business means being open to the world. If there is anything that characterises the UK’s history it is this. 

We should remember that our arts scene is the result of the ‘melting pot’ characteristic of our cities. Our universities’ research reputation is the result of collaboration across the globe – the product of a huge number of different people of every nationality. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that the ‘national values’ we are most proud of are functions of looking outwards, not inwards. The best things about our country are formed from interactions and openness to others and new ideas. We are always better, and stronger, when we work in collaboration with others, for common aims. 

I hope that in the coming years we can use this cultural capital – our great institutions, our brilliant scientists, our artists and writers and the great good fortune of the English language – to forge a path in a new phase of our history. The risks to the Enlightenment values of openness is something Edmund Burke would have recognised only too well. I will close by paraphrasing one of his best-known quotations: ‘All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men (and of course women) to do nothing’. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.