December 3, 2019

Why might it be that the people of Hull care more for freedom of speech — and so of thought, and of the soul — than those who dwell in the gentler, wealthier regions around Runnymede? The latest map in the UnHerd Britain series shows how different parts of the country respond to the idea that “there should be no limits on free speech, even if that enables people to voice offensive views.”

The rankings suggest a pattern: that in our tougher, fiercer, poorer regions support for such freedom is strongest, whereas in the tree-shaded southern and midland suburbs (and also, oddly, in Scotland, which is, for the most part, not very soft and bosky) it is at its weakest. Why ever would this be? By all means ask a statistician, or a sociologist, for the answer. But I have a different theory: let me explain it to you.

Rudyard Kipling, in my view rightly, put a lot of our national class division down to the deep remaining bitterness between the invaders of 1066 and their resentful subjects, and to the lingering Saxon belief in ancient liberties once held, now lost, and one day to be restored, in what has often been a common belief in this country.

What does your constituency really think?

It peeps out from the Robin Hood legend, of an exiled nobleman beloved by the people, but driven from his true title, and from many ancient local stories of poachers who are really the true owners of the land from which they are now driven by gamekeepers. One such tale, of a sort once common in country districts, lies at the heart of M.R. James’s troubling ghost story “The Mezzotint“, about a picture which comes alive, and shows a terrible dynastic murder in progress, far away and a long time ago.

In Kipling’s clever poem “Norman and Saxon” a dying Norman baron is warning his arrogant young heir to be careful when dealing with his Saxon peasants.

“The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow — with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, “This isn’t fair dealing”, my son, leave the Saxon alone.

“You can horsewhip your Gascony archers, or torture your Picardy spears;
But don’t try that game on the Saxon; you’ll have the whole brood round your ears.
From the richest old Thane in the county to the poorest chained serf in the field,
They’ll be at you and on you like hornets, and, if you are wise, you will yield.”

Arthur Conan Doyle touched on something similar in his glorious but largely forgotten historical novel The White Company (words most people now associate with a firm that makes bedding).

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The book’s hero, Alleyne Edricson, is heir to a great Saxon noble name, now down on its luck. But “he knew enough of the ancient greatness of his own family to be aware that the time had been when they had held undisputed and paramount sway over all that tract of country. His father could trace his pure Saxon lineage back to … the time when the Norman first set mailed foot upon English soil.”

With their lands seized and confiscated over 300 years, their wealth and power had dwindled to a crumbling manor, two small farms and a wood full of pigs. But even so, “above all, the owner of the soil could still hold his head high as the veritable Socman of Minstead — that is, as holding the land in free socage, with no feudal superior, and answerable to no man lower than the King”.

My grandfather, a proud son of Portsmouth with a rolling, deep, soft Hampshire burr that I seldom hear nowadays, often seemed like one of Doyle’s untameable Saxons (though the name Hitchens actually originates from Cornwall, whose inhabitants have an even more ungovernable pedigree).

More than once I heard him rumble, when he heard or read of some aristocrat claiming that his forebears had come over with the Conqueror: “Yes, and my ancestors were here on the shore, waiting for them.” He was not entirely joking. I don’t think he was any kind of socialist, though he worshipped the crippled cobbler John Pounds, who had founded some of the first schools for the children of the poor, in the desperate, squalid backstreets of Old Portsmouth.

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But he was a pioneer of the National Union of Teachers, and held to the same sort of blood and fire Protestantism that helped Cromwell’s Ironsides to sweep through their decadent foes like a sickle through the wheat. I have little doubt which side he would have taken at Edgehill or Naseby. He never read a work of fiction, so far as I know, in his life; the Bible contained all the stories he needed.

From this fierce, cross-tempered, deliberately eccentric old patriarch, as I believe, I have inherited things which came to surprise me in later life, especially a furious prejudice in favour of liberty, an inability even to understand those who would give it away, and an accompanying suspicion of authority. I know jury trial is good. I know the presumption of innocence is beyond price. I loathe the sight of an armed police officer. I watch TV reports of police smashing down people’s doors (however wicked they may allegedly be) with suspicion and shock. I can easily provide good reasons for these positions.

But I do not really need them, except in attempts to persuade others. And I can rather easily tell when these others are not interested. These legacies only really flowered in my mind as I came to maturity. My education and upbringing provided the knowledge and understanding. But my first encounter with Macaulay’s History of England awoke something in me which was not theoretical.

As I read his account of the great defiance of 1688, I remembered that Liberty was my inheritance. And now I had to pass it on unharmed. Much as I hated the prospect, after a lifetime of comfortable cowardice, I might even have to take risks to do so. The piston and the cylinder already existed, but a profound cultural heritage filled it with the steam which actually moved the mechanism.

Talking of cultural heritage, I will mention here a curious experience which causes me to think that we inherit more than we think from our forebears. Some years ago I was privileged to spend a night aboard one of the warships of the Royal Navy, in which my father spent 30 years of his life. Between waking and sleeping, I heard the call to hands at the change of the watches, broadcast over the ship’s Tannoy quite softly. I knew, factually, that I had never heard the words before. But simultaneously, I also knew, instinctively, that I had heard them before in exactly the same order and intonation.

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I wonder what else, among my thoughts and desires, comes down from farther and farther back, so far back its origin can only be guessed at until its origin can no longer be seen. As Thomas Hardy described it in his extraordinarily moving short poem “Old Furniture”:

“Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.”

Well, if it has happened to me, why not to others? How far does it go back? Is there some inherited division? Has it faded in the South, among the Normanised middle classes, descendants of those who made their peace with the invader, and persisted beyond that persistent line of division that still runs from the Mersey to the Humber? On its far side are the lands subjected to the Conqueror’s terrible “harrying“, a repression as bloody and merciless as anything in the Thirty Years War.

I expect most educated people of my generation are embarrassed by Wordsworth’s talk of the “Flood of British freedom” which “to the open sea of the world’s praise, from dark antiquity hath flowed”. And since the massacre of the grammar schools, I do not suppose it is very well-known among the bleak, salty and wind-scoured housing estates of, for example, Hull. A pity.

But something else has perhaps been passed on, and survives, even if it does not rhyme or scan. And perhaps it may save us yet from the enemies of free speech and thought, though I must admit I have yet to see any sign of it.