Americans almost invariably refer to the British Isles as “England.” They refer to Scottish writers, including those whose names begin with Mac, as “English.” Their urge to reduce Wales, Scotland, and even sometimes Northern Ireland to “England” is embarrassing to one who spent fifteen years in Aberdeen, Scotland, suppressing that same urge. But there are reasons why the urge is hard to suppress. What should one call this place? “Great Britain” is a mouthful, “United Kingdom” is managerialese—and England, this island, looks like one single place from abroad.
“England,” our Fairest Isle, including Scotland and Wales, looks like one single place because it is one single place. It is surrounded on all sides by water, which marks its boundaries and colours the British soul. You may say that there is no such thing as the “soul” of England: We may imagine her as Britannia, but a country is not a person. The only corporate personality, I am reliably told by R. R. Reno, is the Church. Countries are not persons, said the Oracle. No, maybe not—but they are analogous to persons, and they have some analog of a soul. And today we may say, as was said to France in 1941: “England, take care not to lose your soul.”
What does it mean for a country to have a soul? What would it mean for a country to lose its soul?
For a place to be a country at all, it must be a whole. It must look like, and also be, a single, self-standing whole. For a place to be a country, it must be given the look of an individual entity, by surrounding seas or rivers, or by mountain ranges. These geographical features defend the country against absorption into surrounding areas. Like life in the “Darwinian jungle,” so human life in the fallen history of mankind is a ceaseless struggle to survive against the other countries' will to dominion. A country's geographical boundaries not only make its wholeness visible but also shield it, enabling it to survive as a single, substantial entity. Thus, neither Norfolk nor, I'm sorry to say, Wales could operate for long as a country.
I name those two, by the way, because I'm confidently told that “one might as well say that Wales or Norfolk should seek independence from Great Britain and become self-governing states, as say that Great Britain should retrieve its independence from the maw of the European Union.” But Norfolk has not been a single, independent country for a thousand years, for the very good reason that it has no discernible borders to keep out intruders and mark its identity. What makes a place a country is a matter of geography and history. Spain is surrounded by mountains to the north and sea to the south. Poor Wales is not sufficiently so defended.
England is a country, as a matter of geography and history. But while a country's borders defend it from death by absorption into a wider empire, they cannot give it a soul. We know whether a place has a soul by whether it has a voice. A soul without a voice is unimaginable. A person's voice expresses his or her singular personality. The first thing we know about God in Genesis is that he speaks. A mute deity would be absolutely impersonal. To have anything analogous to a soul, a country needs not only borders but something like a voice. Not just the English accent, or a Welsh lilt or the Scottish brogue that so mystifies the Americans that they need subtitles for Scottish movies—but a single voice, appearing as the expression of a single mind. Without a single mind, a country has nothing analogous to a substantive personality, of which its voice is the outward indication. A multilingual territory can be an empire, in which one of its many languages is the dominant strain. But seldom can it be a single country with a soul of its own. That is why national independence movements desperately attempt to resurrect dying or dead local dialects.
That is why “Europe” will never be a “country,” and its M.O. will always be, not contingently but fundamentally, anti-democratic. With its twenty-four bureaucratically stipulated languages, the E.U. is a soul-less empire, not a country like England, Spain, and Hungary, with its own voice, its own mouth-piece, and thus something like a soul to call its own.
Every one of those “official languages” of the E.U., from Bulgarian to Swedish, has seen the sea-changes over the centuries. Languages live, they shrivel into local dialects, and thereby, languages die. If a country has some analog of a soul, that soul lives only in time, and therefore lives, and will eventually die, at some juncture in history. For the soul of England, that juncture may be imminent.
Tomorrow, the Fairest Isle has to choose between forfeiting her soul to the European Empire and retaining the sovereign freedom of her Parliamentary democracy. I do not hold out much hope for a vote to “Leave” the European Empire. The big banks, the money-guys, the Goldman-Sachses, and the Soroses are all for “Remaining.” So are those who want E.U. cash for their University jobs. So is everyone for whom money is their driving motivation. They want to exchange England's freedom for the mirage of prosperity. Very few people today believe there is such thing as a soul, exhibited in freedom from material constraint, and thus rising above money interests.
Of course, there are other, less metaphysical reasons one might vote “Leave” tomorrow. There is a “Left Case for Brexit,” presented by Harvard Professor William Tuck: The E.U. is the perfect instrument of technocrats, and its irreformably un-democratic structures undermine workers' rights. There is a classical liberal case for Brexit, presented by the Hobbes scholar Noel Malcolm: Sovereignty is indivisible—Malcolm has argued for decades that one either has it or not, and it cannot be pooled or shared—and E.U. membership is incompatible with our national sovereignty. And there is a populist case for Brexit, reflecting the concerns about unlimited immigration that have arisen from our loss of control over our own borders.
These are all different cases and arguments, relating to different political philosophies. But all of them perhaps come down to the same concern, that by undermining our historical Parliamentary democracy we lose the very seat of our soul, the mind or reason that governs us as a people.
Multinational empires are ultimately ineffective. Like Babylon, like Egypt, even like Rome, they are eventually absorbed into the maw of an entity that has a real underlying mind and will. Russia actually has a soul, and one that will, perhaps one day not too far in the future, eat the European Union for breakfast. Will Britain be part of European Union on that day? Or will it vote on Thursday, June 23 to save its soul?
Francesca Aran Murphy is a senior fellow at First Things.