To England, with love

Voltaire's Coconuts

Ian Buruma <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 326pp, £18.99</em>

Why, asks Ian Buruma in his study of Anglophilia in Europe, has Britain "managed to achieve its peculiar equilibrium, based on a combination of social stability and inequality, of freedom and dull conformity, tolerance and provincial smugness, civility and greed"? The question presupposes that Britain actually achieved such a state of civility, since there have been and still are those who dismiss British liberty as a sham, not least certain Scots, Welsh and Irish people. Such dissenters argue that it is precisely because of its conformity and parochialism that England has maintained the illusion of liberty.

Buruma concentrates on those who have, for one reason or another, viewed Britain as a haven from the despotic regimes of its continental neighbours and who have come here because they were allowed the freedom to write what they wanted. They range from the fanatically pro-English Voltaire (who boasted of having introduced the French to English gardens, Shakespeare and Newton's scientific ideas) to the more ambivalent Theodor Fontane, who liked to think that all Englishmen had the words "I am a free man" written on their heads, but complained that "no country - its civil liberties notwithstanding - is further removed from democracy than England, and more eager to curry favour with the aristocracy, or mimic its flash and dazzle".

There are, however, those who adopt England and its culture for more serious political or religious reasons. One of the most interesting chapters in Buruma's book describes a night in February 1854, when a group of political exiles gathered in London to celebrate the anniversary of George Washington's birth. They included Mazzini, Garibaldi, Herzen, Kossuth and Worcell. The only one not invited was Karl Marx, whose faction was known as the "sulphurous gang".

Marx was one of many 19th-century revolutionaries who quivered with frustration at the inability of the British working class to protest against their conditions, displaying his contempt when he referred to them as "thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been especially manufactured for constables' bludgeons".

Even Voltaire, an arch-Anglophile who predicted that one day English laws of liberty could be transplanted to other nations as easily as coconuts from India, lamented the link between freedom and vulgarity. He singled out the English press as a matter of particular concern, telling a friend " 'tis great pity that your nation is overrun with such prodigious members of scandal and scurrilities!" Would that he could read today's newspapers.

Voltaire, like many other Anglophiles, was more in love with the idea of English freedom than with its reality. Having boasted of introducing Shakespeare to France, for example, he spent much of his life denigrating Shakespeare on the grounds that he was too eager to entertain a popular, and therefore vulgar, audience. As Buruma says, his objection to Shakespeare drives straight to the heart of the meaning of English liberty, since that vulgarity was "the result of the very liberties, commercial as well as social, that he professed to admire".

Buruma, on the other hand, appears to have no qualms about appealing to a wider audience, and does so with gusto, packing his book with spicy anecdotes. As a former foreign editor of the Spectator, he tells an amusing story about sitting in the editor's office discussing a forthcoming issue on the death of Rajiv Gandhi. Having mentioned several well-known journalists in Delhi, he is interrupted by the red-headed deputy editor (presumably Simon Heffer), who bellows, "Enoch! Enoch's always frightfully good on India."

But while Buruma may have found the Speccie a little too dilettante for his own tastes, he still appears to adhere to its ethos of putting good writing first and serious analysis second. Indeed, he confesses to anxiety about becoming wrapped up in what he calls "great balls of intellectual wool" over the question of what Englishness is. This is a pity, since his breadth of reading might have offered more profound insights into the question of what role England - or Britain - should take in a future united Europe. Too often he skates around the surface of the subject, providing us with a set of caricatures which amuse, but which belie the context in which they existed.

In a discussion, for example, about the German adoption of Shakespeare as a national icon in the 18th century, in which the great German philosopher Herder played a significant part, Buruma informs us stentoriously that Herder "was not a political thinker". Can this be the same Herder who, in 1788, wrote a study on the problem of German fragmentation, entitled "Idea for the First Patriotic Institute for a Common German Cultural Identity"?

Similarly, Buruma underestimates the importance of English culture in creating a British political entity. "Englishness," he blithely insists, "is a romantic, not a political concept", whereas, "The idea of Britain . . . is a political one. The United Kingdom is defined not by a race, a culture or a religion, but by laws and institutions, which have worked reasonably well to safeguard individual liberties."

He is aware of the complexities of this question, as he demonstrates in a chapter about the confusion of England with Britain. He points out that much of the "English thinking" so admired by the French philosophes flowed, in fact, from Edinburgh, and that the romantic image we have of Scotland, epitomised by films such as Braveheart and Mrs Brown, was partly fostered by a monarchy desperate to escape the intrigues and backbiting of the English court. Nevertheless, the idea that British institutions have successfully safeguarded individual liberties may be rather hard to swallow for the parents of Stephen Lawrence, or those Scots and Welsh people who are currently arguing for independence.

Perhaps one of the most surprising gaps in Buruma's book is that he barely mentions the influence of the American and French revolutions on British politics in the past two centuries. What is particularly fascinating about American influence is that it persists today in the sphere of neo-liberal economics, with all the resulting drawbacks. Whether Britain decides to join Euroland or not, though, it will continue to face the problems of whether unification guarantees social harmony. The trouble with unity is that while it may give you greater power on the global stage, it does not necessarily give you the concomitant freedom. Buruma's very readable book prompts a number of intriguing questions about the idea of freedom. My only wish is that he had attempted to answer more of them.

Daniel Britten is researching a book on feminism