Simon Heffer is a clever fellow, 40 going on 70, with the Ancient Mariner characteristics of a sixth-form history master and just a touch of romantic nuttiness. I am not much drawn to the Daily Mail - the platform for his right-wing sermons - so I am unfamiliar with his positions on the issues of the day; yet I have read, and enjoyed and admired, his excellent if hagiographic life of Enoch Powell, and I assume he has developed many of his own thoughts on nationalism and "Englishness" from drinking at that inexhaustible well of inspiration.
Now he has produced a short tract in which he argues, from an unusual English and Tory perspective, in favour of the break-up of Britain. He looks forward to Scottish independence, English independence and the joyful establishment of an English state. He seeks to persuade a timid Conservative readership that this might not be as bad as they fear.
From a different segment of the political spectrum, I have long shared his enthusiasm, though afflicted in recent years with considerable doubts. The left in England has traditionally supported movements of national liberation, and has always had a weakness for the radicalism of Scottish nationalism, recently made more explicit by Alex Salmond's hostility to the war in the Balkans. Ever since the publication more than 20 years ago of Tom Nairn's path-breaking book, The Break-Up of Britain, much of the English left has been quite happy about the prospect of Scottish independence and, without giving it much thought, has accepted the corollary of independence for England, too. The idea of a new start, and the possibility of a deus ex machina descending to change the country's political horizons, has always been attractive to a left influenced by the essentially surprising events of 1968.
Left-wing opponents of English independence have often deployed the powerful argument that England on its own would have a permanent Tory majority in Westminster. Yet since the 1997 election, as Heffer points out with some concern, this may no longer be necessarily true. The forming of a future English state is open to all comers. My own, more recent, doubts about such a project arise not just from the dismal picture presented by the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia, but from the reality that although intellectuals, of right and left, may initially play the role of blacksmith at the forge - like Thomas Masaryk in Central Europe - their handiwork is rapidly passed to others with less high-minded objectives.
Born in 1960, Heffer belongs to a generation of intelligent Conservatives who have spent their adult life with their own party in power. Now he has to acquire the more difficult skills of influencing a party in opposition. He does not underestimate the difficulty of his task. Alarmed by "the modern jingoists, with their following of spiky-haired louts", he takes seriously the threat that English independence will be accompanied by "the culture of boorish and unsavoury nationalism", and he argues that "some urgent educational direction" must take place to prevent this from developing.
Yet his appeal for a more acceptable form of English nationalism is too narrowly focused to easily find supporters on the left. Since the concept of Britain, devised at the time of the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, and the associated construct of "Britishness", is ineluctably bound up with the history of the Anglo-Scottish British Empire, many left wingers might have been attracted to the idea of reviving England and "Englishness" in the post-imperial era. Apart from anything else, it would provide years of employment to an army of History Workshop historians. More than a hint of English nationalism could be detected in the "populist socialism" of E P Thompson and Raphael Samuel.
The left, surely, would applaud Heffer's suggestion that the end of the Union would be a good moment for "an audit of all England's aspirations, and for the imposition of a salutary objectivity about its place in the world". Yet Heffer, from his petty bourgeois perspective, is strikingly short of the necessary vision and for a Powellite his arguments are often tentative, muddled and illogical, particularly about Europe and the empire.
He makes clear his opposition to "Europe", yet he does not address England's past or future relations with the United States, limiting himself to the routine right-wing criticism (shared by the left) of Britain's current role as an "assistant world policeman in America's international constabulary" without suggesting an alternative. Could "England" really establish a different kind of relationship?
Heffer is an economic fundamentalist, like Powell, and he has "formidable ideological objections" to the idea of public subsidy for the arts. Still, he recognises that the subsidised production of culture could play a role in the development of his savoury nationalism. Since it's already there, he argues pragmatically, "it would seem sensible to use more of it to promote English culture".
Heffer is desperate not to fall into the Powellite trap of appearing to condone (or encourage) racism, yet his views on the "multicultural" contribution to Englishness are, at best, ignorant and ill thought out. Like all good Powellites, he despises the Commonwealth, an attitude that many on the left might share, yet he is forced to recognise that it is already a uniquely "English" institution that would continue to be presided over by an "English" monarch. He does not seem to understand that you cannot detach a future England from the legacy of empire. The "multicultural" English population of today is just as much an heir to the traditions of the empire as the English who return to Elgar and Constable, and it is the intertwining of these two strands that will define "Englishness" in the next century.
Heffer's book is not a "provocative polemic", as the publishers claim. It is more a tentative study of the way things might develop than a call to arms, and his prose often degenerates into the kind of geriatric pomposity that results from years spent writing leaders for the Tory press. If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, as Enoch himself might have put it, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
Richard Gott is working on a book on empire