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England: an elegy

Roger Scruton <em>Pimlico, 270pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 0712668055

This book, Roger Scruton tells us, is premised on two ideas: first, that England as a cohesive, tangible unity is finished; and second, that one can understand the country only in relation to its past, not its moribund present.

The diverse subject matter of this tightly argued book is well chosen. Religion, the Lords, gentlemen's clubs, the metric system - all are dissected for their peculiar Englishness. But the real test of this polemic must be whether it manages to go beyond mere lecturing to say something meaningful about England and its character. At its worst, England can sound like misplaced, undirected reminiscence. It's hard to square Scruton's argument, for instance, that we have moved from "sexual puritanism" to "blatant promiscuity" with the casual acceptance of adultery among those he seems to deem most English: the early 20th-century's upper class.

But the overall movement of his thought and the weight of his examples are persuasive; we end up with a real sense that something has gone and, moreover, that often the most important changes a country might undergo are by their nature outside the aegis of the democratic process.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress