Life is no dream, but it could and maybe should become one.
It feels, in many respects, as if Britain today is in an analogous position to that of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, with the power of the federal waning and that of the constituent nations waxing. The same applies to the European Union too - its prosaic, dryly-secular approach unable to provide a frame of reference for the atavistic stirrings bubbling up in the European psyche. A similarly centripetal process could easily begin in the USA as well.
A profound shifting of national and international tectonic plates is taking place. Here in the UK, the idea of 'Britishness' appears to be losing its hold on the popular imagination. Perhaps the only element holding the Union together at the moment - psychologically speaking - is the Crown. It will be fascinating to observe, as you have previously enquired, how the country one day copes without Elizabeth II, a permanent presence for as long as most of us can remember.
An interesting way, for me, of reimagining the UK and its connection with Europe is to reflect on the original 'Britain' - the Roman province of Britannia. I find the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, set in Roman and post-Roman Britain, a great imaginative here. They delineate superbly the ambivalent nature of Britain's relationship with the continent. In The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), for instance, a young Roman and his British friend discuss the differences between the Roman and Celtic mindsets:
'But these things that Rome had to give, are they not good things?' Marcus demanded. 'Justice and order, and good roads; worth having, surely?'
'They be all good things,' Esca agreed. 'But the price is too high.'
'The price? Freedom?'
'Yes - and other things than freedom.'
'What other things? Tell me, Esca; I want to know. I want to understand.'
Esca thought for a while, staring straight before him. 'Look at the pattern embossed here on your dagger-sheath,' he said at last. 'See, here is a tight curve, and here is another facing the other way to balance it, and here between them is a little round stiff flower; and then it is all repeated here, and here, and here again. It is beautiful, yes, but to me it is as meaningless as an unlit lamp.'
Marcus nodded as the other glanced up at him. 'Go on.'
Esca took up his shield. 'Look now at this shield-boss. See the bulging curves that flow from each other as water flows from water and wind from wind, as the stars turn in the heaven and blow same drifts into dunes. These are the curves of life, and the man who traced them had in him knowledge of things that your people have lost the key to - if they ever had it.' (pp.92-93)
In The Silver Branch (1957), set at the end of the third century and based on the political upheavals in the Empire at that time, the Imperial usurper, , the reality of Roman (European) decline, the singular position Britain occupies vis-a-vis the continent and the concomitant need for independence:
'The Wolves gather,' said. 'Always, everywhere, the Wolves gather on the frontiers, waiting. It needs only that a man should lower his eye for a moment, and they will be in to strip the bones. Rome is failing, my children.'
Justin looked at him quickly, but Flavius never moved; it was as though he had known what would say.
'Oh, she is not finished yet. I shall not see her fall. My Purple will last my life-time - and not, I think, will you. Nevertheless, Rome is hollow rotten at the heart, and one day she will come crashing down. A hundred years ago, it must have seemed that all this was for ever; a hundred years hence - only the gods know ... If I can make this one province strong - strong enough to stand alone when Rome goes down, then something may be saved from the darkness. If not, then light and light and light will go out. The lights will go out everywhere.' He stepped back, dragging aside the hanging folds of the curtains, and stood framed in their darkness against the firelight and the lamplight behind him, his head yet turned to the scudding grey and silver of the stormy night. 'If I can steer clear of a knife in my back until the work is done, I will make Britain strong enough to stand alone,' he said. 'It is as simple as that.' (pp.36-37)
A complex mesh of emotions is in play, as shown in the next book in the sequence, The Lantern Bearers (1959), set a century and a half later. Aquila, a Roman auxiliary of British birth, discovers something non-negotiable about himself when ordered to leave Britain with his cohort:
One didn't hear the sea much in the daytime, save when there was a storm, but at night it was always there, even in a flat calm, a faint, persistent wash of sound like the sea in a shell. It seemed to be out of that faint sea-wash in the silence that the knowledge came to him that he belonged to Britain. He had always belonged to Britain, but he hadn't known it before, because he had never had to question it before. He knew it now.
It was not only because of Flavia and his father. Lying in the darkness with his arm over his eyes, he tried quite deliberately to thrust them from his mind, pretend that they did not exist. It made no difference; even without them, he still belonged to Britain. 'How odd!' he thought. 'We of the Outposts, we speak of ourselves as Roman - with the surface of our minds - and underneath, it is like this.' (pp.19-20)
After the Romans' departure and the burning of his family home by the Saxons, Aquila joins, after many twists and turns, the resistance movement led by Aurelianus, a chieftain (later High King) who is himself half-Celt, half-Roman and feels acutely the tension between the two. His successor, (Arthur), skips the Kingship and is crowned Emperor instead by his exultant soldiery after the battle of Mons . 'After forty years,' he proclaims, 'there is an Emperor of the West again ... The Island of Britain is all that stands of Rome-in-the-West and therefore it is enough that we in Britain know that the light still burns.' (Sword at Sunset, 1963, p.367)
The frustrating fact (in real life) is that if it hadn't been for a migration of British nobility to Brittany in the 460s, then and Arthur would most likely have had the manpower and resources they needed to drive the Saxons out and establish Britain as the inheritor of 'Rome-in-the-West'. Since I first read the history of those times in boyhood, this missed opportunity has left me with an acute sense of regret. I always feel that this is the Empire Britain could and should have had and that the British Empire known to history is a mercantile caricature of that.
If we believe, however, in a God who takes as active an interest in the lives of nations as He does in those of individuals, then we have reason to hope that the moment might not have passed forever and that the chance may come again. Brexit could become that moment - not if we lose impetus in materialistic visions of global trade arrangements, as some are in danger of doing, but if we keep our focus on the spiritual longing the Leave vote was at bottom an attempt to satisfy.
It isn't a case, as thought, of 'standing alone'. It's more a matter of the nations and regions of our country finding a right relationship with themselves, with the peoples of Europe and, most importantly, with God. But he is right in another sense. Rome is indeed failing, if by Rome we mean the secularism and liberalism embodied in (and by) the EU and rejected in the UK referendum. These man-made creeds have run their course. They are 'old wineskins' now, hollow rotten. One day they will come crashing down. We await, largely unconsciously still, the re-emergence of the sacred. 'Only a god,' as Martin Heidegger wrote, 'can save us now' -
Marcus ached for last year to be given back to him, for the old life and the comradeship to be given back to him. He moved an ivory chess piece a little blindly, seeing, not the black-and-white dazzle of the board before his eyes, but that gathering a year ago, filing out by the Praetorian gate and downhill to the cave; then, as the trumpets sounded from the distant ramparts for the third watch of the night, the sudden glory of candles, that sank and turned blue, and sprang up again; the reborn light of Mithras in the dark of the year. (The Eagle of the Ninth, p.59)
, for all his bravura, mourned the passing of Rome. Aquila deserted his brothers-in-arms for his native soil, but he never stopped fighting for Rome, alongside and , all the days of his life. Rome, for these men, stood for something different than the straight lines and symmetrical patterns Esca so resented. There is more at stake here than a purely administrative imposition of order and justice. Rome, in this context, stands for , tradition and nobility - a political and civic reality which creates space for the sacred and represents a higher scale of values than the scramble for comfort and security we have become accustomed to in the contemporary West. Rome, in short, is something worth fighting and, if need be, dying for -
'I sometimes think that we stand at sunset,' said after a pause. 'It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.' (The Lantern Bearers, pp.304-305)
Needless to say, such sentiments would sound wildly out of place with regards to the EU. It is precisely because the EU has turned its back on Europe's spiritual heritage that it has forfeited its imaginative hold on hearts and minds and is destined for the 'darkness and the wind'. It is for us in , post-Brexit, to turn the other way, reconnect with our own religious traditions, Christian and pre-Christian, and to build bridges with those European nations where faith plays a shaping role in government policy - Russia, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, for example.
In this way the seeds of a new Europe can be sown, one that will be there to pick up the pieces - like the Benedictine monasteries of the fifth century - after the collapse of the current dispensation. This brings comfort as well to the little boy in me who feels that Britain missed its moment. Because, after all, even if and had succeeded, their 'Rome-in-the-West' would still have been a pale copy of the original and very much the end of something rather than the beginning. The circumstances are different today. London can never become the Third Rome. That distinction belongs to Moscow. But why not the Fourth? It is a dream worth having; an opportunity worth taking - a door held open to us by a visionary, imaginative God, who discerns and inspires the destiny and vocation hidden in the heart of every human being and of every nation -
Save for the sentry pacing his beat, they were alone on the rampart walk. Below them the darkening city was strung with lights - dim amber window squares, and the golden drops of light that were lamps and lanterns in the garlanded streets. Lights and lights and lights away to the misty river. ' rejoices,' Flavius said. 'Surely there's not a dark house within the city walls tonight.'
Justin nodded, not wanting to talk, his mind turning back to the start of it all ... to that strange evening with , the beat of the wind outside and the far down boom of the sea. and within, the scent of burning logs, the steady radiance of the lamps, and the stains of quivering light cast upon the table by the wine in its iridescent flasks ... That had been the night it had began. Tonight was the night that it was over.
Over, like brief Empire in the North that had been brought to nothing by the murderous knife of . Britain was once again part of Rome ... And tonight, with the lights of rejoicing spread below them, and the Legions encamped beyond the walls, and the man with the thin white conqueror's face seated at his writing-table in the lamp-lit , the idea of a time coming when Rome would not be strong seemed, after all, thin and remote. (The Silver Branch, pp.245-246)