David Starkey is right to bemoan British values, but he’s wrong on faith

Professor David Starkey, the well known and respected historian, is one member of the commentariat who is not crippled by the fear of giving offence or political correctness. A report in the Daily Telegraph of his latest intervention, given to an education conference, can be read here.

The Professor shows himself the master of the soundbite when he describes British values as “queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets, self-loathing, wit and eccentricity”. This list of characteristics is as accurate as any other that I have come across. All of these things, with the possible exception of the first, are characteristics of a civilisation that has grown old, and that has lost touch with its roots, and has, in the usual journalistic cliché, caught sight of itself in the mirror. So many of our hallowed institutions are now not really hallowed (that is, held holy) at all, but rather the objects of sardonic ridicule. Again, take out love of pets, which is a sign that we British for the most part have never worked with animals, but rather see them as love objects. Nations where the population is closely connected with the land do not have this affectation.

Professor Starkey is no friend of the Catholic Church and he is reported as saying something that is quite commonly held nowadays, namely that “Freedom of speech wasn’t won by being nice, it has been won by struggle with religion.” This ties in with the usual Whig theory of history, namely that Britain became great by becomoing Protestant and/or secular. His reference to “Christianity toppling Rome” (an extraordinary claim to make, by the way) in his education conference speech brings Gibbon to mind, and his thesis that the Roman empire was effectively killed by the Christian faith. It would be interesting to read what Professor Starkey said in full, but the Telegraph summary gives one the general and surely accurate impression: religion is the enemy. Today it is radical Islam (which is certainly correct); but once it was Catholicism.

That Catholicism should be seen as the enemy of free speech is telling, though. It is perfectly true that all Catholic countries in Europe had censorship until the nineteenth century and the dawning of the liberal era. Just two examples: pre-revolutionary France took huge efforts to keep out certain publications, usually without success, that maligned the government, and Marie Antoinette in particular. Papal Rome exercised strict control over theatres as did other states in Italy, as Giuseppe Verdi found. There were only two countries in Europe that had a free press (though I may be wrong about this): Britain and Holland, though Britain, right up until the twentieth century had laws about what could and could not be put on stage.

Here we see the cultural relevance of the little read (until now, that is) Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that kicks against what it sees as the forces of clericalism and censorship. For Charlie, the real enemy, for many years at least, and even today, are the forces of reaction identified with Catholicism. One suspects this is something Professor Starkey would agree with. Just as in France there are people for whom the Revolution seems only yesterday, for some people in Britain, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 is foundational to their understanding of what this country is about. William of Orange is a hero in Northern Ireland, we all know; but he has his admirers in other quarters as well, it seems.

How immensely depressing.

Once again we must express the opposing view, namely, that faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church does not cripple freedom or intellectual enquiry. Indeed, as recent Popes have taught, to love God is the great spur to discovery of knowledge and intellectual and artistic endeavour. Catholic Italy and Catholic Spain were never cultural backwaters. The Catholics of France, since the revolution and even before it, have never been obscurantist. The Starkey view implied by his latest remarks represents a caricature of Catholicism.

But let us return to the Starkey evocation of our national culture: queuing, drunkenness, nostalgia, loving pets, self-loathing, wit and eccentricity. Of all of these, the underpinning one, the fons and origo, must be self-loathing. How did we fall into that? If Britain had stayed Catholic, would we really hate ourselves so much?