These are relatively recent attempts to translate the meaning of these dissenting, reforming figures into the terms of a later time. So what might the Good Old Cause whisper to us as the vote on EU membership draws near? I think there’s a way we can interpret the dissenting spirit of these earlier religious movements now in ways that still apply, whether or not we are ourselves religious. The first thing about them was their universalism. Of course they emerged in particular contexts at particular times, and spoke the language of those contexts. But they were profoundly aware of their reciprocal involvement with others beyond national boundaries.
Secondly, it wasn’t only the material greed or institutional power of the established church which the reformers protested against. They saw these as part of an even deeper malaise – the way in which experience of the sacred had been steadily withdrawn from the congregants, from the community of believers. Richard Sennett recently explored this in Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation. By the 14th century worshippers no longer even received Communion. They were being reduced to spectators of an ever more elaborate performance. The splendid buildings and gorgeous rituals always had their critics but the power they represented grew ever more remote. The Reformation was the result.
Is there a force in the world now that conceals itself behind an ever more elaborate spectacle? What is dramatized, it seems to me, in these TV head-to-heads, is first and foremost the power of the mass media. I read, after one of the recent shows: ‘ITV was certainly a winner tonight.’ That commentator spoke truer than he knew.
And I’m fascinated by the near-total absence of serious cultural reference in the current debate. That absence, just in itself, ought surely to be putting us on our guard. Is there something about our long-standing traditions of questioning that make them un-suited to this discussion? If there is a single force in our world today that has concentrated within itself unaccountable power, that force is not the Catholic Church.
It is in agnostic, globalised economic power that such authority is now concentrated. It operates through negotiations like those being carried on, behind closed doors, between the EU and the US, over TTIP. The UK government will continue those negotiations regardless of the vote. That is the power that these TV debates are actually defending, whoever ostensibly ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ them. And yes, to the extent that the EU has colluded and continues to collude in that globalised economic power, it is in need of root and branch reform.
But if the real question is what we can do about this, then surely we need to look within as well as without. It is not the EU but we ourselves who have performed this surgical removal of the Good Old Cause from English collective consciousness, or it is we who have colluded in that removal. Ultimately it is we who accept this surrogate Englishness we are offered, this pint-supping, for the cameras, this taking to the cricket field, for the cameras, all those mugs of tea, all for the cameras. Always in the background somewhere that little unmarked door which leads to the unsayable.
Or it is we, again, who do not accept this surrogate English-ness. To be a Dissenter now means to have real traditions, to know what they are, and then set about defending or adapting them as required. None of us is obliged to lend our assent to the terms of this present debate, this TV show, this performance-on-our-behalf. But English traditions of Dissent are as much worth defending and adapting now as they ever were. Because of what they have given England, yes, because of what they have given the rest of Europe, also yes, and, yes, because of what they have sometimes given and might still give the world.