Steven Edginton interviewed the distinguished historian of England, Robert Tombs. Edginton wanted to know whether the historian thought England could survive the unprecedented mass immigration now taking place, or the combination with radical Islam.

Tombs stated that he believed the best form of political structure was that of the democratic nation state (at about 40 minutes). The national component is vital, Tombs continued, because it prevents politics reverting to brute force and coercion. The existence of a national community persuades people to agree to be taxed to provide for strangers, because those strangers are part of the community.

So far so good.

However, Tombs then explained what he meant by “community”. England was special, he argued, because it was not an ethnic identity. It was easy to integrate foreigners. Indeed, individuals of any race or religion and in large numbers could join the national community. His interviewer objected that immigrants were now coming in unprecedented numbers. To make his case, he stated that he knew no one who did not consider prime minister Rishi Sunak to be English, though he surmised there might be a tiny number of extremists who disagreed. Ethnicity consists mainly of language, Toms stated, so that anyone who speaks English with an English accent is, for all intents and purposes, English. Likewise, by acquiring a few English habits, such as the game of cricket, newcomers could convince most people that the newcomer was part of their community.

Edginton pointed out that immigration had contributed to the loss of the Cockney accent. Tombs agreed, and noted that the old Parisian accent had been replaced among young people by French spoken with a slight Arabic accent. Tombs thought that there was nothing that could be done about these inevitable changes.

Tombs wrote in 2023 about the contrast between his ecumenical ideals and how he had been raised a true-believing Catholic partisan on guard against his religion’s persecution at the hands of aggressive Protestantism. Now he and many others respect all faiths.

“[W]e can enjoy Iftars [the Islamic fast-breaking evening meal during Ramadan] together, and Passover Seders, and Christmas dinners, because we feel part of one community which [is] not divided but enriched by its diversity.”

Tombs thought that England could survive the mass immigration and threat of radical Islam because it was uniquely able to absorb waves of newcomers, who could become English by playing cricket and learning other English ways.

Tombs appears not to have considered people’s ability to learn, to change their understanding of identity according to growing knowledge. This has, as Tombs believes, helped break down boundaries that enlightenment has shown to lack significance. However, knowledge can also divide. Growing nationalism during the nineteenth century produced the wish for self-government that doomed empires that had survived for centuries. It was not ignorance that led to this centrifugal force, but knowledge of cultural differences, fed by literacy. Translations of the Bible led to religious differences. Literacy combined with the printing press led to nationalism, as people came to realise interests that had previously been imperfectly grasped. During the second half of the twentieth century, the social scientists confirmed what philosophers and patriots had surmised – that ethno-religious diversity undermines trust and promotes conflict.

The world-wide explorations of the14th to 18th centuries revealed cultural and racial differences that called for explanations. The contrasts between continents made some Europeans downgrade the importance of age-old national divisions. The idea of a European political and economic union makes most sense in a global perspective that diminishes intra-continental differences. In the same way, long-range mass migration brought these contrasts into Europe, creating a novel threat to national identity and the cohesion that makes the nation state possible.

Robert Tombs seems not to have caught up with the implications of these transformations of scale, even when those transformations are evident on a daily basis in his own society. His is a viewpoint predicated on ignorance or unreflectiveness across multiple domains – history, biology, psychology, sociology, empathy, and common sense.

So the question remains open, with such elites in charge, can England survive?

Frank Salter