Nation, State and Culture: An Individual View, by Neil Lock

Nation, state and culture
An individual view
By Neil Lock

Neil Lock

There’s been much discussion recently around Englishness, Britishness and the future (or lack of it) of the English. This is my contribution to that discussion.

Because of my own character and experiences, my perspective is a little different from most people’s. So I’ll, necessarily, begin with some brief personal history.

A potted autobiography

I am English born and bred; though, from a genetic point of view, I’m only five-eighths English, the remaining three-eighths being Scottish. I had an unusual education, which sent me on a state funded scholarship to private boarding schools. (The state, in the aftermath of Sputnik, wanted to create as many boffins as it could; and I happened to show the right kind of promise at the right time.) I eventually studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where I just about managed to scrape a First.

Deciding that academic boffinhood wasn’t for me, I looked for a job in the (at that time, young and vibrant) software industry. My first professional job – for Ferranti, programming on-board systems for the Navy – was interesting, but the pay was rubbish, and some of the people weren’t very nice. Old Labour were in power at the time, too. So, in 1977 I moved to Holland to work for a software house there.

I spent three years in Holland, and they changed me. For a start, I had money in my pocket for the first time. And I enjoyed sampling the different cultures of Holland and Belgium, and a bit of France and Germany. By the end of three years, I had come to think of myself as no longer English or British, but European. (That was not, then, the heinous crime it might be seen as now; for “Europe” at that time was the EEC, which was a Good Thing. The evil EU was still only a glint in the eye of Brussels bureaucrats).

I moved back to the UK in 1980, and my work began to take me further afield. To Indonesia, Italy, the US and Australia, to name but four of my assignments. During that time, I came to see myself no longer as a European, but as a citizen of the world. If I had known of it back then, I would have echoed Tom Paine’s dictum: “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

In 1990 I went to work in the US, with the intention of staying there. But it took me less than a year to see that the US was already going to the dogs as a place to live. So I returned; and have suffered the predations of Messrs Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron and their hangers-on ever since.

These days, most of what I do is testing and QA, so I don’t need to travel much on business. But I’m still accustomed to working in a highly international industry. Furthermore, the main company with which I do a lot of my work, though small, has clients all over the world. And its staff are as international as the clients, and they aren’t just confined to Europeans. It’s a bit of a United Nations in there.

My odyssey of the 1980s also introduced me to various liberty organizations in both the US and UK. Thus, I had plenty of opportunity to learn the ideas and theories of liberty. But I’m not, by nature, a particularly avid reader of other people’s prose. I prefer, following Richard Feynman (one of my heroes), to learn just enough about a problem to understand it, and then to try to solve it in my own way.

As a result, I developed my own particular slant on the ideas of liberty. This is not just a political philosophy, but sets out its stall to be a complete system of thought, from the ground up. I eventually managed – with a lot of hard work – to get the basics of it written down in a book called Honest Common Sense, which I published last year.

Nation, state and culture

So, what do I think these days about England, Britishness and all the rest?

I find it important to separate out three concepts: nation, state and culture. And, within culture, to separate values and conduct from customs and institutions.

The state

I’ll take the state first. The way I look at it, the concept of state arises from the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is, per Webster’s dictionary, “supreme power, especially over a body politic.” The idea goes all the way back to Jean Bodin in the 16th century.

In this view, the sovereign – i.e. the ruling élite – is fundamentally different from, and superior to, the rest of the population in its territory, the subjects. In particular, the sovereign has rights to do certain things, which others do not. Among these are: to make laws to bind the subjects; to make wars; to levy taxes; and to issue a currency. Furthermore, the sovereign isn’t bound by the laws it makes, and isn’t responsible for the consequences of what it does (also known as “the king can do no wrong.”)

So, what is the state? The state is the implementer of sovereignty in a particular territory. Or, as I have recently come to put it: “the apparatus which enforces the hegemony of a ruling élite.”

In a British context, pundits would tell you that the sovereign is an old woman called Lizzie, who lives in a castle at Windsor. But this is ridiculous. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d bet that Lizzie is in reality all but a prisoner in her own castle. Even Cameron has more power than Lizzie does. And a cabal of bureaucrats, whose names we do not know, and whose faces we have never seen, has far, far more power than Cameron.

The biggest single philosophical gripe I have with the state, though, is that its existence is incompatible with moral equality, and so with the rule of law. For a vital facet of the rule of law is that what is legal, and what is not, must be exactly the same for everyone. Yet the state routinely allows itself moral privileges. If you or I extorted money from people like the taxation system does, for example, wouldn’t it be seen as theft or worse? Or if you or I premeditatedly killed an innocent person like Jean Charles de Menezes, wouldn’t it be seen as murder?

And consider, if you will, the huge progress which we humans have made over the 400+ years since Bodin died. We have made great strides in science, in medicine, in technology and communications, in our understanding of human rights, in finance, in the economy, in the ability to blow each other up, and in much else. We’ve even been through the Enlightenment, for goodness’ sake! So why haven’t our political institutions made similar progress in all these centuries? Why are we still suffering a system that allows a ruling élite to do to us exactly what it wants, with no come-back? And as for the charade called democracy, that’s the last straw, giving as it does a veneer of apparent legitimacy to the whole shebang.

So, what do I think of the British state? I reject it. It’s a hangover from a way of thinking that pre-dates John Locke by 100+ years. In the wise words of Gregory Sams: “The state is out of date.”

The nation

So much for the state. Pcha! But what of the nation?

I do identify myself as English; but that’s mainly for convenience. For reasons above, I’m not prepared to tar myself with the label “British.” So, as there’s no English state, I find “English” an acceptable substitute; and one that most people understand.

That said, though, I don’t feel part of any English nation or people. One reason is that I’m an individualist, meaning that my focus is on the individual rather than the collective. Because of this, I have never liked the idea of “a people” in the singular. For me, the word “people” is always plural, and means the same as “persons.”

Furthermore, it’s only through happenstance that I came to be born in England. I could just as easily have been born in Australia, or Holland, or Indonesia, or Italy, or the US – all places I’ve lived in for months or more.

Another problem is that “nation” today has come to mean both a geographical community in a state, and a racial or tribal community. I find these two to be incompatible; and this is the root of the British versus English dichotomy, which I’ve long felt keenly. Furthermore, the EU makes things even more confusing.

Indeed, I find the idea of geographical community, in an age of mass migration and of the Internet, to be no longer helpful. It may have been workable in the days of walled city states, when the safety of one really was the safety of all. But today, does it really make sense to judge individuals as friend or foe simply by where they live? I think not.

And I’ve never approved of tribalism. In a cynical mood, I like to say that lovers of tribalism ought to go to Africa and start playing Tutsi v. Hutu. So, I don’t find judging friend or foe by bloodlines terribly appealing either.

In any case, we are all mongrels now. And that would still be so, even if not one single immigrant had passed the borders of England in the last 50 years.

Thus, I have come to see nationalism – all nationalism – as rather silly. And, historically, very destructive.

Institutions and customs

On to culture. And here, the outlook is a little more positive. As to English customs, I eat an English breakfast each morning; though I wash it down in the Dutch style with black tea. I used to play cricket for 30+ years. I still do play in a brass band. And I take pride in my command of the English language, though I’m prone to using it in a somewhat mid-Atlantic way.

As to English institutions, I am a lover of the English pub, having walked to no less than 400 from my home over the course of little more than a decade. (Though my taste in beer is European rather than English).

And I have respect for the English common law. At least, as it was before it got corrupted. Blair’s abolition of the double jeopardy rule, and Cameron’s secret courts, are egregious recent examples of these corruptions. But I think these issues go back to the 19th century, at least as early as the introduction of strict liability in criminal law.

Nevertheless I know that, in honest hands, the common law can still work well. I once watched, from a privileged position in the jury box, a judge go about his business of making absolutely sure that justice was done in his courtroom. Without going so far as to use the nuclear option of instructing us to acquit, he made it quite plain what he thought of the case. And it was a fine performance. (Though ultimately unnecessary, with me on the jury. But the judge didn’t know that).

I can’t, however, feel any respect at all for those institutions which have become politicized. The kicking out of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, for example, has removed yet another small plank of defence against the state’s destruction of our rights and freedom. For, whatever you may think of how they got there, it is undeniable that many hereditary peers both took their jobs seriously, and didn’t have any party political axe to grind. But the Lords now? Political operatives, almost all of them.

As to the Commons, I suppose there may be a few half decent individuals on the Tory back benches. Perhaps one or two among the Lib Dems too, and maybe a few UKIPpers in the future. But my feeling for MPs in general is one of contempt. They are supposed to represent us, the good people of England; and they don’t even damn well try.

And as to the BBC and other mainstream media, I don’t believe anything any of them says any more. Unless I can verify it for myself.

My values

So, I feel no sense of “we” with either the British state or the English nation. But being an individualist doesn’t at all mean that I wish to be a hermit, to shut myself away from others. Where, then, shall I seek community?

My answer is: The people I’ll accept as my fellows are those who share my essential values. What are these values? I see two strands. In one strand, my “conservative” side if you will, I look to the past for my inspiration; and, specifically, to the values of the 17th– and 18th-century Enlightenment. In the other, my “progressive” side, I look to the future. It was in order to develop this strand of my thinking that I set out to write my book of philosophy.

As to Enlightenment values, I will give a brief list of some which are important to me. Reason and the pursuit of science. Toleration, particularly in religion. The idea that society exists for the individual, not the individual for society. The idea that human beings are naturally good. Freedom of thought and action. Natural rights and human dignity. Government for the benefit of the governed. Formal equality and the rule of law. A desire for progress, and a rational optimism for the future.

As to the progressive strand of my thinking, I could just say “read my book.” But to make life easy for my readers, I’ll here give a very brief summary of the philosophy I call Honest Common Sense.

I begin with individuality and with tolerance of difference. My motto here is: Be yourself, and let others be themselves. Next, I say: Seek the truth. I try to focus on the facts. I aim to use my mind, and its capacity for reason, to find out as much of the truth as I can. And to go wherever the truth leads. Furthermore, I strive always to tell the truth as best I know it.

As to Politics – with a capital P, meaning the science of social organization and government, as opposed to the small-p politics we suffer today – I set out four principles. These four principles, I affirm, ought to be followed by any society worthy of the name civilization.

First, justice; objective, individual justice. That is: Each individual, over the long term and in the round, should be treated as he or she treats others. Second, moral equality: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa. I see this as the foundation of the rule of law, as opposed to rule by an élite. Third, I put rights. That is: Provided you behave as a civil human being, you have the right to be treated as a civil human being. And fourth and last is Freedom: Except where countermanded by justice, the rule of law or respect for rights, every individual is free to choose and act as he or she wishes.

In economics, I follow Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction between the economic means, “the equivalent exchange of one’s own labour for the labour of others,” and the political means, “the unrequited appropriation of the labour of others.” I distinguish Makers – that is, productive people who earn an honest living – from tax funded Takers that do nothing (or worse) for those who pay their wages, and from those such as crony capitalists, whom I dub Rakers.

I strongly support property rights, the free market and true capitalism – that is, the condition in which no-one is prevented from justly acquiring or justly using wealth. And I am uncompromisingly against re-distributory taxation, which I find to be a taking – indeed, a premeditated taking – of that part of the taxpayer’s life, which he or she used to earn the money taken. Taxation is far worse than mere theft!

Finally, the centrepiece of my philosophy is Honesty. That is, being true to your nature as a civil human being. And the law of honesty is: Practise what you preach. Those that fail to live up to that law – hypocrites, users of double standards, call them what you will – are enemies of civilization.

My friends and my enemies

So, who exactly will I admit into my community? The answer should be obvious. My brothers (and sisters) are those who, broadly, share my values. That is, those who conduct their lives according to ideals similar to mine, and who behave in a civil manner towards me and others. My fellow human beings are the civil or civilized people.

And I look to judge individuals by their conduct, and only by their conduct. Not by the colour of their skins, or by their birthplace, or by their social class, or by their sexual orientation, or by what religion they were brought up in.

Here’s the description of my sense of “we” from the book:

We are the economically productive people, the Makers. We are the promoters and supporters of objective justice, moral equality, individual rights and freedom. We are the honest, gentle, peaceful people, who deserve to inherit the Earth.

Besides, on the personal level, I care about those who care about me. Those who treat me as the individual human being I am; those who treat me with politeness and kindness. And those who make the effort to understand and allow for my particular foibles and idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, I make every effort to do the same for them.

But brotherhood is a two way process. I don’t feel any fellowship with, or caring for, those that treat me badly. Here’s my description, also from the book, of my enemies the uncivil:

They are the users of the political means; they are the Takers and their cronies, the Rakers. They are the dishonest, the unnatural, the inhuman. And they are the statists – promoters and supporters of the out of date political state and its violent, dishonest, collectivist politics.

And this applies on the personal level as well. So, I count as enemies those that promote or support political policies that damage me, inconvenience me or restrict my freedom in any way, or are intended to do any of these things. Those that vote for politicians and parties, that make such policies. Those that take my earnings away from me, yet give me nothing that I value in return. Those that commit or support any violation of my human rights. Those that behave as if they were a superior species to me, and want to control me. Those that demand that I make sacrifices for good sounding causes like “helping the needy” or “the environment,” yet make no such sacrifices themselves. Those that want to impose on me any kind of political correctness. Those that lie to me, or try to deceive, bullshit or browbeat me, or to manipulate my emotions against my will. Those that try to cover up the truth, or to offer lame excuses or rationalizations.

These are my enemies, not my friends or my brothers or sisters. They owe me compensation for what they have done to me; I don’t owe them anything. And by their conduct, they have forfeited all right to my concern, my compassion or my charity. I feel no more fellowship for them than a Jew would feel for nazis.

In conclusion

Lastly, I’ll give you my personalized, updated version of Tom Paine’s famous quote. It is, if you will, the “elevator speech” version of my entire philosophy. Here it is:

“The world is my country. All civil human beings are my fellows. And honest common sense is my religion.”


  1. Today is indeed the anniversary of the publication of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” – however, it is not a good idea for a libertarian to follow the late Mr Paine. As it turned out that as long as the state was democratically elected – Mr Paine wanted it to be BIGGER (do more) not smaller.

    That old Common Lawyer John Adams (later President of the United States) managed to see through “Tom Paine” (as did Edmund Burke) managed to see all the high sounding language about “freedom” and “liberty” to the big spender that Mr Paine really was. John Adams had many faults – but at least he could see through Thomas Paine. Many libertarians still can not – as with J.S. Mill, people (yes including good people) tend to be obsessed by the high sounding language and miss policy (which is all that really matters).

    First Thomas Paine tried to pretend that the government benefits he wanted could be paid for by getting rid of the monarchy (as if George III in his little house lived in luxury) and hangers-on, but when it became clear that the mathematics of “The Rights of Man – Part II” did not add up (so much for elected mathematicians being better than families of mathematicians – as Mr Paine de facto claimed) he openly endorsed a higher land tax, and a higher one, and a higher one still…….. (by the time of “Agrarian Justice” it had become clear that Mr Paine wanted a tax of 100% of the large estates, and he still would not have had enough money for the long term costs of the benefits he wanted for “the people”).

    As for the EEC.

    It was not a “good thing” – although, arguably, EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) was. There is a big difference between a free trade area and a “Customs Union” – the EEC was the latter and it was right from 1957 onwards.

    Still on the other hand……..

    I agree with Mr Neil Locke about what he calls “enlightenment values”.

    I do not like the name “enlightenment values” (as I think the term “enlightenment” collapses together wildly different, indeed opposed, thinkers), but it is clear that Neil Locke means such things as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, security of private property in land (and so on).

    I would call these the principles of the “Old Whigs” as Edmund Burke called them – to distinguish them from the “New Whigs” who still talked of “freedom” and “liberty” but meant something very different by these terms.

    “Old Whigs” such as Chief Justice Sir John Holt. Someone who is a classic example of the anti Hobbesian ( Thomas Hobbes being the great ENEMY of the basic principles of the Common Law and limited government – just as he was the great ENEMY of the very idea of human beings as moral agents, beings who can do other than we do) “Common Law principles” (for example that Parliament could NOT do anything it wanted to – that there were fundamental natural law principles that it could not lawfully break, a harking back to Dr Bonham’s case and so on in the time of Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke and long before).

    Sadly in the United Kingdom and in England the ideas of the Old Whigs are essentially dead – there was still a Constitutional Club network and a large scale National Rifle Association as late as 1914 – but no longer.

    The idea that the people can stand for their freedom against both King and Parliament was last really manifested by the actions in Ulster in around that year (although it was marred by sectarianism – in spite of the fact that there were always Roman Catholic Unionists).

    The idea that human freedom could be defined as AGAINST Parliament (as well as against the King – if need be) was denounced as “un British” or “un English” (by fools – or worse than fools) even in 1914.

    Of course if a government can “legally” disarm the population – or pack them other government who will oppress them (for example wink as they are “burned out”, as both Protestants and Catholic Unionists were in the South of Ireland) then freedom is violated – whatever the “democratically elected Parliament” thinks.

    For the rights of people see such documents as the Constitution of New Hampshire (1784) – as well as the better known Federal Bill of Rights of a few years later.

  2. Mr Lock’s definition of “English” appears to deny that English people exist. He writes that he is “an individualist” and “the world” are his fellows. Yet this faux universalism is not characteristic of any human group not descended from European ancestors.

  3. Having read your blog Neil, I can understand why you seek these values in our country because we do have a common goal of seeking freedom with the smallest state possible.

    But if there is one thing libertarians in general are frequently accused of, it is not explaining what laws they would bring in to make sure that we don’t have anarchy but at the same time keep the state to it’s bare minimal.

    For me, this is where I read about Frank Meyer and how he brought up the case of mixing social and traditional conservatism with economic self-ownership and free-market capitalism (or right libertarianism) hence the term ‘Fusionism’. I also agree that Fiscal Conservatism should be brought in just to encourage individual financial responsibility in terms of debt and less government spending of tax-payers money.

    Now I believe Fusionism is very much compatible with a minimal state in terms of these freedoms:

    Law and Justice
    the Christian Faith

    These ten freedoms have defined this country’s greatness in the past and I believe it can be the same again if we appreciated these freedoms rather than take them for granted even to the point of abusing them.

    Sadly, libertarianism alone can not explain in full what is meant by responsibility, the Christian faith, law and justice and action which is where I think you need an add on to libertarianism. For example, having looked at the likes of Keir Martland and Professor Kersey, they are Paleolibertarians (cultural conservatives mixed with small state freedoms) or James Delingpole who is a Libertarian Conservative (general small state conservatism), they are libertarians who have added more to their libertarian views by endorsing one or more forms of conservatism.

    A small state to someone like myself means getting out of the EU, getting rid of federal assemblies and parliaments like the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland. I also support getting rid of County Councils as they don’t do much for your money.

    Instead, I would give the Crown Assets back to the Royal Family whereby they would have no need for tax payers money whilst having mixed Upper House of Lords and Regional Senators along with between 400-500 members of the House of Commons. I would also support the use of Community Councils whereby Councillors would be a lot more closer to their constituents and not be paid a full time wage but should be allowed expenses for petrol and for any national travel.

    As for government departments, I would be well rid of the following:

    Charity Commission for England and Wales (including Scotland’s equivalent)
    Competition and Markets Authority
    Food Standards Agency
    Government Actuary’s Department
    Office of Rail Regulation
    Supreme Court of the UK (for trying to be American)
    UK Statistics Authority
    UK Trade and Investment
    OFWAT (Water Services)

    As for state organisations, I would scrap:

    GCHQ (for mainly their mass surveillance of the people)
    NHS (and bring in a charity based care system whilst keeping the ambulance service)
    Channel 4

    Whilst getting rid of the following Secretaries of State for:

    Energy and Climate Change
    Business, Innovation and Skills
    Communities and Local Government
    Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
    International Development
    Culture, Media and Sport

    Fusionism was meant to be an American political philosophy which was endorsed by Ronald Reagan during his presidency but it has not been studied much so I believe that this is a philosophy that can be tried and see where it will get us and hopefully I can be challenged about what it would mean to have a small state with fewer yet tougher laws based on social conservatism, traditionalism and yet a free market with private property and fiscal conservative initiative ideas to promote a sense of prosperity.

  4. In Aesop’s fable the fox tells the chicken that the animals have agreed a truce and that she can come down from the tree, but the chicken, not so foolish, tells the fox she can see two dogs coming. The fox makes off, explaining, “They may not have heard the news yet.”
    Conflict is inherent in the human condition: men compete for women and vice-versa. Not everyone gets a mate. As someone noted the other day on this site, people are hypocrites: they drive and vote Green; they profess love for all and spend all evening helping their own children with their homework. Out of this everyday selfishness and hypocrisy springs great evil, ultimately war, and the worst kind of war is civil war. These wars end only when the state imposes peace, but the state must have a sufficiency of loyal or obedient citizens to do this and loyalty, rather than obedience, to the state and fellow citizens can be maintained only so long as citizens understand just how nasty, brutish and short life is under anarchy, dictatorship, or invasion.

    • I don’t think that “people are hypocrites” in general. It’s true that some individuals are hypocrites, though. Including most if not all politicians.

      I’m coming towards the idea that a lot of hypocrisy is due to collectivism. That, I think, would explain your car-driving green voter. For the collectivist types that greenism attracts, it isn’t the “I” that has to make sacrifices, follow green policies and stop driving, but the “we.” I doubt they can even understand the point of view (which you and I share) that their actions contradict the green values they profess, so making them hypocrites.

      Your second example, of the parent helping his children with homework, I don’t think is hypocrisy at all. A parent has specific responsibilities towards his children, including educating them. And these can often override less specific, more woolly responsibilities like showing “love” for people in general.

      • Thank you for this. The problem of hypocrisy is one reason we should be wary of what the French call the “il n’y a qu’a” school of politics: “if only” we all did the right thing everything would be alright, wouldn’t it? First, we don’t know what the right thing is (is it cruel to be kind or kind to be cruel?) and second, even when we do think we know what the right thing is, we can’t be trusted to do it (such as send our children to the local school). Or we realise that our morality is only a vanity and it isn’t in fact within our power to do anything meaningful, either because the ill we have railed against is systemic because it arises from actions that are unavoidable, or because any change that we make in our own behaviour is insignificant to the point of futility. So I don’t think much of “doing good”! As Peregrine Crouchback tells Julia Troy when she says, “…wrong according to your religion”: “How else can anything be wrong?”. Only I don’t believe in God, except in the small hours.
        I do believe that people who have not been exposed to cruelty or indulgence are more likely to be balanced and thus less dangerous, but I also believe in inherited character and original sin.
        With regard to being a citizen of the world: who is going to guarantee your rights in this world? Carl Schmitt said that all associations of men are made against other men. In a world without enemies, do you think everyone will be your friend? What is likely to happen is what has happened: men who act together will prevail over individuals.
        However, you may have an argument along the lines of a new world order of customer-citizens seeking the best offer from bidder-corporate-states under the umbrella of a soft-touch world government. But when the bastards get control of that we will have nowhere to hide!
        Thank you again.

  5. U.K. Fusionist – I am a Frank Meyer fan to (I doubt that will come as a shock to you).

    As for the Rousseau or Thomas Paine “my country is the world – my religion is doing good”.

    I must confess that when I hear such tosh my first thought is “oh no – more cant from a tosser”, but that is unfair.

    Just because Rousseau and Thomas Paine were phonies (preaching “freedom” and “liberty” whilst working for a BIGGER, not smaller, state) does not mean that Neil Locke is.

    Indeed he is starting to win me over – leading me (to some extent) to suspect he might be sincere.

    And I am wildly intolerant and pathologically wary – so if I am prepared to give Neil a chance to explain himself……..

    I am even willing to listen (not to automatically agree – but to consider…) to “anarchist” ideas – as long as they involve big business enterprises with bases on other planets and lot of nukes.

    And I am actually being serious.

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