When I wrote my piece on the situation of Flanders and the one alternative that seemed not yet to have be thrown into the mix, namely a Union with England and Northern Ireland, I had not appreciated that this would stimulate some quite so much interest: it was helpfully drawn to the attention of Paul Belien at “Brussels Journal” by my esteemed colleague here on Umbrella Blog, Elaib Harvey of “England Expects” and provoked some fascinating correspondence as well as the usual bit of vitriol-throwing from what I suspect was the Celtic fringe. But they are entitled to their view, so long as they are polite about it. In the event I thought I would return swiftly to the topic whilst it was fresh in people’s minds with a view to making some serious points as well as gently prodding the hornet’s nest afresh: let us see if you can rise to the debate once more (I apologise for the awful pun so early in the morning!)

One important point that was made concerned the degree to which England has over the last one thousand years had so much to do with The Low Countries (a phrase that is now in desuetude but which I use here as neutral code for both Flanders and The Netherlands), often to the mutual commercial benefit of each party and often in ways which enriched us culturally as well as economically.

It should not be forgotten that many of our Anglo-Saxon forebears originated in what are today the Low Countries. In particular there is a demonstrable link between England and Friesland. In programmes about the English language I have often been forcibly struck when listening to the Frisian language by its similarity to the dialect one might hear in Norfolk and, indeed, with practise one could follow what was being said without great difficulty. In truth many of us can point to our own origins in Europe as a foundation for a more modern relationship.


Following the Norman Conquest, there came many Flemish weavers who had a large share in the development of England. Dutch immigrants started sheep-farming, which was to contribute so much to England’s early greatness. The Flemish type of industrial organisation inspired the formation of the English guilds of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the twelfth century Dutch merchants had their own private wharves in London and were members of the Guildhall. At the time of the Conquest, many Anglo-Saxon refugees settled in the Low Countries. Thomas à Becket escaped to Holland. Time and again Dutch soldiers have fought on English soil, where some of their descendants now are. In 1165, for example, Henry II fought the Welsh with Flemish and Brabant troops.

East Anglia is, of course, full of reminders of that relationship. Once upon a time both Norfolk and Suffolk were the heart of the English Wool Trade and brought great riches to the region, often evidenced today by a parish church which is of a size and magnificence which seems at odds with the small village that now surrounds it but which was, in fact, built on the back of the commercial success of the wool trade, many of whose members were the Flemish Weavers who then remained amongst us as wealthy and respected members of English Society.

As someone brought up in the Fens I am also reminded of the very great impact that people from the Low Countries had upon the landscape, amongst them Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683) who was born at Tholen in The Netherlands. An engineer, Sir Cornelius introduced Dutch land reclamation methods and drainage techniques into England and began the two hundred-year process of draining the Fens. Supported by King Charles I and funded by a group of wealthy venture capitalists called The Adventurers (today commemorated in the name ‘Adventurer’s Fen’), he came to England in 1626 to begin what was to prove a controversial programme of land reclamation. The engineering techniques were highly innovative, but in some quarters the schemes proved highly unpopular as Dutch workers were employed and because it removed the livelihoods of some of the inhabitants of the area, who quickly realised that the draining would have a significant social impact which prompted The “Fen Tigers”, men who made their living from the copious fish stocks and the vast numbers of wildfowl in the Fens, to attack the Dutch workers. When an agreement was finally made in 1630 to complete the project, the engineer had to employ English workers and compensate Fenmen for the loss of hunting and fishing rights. There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun.

Vermuyden was also contracted to drain the Great Fen, or Bedford Level in Huntingdonshire, under an arrangement by which he would receive 95,000 acres of the drained lands. During this period the major contribution to the drainage were the Old Bedford River and the Forty Foot Drain near Ramsey in what used to be Huntingdonshire, which is today also known as ‘Vermuiden’s Drain’ which still drains the Fen to this day.

Oliver Cromwell was a farmer on the edge of the Fens (not very successful) and, much as a modern politician would do, tried to tap into the discontent associated with the project and in 1642, during
the English Civil War, got Parliament to order the dykes to be broken and the land flooded in order to stop a royalist army advance and to destroy the source of wealth of his political opponents, in an act redolent of modern Socialist chippiness.

In modern times our relationship with Flanders has assumed an emotional dimension with Britian’s involvement in the defence of Belgium between 1914 and 1918 and again in 1940 and the liberation if Belgium in 1944 as a result of which hundreds of thousands of England’s sons lie buried in the soil of Flanders and the names of Passchendaele and Ypres as engraved on our hearts as the word ‘Calais’ was on that of Queen Elizabeth. That this is appreciated by the people of Flanders is evidenced by a simple, yet deeply moving, act which takes place each at the Menin Gate, a memorial which contains the names of 54,896 officers and men of the British and Commonwealth forces who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave, at Ieper (Ypres) each evening when, at dusk, volunteers of the local Fire Service sound the Last Post as they have done every evening since the late 1920s, save for the period of the German Occupation when it was banned. Then the bugles were kept safe, however, and when the Germans left Ypres in 1944, the plaintive notes of the Last Post rang out once more under the Menin Gate the same evening.

So the relationship of England and Flanders over the centuries seems to have been largely a good one, built on sound economic ties and not marred by the sorts of constant warfare which have characterised, before 1603, our relationship with Scotland (and the odd little blip since then) and, until the Great War, our relationship with France.

Today there are some striking parallels in our respective situations. England concerns herself about the fairness of the situation whereby Scottish MPs have a disproportionate amount of power over measures which only affect England and how public money is spent there, whereas English MPs have no such say in how public money is spent in Scotland. Resentment exists and is building at the huge sums of public money which is transferred to Scotland under the so-called Barnett Formula, a state of affairs which results in Scots being able to afford such luxuries as free University education for its residents and for EU Citizens, but not for English residents, prescription drugs unavailable in England on the NHS and so on.

Much of the political support for parties such as Vlaams Belang and the general centre-right cast of Flemish politics has been built on a similar process which has taken place in Belgium. Thus in 2003 Flanders transferred €10.4 billion to Wallonia and Brussels by way of social security, Federal Budget payments, regional funding and government debt payments, a figure 2.75 times the amount so transferred in 1990. Whilst Wallonia and Brussels have lumbered along economically since 1955, recording a growth in Gross Regional Product of, respectively, 275% and 268%, Flanders has in the same period undergone a GRP growth of 474.5%. Ring any bells? Many English people will think so when contemplating the privileged position that Scotland occupies, thanks to the part its Labour MPs play in providing a majority for Labour Governments at Westminster.

When one looks at political orientation, the relationship with economic progress is actually quite stunning:

No wonder they would like to offload Wallonia!

I am also much struck by this comment from the BBC’s Mark Mardell on his blog:

One of my Flemish friends confesses that he finds his Francophone countrymen far more “foreign” than the Brits, like me. It’s probably an arrogant, very English way of seeing it, but to me there is no denying that Belgium can seem like an argument between the more “Anglo-Saxon” Flemish and their French-speaking neighbours. For humour or for approaches to the economy they would tend to look to the UK rather than France.

My point, at the end of this, must be that my proposal was very much tongue-in-cheek and one unlikely to become the preferred option of Flemish politicians who will want to see if they can go it alone. But there is in all this a sound message is that if Belgium splits, England might care to look to Flanders to develop anew a close relationship built on mutual respect, history, shared economic interests and development of a more Atlanticist approach to the many mutual interests that exist. And if Flanders should ever want to come knocking at our door with a proposal….well, we should look at them as our equals from whom we can learn much (not least how to make those wonderful chocolates!) and who would be a much more attractive partner than the Painted Picts who cost us an arm and a leg and who show no real signs of wanting to give up their Wallonia-style Socialist and Statist model.

And, if Flanders wants to go it alone, she should know that many here will be understanding of her motives and will wish her well in her great undertaking which now seems to have a degree of inevitability about it and that many of us will hope to refresh the ties of friendship which have long existed between us.

And France, I hear you ask after my last offering? Altogether more tricky, I fear, and a topic which I shall contemplate for your delectation next week.

UPDATE: Might I also commend to you this article by Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, who seems to me to a radical at heart with a conservative instinct who might be somewhat of an improvement in the production of ideas to some of the nonsense Cameron’s commissions have produced. I should love to sit and watch a conversation between Field and Redwood…..