Jerusalem. Warm Beer. Cricket. I’ve seen,drunk and heard them all and – well, they don’t do anything for me really. Except cricket, which I played from the age of five. And I like the rather violent, post West Indies version of the game than the allegedly gentle, more ‘English’ game beforehand. Does that make me unEnglish ? I think not. I consider myself to be a patriotic Englishman. One thing I’ve never felt since I was very, very young is British.
I am from Cumbria, from a windswept town with substantial scots and irish communities. The England of my youth is an England of wind, strong tea, the bookies, of sports and working mens’ clubs. You won’t find it commemorated in any musical works of the heavyweight patriots : Shakespeare, I expect, had little to say on the subject of the anglo-scots dialects and their almost complete incomprehensibility.
I’ve also lived in London, where I’ve spent a lot of time. London is a global city, a city that has an uneasy relationship with it’s host nation in may ways. But England isn’t unique in having a cosmopolitan capital. My experiences in London – including close relationships with people of all races, colours, beliefs – I also consider fully part of “my England” too.
And here lies my problem. Where do I fit in to the ‘green and pleasant land’ ? It’s always been a source of some mystery to me. If I see references to the “essential” England (actually its usually “quintessential”) I see kings, warm beer, cricket on village greens, cucumber sandwiches, all drowned in Elgar (the worst bits). What I don’t see is a place to fit me in, unless it means being some kind of servant to the real English..
There seem to be two types of observations about national identity. One is modestly reliable – given to inaccuracies only by virtue of generalisations – and the other is synthetic, and usually less informative altogether.
Broadly speaking the former is about habits, and day-to-day, bread and butter behaviour. The English drink tea : the Italians are good cooks, and so on. Although hardly universal laws, there is a significant element of truth to them, objectively evident when people are travelling. Inasmuch as they possess what might be termed moral content, these are generally restricted to matters of taste.
There is then also a tradition of trying to go beyond the observation of habit and into the realm of what you might term the spiritual and philosophical components of identity. There is a great tradition of this – in European culture at least. It was evident that, from the moment of the creation of nationalism and nation states in the late 18th/early 19th century, some felt the need to spiritualise ethnicity – to make it nothing short of a metaphysical fact.
I can’t help thinking that such a quest is and always has been a complete waste of time. It is an intellectual endeavour that – at best , is of dubious value, and at worst has created some of the most astonishing nonsense ever written. Take, for example, all the volkische theories that the Germans immersed themselves in after unification in 1870.
These theories were an attempt to embellish, in semi-theological terms, the fact of German nationality. It was all completely pointless. German ethnicity was never really a problem. Germans never really doubted the fact that they were German. Germans were from the area of the Germany, spoke German and followed what might be termed German day to habits. Most importantly, (thanks to Napoleon), most Germans thought of themselves as German, and not something else.
You would think that would be sufficient, but for some it clearly wasn’t. A complete edifice of monstrous nonsense was constructed to show how the Germans were not just people who were good with machines and drank beer, but were born to be masters of men. You’ve heard it. The Germans were endowed with noble characteristics, naturally,that were unique to them…. Germans were not like ‘Western’ europeans, but more ‘Eastern’ (whatever that meant – it seemed to be a reason for not having elections )– and they believed in ‘freedom’ of course, much moreso than anybody else. As usual. And they were even physically different to everybody else, a unique race, the Aryans, a race threatened by Jews (in fact, astoundingly, one of the first proponents of this theory was a lunatic Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain).
This nonsense surely reached it apotheosis when the Germans, according to Himmler, were descended from a race of Himalayan Giants. 70 years previously such nonsense would have been been the kind of belief reserved to small groups of people on the fringes of sanity. After a few decades of volkische nonsense, it all made sense.
And here we come back to our green and pleasant land. Is English nationalism making a similar error ? In recent times there has been an extended search for ‘Englishness’. It’s come about, one assumes, from the rise of so-called “celtic” nationalisms and the transfer of real rights to the celtic nations, with no such privileges for the English. There is also a need to consider the possibility that there could be – in the none too distant future – a ‘Britain’ that consists pretty much only of England. So at least one of the reasons for the pursuit of Englishness, it would appear, seems to be the need to meet a particular political challenge.
But what of this search ? What form is it taking ? Well, so far, it seems to be all literary. And at this stage, it is not extravagant in scope, fortunately. In fact it seems to be a kind of quest for a verbal bottle in which to neatly contain ‘Englishness’. But is this pursuit a sensible one ? Indeed is it of any value at all ?
Well, I think in one sense there is no doubt that the English are like the Germans. The English suffer no doubts as to their English ethnicity. They don’t confuse themselves for anybody else.I think that this is true for all white English, and for most second and third generation immigrants the only doubt is the extent to which they identify with their parents and grandparents. The identity of most 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants – at least in my experience – is nonetheless English first.
To which we should say – I think – that that should be enough for a progressive, English Nationalist response to England’s problems. Like the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, the English are the victims of ‘Britain’ too. Victims of its backwardness, its inherent dislike of popular democracy, and all the destructive intellectual inheritance of a huge empire obtained and maintained for the most part by the use, or the threat of, prodigious and sustained levels of extreme violence.
But if it isn’t enough – which I doubt – what of the efforts to turn Englishness into a metaphysical fact ? Have these made any headway into finding what to put in the bottle ?
Well, for one I don’t think that they have. The problem is that a lot of the prevalent dogmas of British nationalism have been overlaid onto English nationalism.
Take, for instance, the human geography, the older stereotypes of the English. The “English race” of Mr Kipling (and his exceedingly well written fantasies) and others. Variations of this idealisation abound, to this day. Listen to an old Tory MP and he will bring the “English Race” to life every time the EU is mentioned. It’s a defiant people, a jolly people, a “freedom-loving” people. They hate politicians and humbug, love their monarch and think nothing of dying “for what’s right”. A martial theme dominates the imagery almost continually. In fact it’s a knee-jerk reaction : speak of the ‘Britons’ , or the ‘English race’ and within a matter of seconds you are reaching for the shield, the gun, or – more typically – the dignified death far from home, smashed to pieces by asian metal implements with barely a murmur of discontent. In this myth, identity is – in effect – synonymous with military utility. A useful tool for an empire based upon violence. There are therefore no women involved in this particular group of myths of course, with two exceptions – Boadicea (the ‘warrior’ Queen), and , I would suggest, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady herself.
It’s a fantasy race. No such people exist, and never did. But the tradition of synthesizing English identities to suit the political objectives of Britain and its increasingly dated structures is an ongoing task. The Victorians invented a useful volkische toolkit or two themselves.
Freedom and death imagery still abounds today – unsurprising given the number of wars that Britain gets involved in. As some poor working class Scot or Northern Englishman gets blown to pieces in some Afghanistan hellhole for no reason whatsoever, a newsreader will always reassure us, via a proxy spokesman, that the reason his young body was turned into a pulped and broken mass was because of ‘freedom’.
Freedom. The ‘F’ word. Its use has become perhaps even more prevalent in recent years, a word unilaterally hijacked by neoliberal economics. Its usage is surely now so widespread and common – common to all nationalities, all political beliefs – that it long ago lost any real meaning. Yet there are still some who think “freedom” represents the “essence” of being English.
Are the English “freedom-loving” ? Well, as I have perhaps just implied, I don’t think “freedom-loving” means that much. Its certainly less objectively true than a statement like ‘the English like getting drunk’, a statement of indeniable veracity. But there are a plethora of nations who would utter the same words. “Freedom” for some of them though, can have a more concrete meaning : the freedom of a nation to determine its own future.
Take, say, the current target of Britain’s grim collection of sunset imperial projects, Afghanistan. Their great national claim is that they chose to be free and poor, rather than rich and occupied. It’s a claim that has some merit : they’ve been occupied by the three biggest empires the world has seen in the last 150 years, and they’ve seem them all off. They could of course have cooperated with their richer invaders but chose not to : they chose independence instead.
Contrast that with England’s actual history. England is physically isolated in a position of no great strategic significance. It has thus found foreign occupation far less of a problem to contend with. It doesn’t actually know what loss of freedom is , in that sense. On the other hand, England (as part of Britain) has had few qualms about depriving other nations – huge quantities of other nations – of their right to determine their own affairs.
In fact one might rightly say that that England (as Britain), as far as issues related to ‘freedom’ (in its simplest meaning) are concerned, is most definitely not only not freedom-loving, but actually freedom-obstructing – even freedom-hating. Whatever one might say about how the English may live their own lives in some kind of freedom, the historical record is clear : the English have not been keen on other people’s freedom at all.
But read any piece about ‘Englishness’ and the F-word will surely make an appearance, like the literary muzak it is.
The ‘English Race’, and its variants, and all the connotations of ‘Freedom-loving’ are two ways I think that English volkische-type theories just don’t help. They sketch a picture of the people of England that not only isn’t true, it has a barely disguised political purpose.
The “village green” of Olde England is no different. Look at the totems of conventional Englishness, as delivered within the British idiom. Warm beer, cricket, cucumber sandwiches. Country houses, roses, and the gently rolling hills. You know the picture. Where are you ? Leeds ? Exeter ? Croxteth, Liverpool ? Probably not. The chances are you are in the Home Counties, just outside London, the home of the traditional merchant classes of the Empire. Come to the real England. It’s here, in the opulence of Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire that the real England exists. It’s the England of literature, of cheery youths in private schools, great weddings between fine houses, where leaders of men are born, and where Prime Ministers meet monarchs in great occasions of state.
Is there a myth identity so ruthlessly hijacked by one, tiny, geographical and social subset as England ? It seems difficult to think of a theft quite so grand. But as a reflection of the actual power structure of England, it’s pretty accurate. England may look nothing like the England of myth, but when it comes to the people who control it, it looks a bit more like their backyards : financiers and merchants, and their offspring and relatives in the civil service and legislature.
The physical England of myth is therefore also a political myth : power lies with the people who own the village green, and don’t forget it. Urban types can arrive ‘on the staff’ only – no Birmingham accents allowed. It’s a fantastically exclusive, fantastically destructive myth, and one that no sensible understanding of England can permit to be accepted.
I believe that England needs rescuing. We need to move away from Britain, to abolish the whole British edifice. We need a modern state with a written constitution. We don’t need a multi-national state either, as they don’t work. Scotland, Wales and Ireland must go their own way. Otherwise, the English regions will suffer – Scotland and Wales can send diplomatic emissaries to London, making Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen instantly less important. It’s grossly unfair.
And that process of rescuing England might start with making England mean something a bit more to the people who live there. In my opinion that doesn’t start with a search for “Englishness” : rather it starts with an abolition of the quest for “Englishness”.
England needs rescuing. It needs rescuing from British self-serving myths. It needs to be reclaimed by the people who actually live there, not the myth-makers who control it. One of the ways of doing that is to resist the temptation to “define”, to seek the “quintessential” England. If you do, you’ll end up trivialising a great and complex people into trite, politically motivated banalities. There isn’t a “quintessential” England. We are a vast and complex people. England has a heady mix of a great tradition of scholarship and highbrow excellence, and at the same time is best known throughout the world for its very lowbrow achievements in music and television. You can’t put that in a bottle. It has a wide mix of physical and human geographies, of which the Birmingham accent is as integral as any other. Sum that complexity up in a quick and chirpy paragraph? Why ?
A commitment to a democratic England means a commitment to the Birmingham accent : more than anything, it means a commitment to abolishing the word “quintessential”, and all the nonsense that flows from it.
J B Davey