So what does England mean to me?
To me Englishness is made up from a jigsaw. A jigsaw which, like every nation in the world, starts with the smallest piece – the neighbourhood and community in which we live. But there is something distinctive about our particular cities and counties in which we live. We have an affinity with towns and counties which is not based on a region or province (created as an administrative or political unit), nor mobilized as a rallying cry for separation (as with the Basque country) but acts, rather, as a building block for patriotic sentiment. Coming from Yorkshire and being English – and beating Lancashire at cricket – is a statement about our localism and our Englishness.
Equally, my pride in Sheffield, its competitiveness with Leeds and it historic hegemony, all affect my view.
To explore what Englishness means to me, it might help if I outline what would I celebrate on St George’s Day. Here are some personal suggestions:
- English landscapes and the sea. The English feel a deep attachment to their landscapes and to their coastlines. This is the Englishness of the National Trust and our National Parks; of Octavia Hill, the Fabians, William Morris, the Socialist cycling groups and the Ramblers. Today, this heritage has been given new impetus by Labour’s Right to Roam policy and the new National Parks.
- Urban landscapes. Although we have a powerful attachment to the land, we are an urban people who have crafted ingenious and varied cityscapes, particularly in our great Victorian cities. My city of Sheffield demonstrates the beauty and power of civic pride that can be found in our best urban landscapes.
- The English poetical tradition. The English are a poetic people. Just think of our poetical tradition, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Milton to John Keats and Wilfred Owen. My personal favourites are the nineteenth and twentieth century poets Christina Rossetti and Philip Larkin (who was quintessentially English). Think too of contemporary English poets such as Tony Harrison and Wendy Cope.
- English music. I am an aficionado of folk music and of traditional English carols – the village carol. The English have also produced some of the world’s finest pop music from the 1960s onwards. Our choral music has been revived. And on St George’s Day, we should, of course, celebrate our finest composers: Purcell, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. To that list we should add Delius, who always gets left out because of his German parentage but who was born in Bradford and is buried in Surrey.
- The English democratic tradition. We are a democratic people who crafted the common law and a gradualist democratic tradition. You do not have to be a Whig historian to write a proud history of democracy stretching back to the Magna Carta.
- English Radicalism. The English radical tradition is an eclectic and varied one, and aside from the seventeenth century, it has been largely reformist rather than revolutionary. I would honour writers and agitators such as John Wesley, Tom Paine, William Hazlitt, William Cobbett, the Pankhursts and George Orwell; and collective movements, such as the Levellers, the Chartists and the Matchgirl strikers. I would also reserve particular pride for the radicals of the abolitionist movement, including William Wilberforce, Robert Wedderburn and Olaudah Equiano (a major figure in Black English history of whom I confess I knew little until I began preparing this speech).
- English humour. As George Mikes said when writing on this subject, “English humour resembles the Loch Ness Monster in that both are famous but there is a strong suspicion that neither of them exists. Here the similarity ends: the Loch Ness Monster seems to be a gentle beast and harms no one; English humour is cruel”. English culture is replete with a particular kind of understated humour. We are a nation that loves satire, irony and self-depreciating wit, and which revels in the absurd and nonsensical. My personal favourites are Tony Hancock, Round the Horne, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and Dead Ringers. I also love Alan Bennett, who once wrote: “Mark my words, when a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall.”
A New England: An English identity within Britain, An Extract from David Blunkett’s speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), 14 March 2005