For someone who was born during the war and brought up in the 1950s England was a geographical part of Britain. There seemed no anomaly that the Battle of Britain was fought over the fields of Kent or that “England” stood alone against Hitler. It was a matter of geography, England faced the continent. There’ll always be an England and the White Cliffs of Dover were reflections upon the fact that that part of Britain that was England did, and had always, faced threats coming from the Continent. We admired greatly the Scottish Regiments whose courage and reputation did so much for Britain and also Welsh musicality and eloquence. So it came as a great surprise when I discovered that these sentiments were not returned.
Awareness and surprise that the rest of the British Isles did not feel so suffused with Britishness came at my senior school when girls were allowed to sport the emblems of their country on their Saint’s Days. I remember particularly those girls who claimed Welsh and Irish identities sprouted shamrocks and daffodils. We weren’t told, nor were encouraged to speculate, on what our Saint’s Day was nor of our own national emblems, indeed to the extent that I began to claim Irish identity on the grounds of one grandfather. We were encouraged to recognise Empire Day which later morphed into Commonwealth Day and died entirely somewhere along the way.
As I lived my adult life I was not interested in politics, and particularly not in party politics but on a visit to Glasgow in the ’70s I was aware of the push for separation and considered it a daft proposition. After all I believed, and still do, that the sum had been greater than the parts.
So what does England mean to me now? England must never be confused or conflated with Britain. The Scots, particularly, find that offensive and so do I. England is a separate country and over a millennium old. It is my ancestral home and defines my identity. England is a country of local loyalties and identities, villages where people look after one another, pubs that you can walk into and strike up a conversation, pub gossip; the unique change ringing of our church bells and the church as the focal point of a community, less so nowadays unhappily. Clichés such as the sound of wood on leather on a lazy summer’s afternoon are just as evocative whether or not they are clichés. England means quiet country lanes and villages and that green and pleasant land; a connection with the soil and the farming community; food production, the basis of life.
England means the spirit of enterprise that established trading colonies in America and the far east; the seafaring adventures of Drake and Raleigh. England has produced great inventors, scientists, composers, writers and poets such as Thomas Savery (steam engine), Jethro Tull (seed drill), Newton, William of Occam, William Harvey, Thomas Tallis, Purcell, Shakespeare, Dryden, Kneller, Gibbons and many, many others too numerous to mention.
England means innovation, the industrial revolution, a questioning of the status quo but a sure knowledge of our basic identity and a shared knowledge of our heritage. That heritage includes the sacrifices of our forefathers (and mothers) to bring us equity under the law, parliamentary democracy, the common law, the jury system and who stood together to face threats from outside this country.
I am proud that England in the UK has mainly been the asylum for those persecuted in their own countries for their religion, Huguenot Protestants, and the Jews fleeing Eastern European progroms and Hitler’s holocaust. Their children and grandchildren have attained positions of power and influence in the British Establishment. We ask of them only that they respect us and this country, its culture and traditions as we gave them or their forebears succour.
England was the origin of the mother of Parliaments, Magna Carta and the Bill of rights. These are English, not British, achievements despite what Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister elected in Scotland, has said. England ceased to be a constitutional entity after 1707 and all our subsequent history is British history. England must not be used as a scapegoat for subsequent British acts.
Above all the sense of fair play, singularly denied us in the asymmetrical devolution Acts perpetrated by an anti-English establishment, is an ideal that has deep roots in England. Indeed that sense of fair play was so affronted in me that I joined the Campaign for an English Parliament and shall continue to campaign until England is once again recognised politically and constitutionally. But England is a survivor. We survived and re-invented ourselves after the French takeover in 1066. It may have taken 300 years but we got the ruling class to adopt our legal system and speak English, somewhat modified, in the end. We survived the centuries of domination by French speaking monarchs and their descendants and the usurping Welsh Tudor dynasty which bequeathed our country to the Scottish dynasty that had supported invasions of English soil. We survived and will survive still.
Scilla Cullen is the Chairman of the Campaign for an English Parliament