John Cope

The essence of England lies in her institutions. They are respected because they incorporate the distilled wisdom and acceptability of generations. Many are of considerable age, because England has not had the trauma of a bloody revolution (except in the 17th century and the situation was restored within twenty years) or of being occupied by a foreign power. This gives our institutions a long lived continuity, but they all adapt continually to changing circumstances. Our Monarchy stands at the centre of national life and the Westminster Parliament and government can trace 1000 years of its evolution (England was described as “The Mother of Parliaments” 150 years ago).

There are many other English institutions which have evolved and stood the test of time. Some are official (but independent of the Government) and all pervasive throughout the land: The Church of England, the Common Law and the whole legal system; the police and respect for law and for order; the armed forces of the Crown, Guardsmen and all. Others may be newer and not part of the state, but they embody similar principles: The National Trust; The Lifeboat Institution; the great national charities; the BBC; the sporting bodies who manage the games we evolved – cricket, football (of three kinds), horse racing , and more.

Other institutions, old and new, are smaller and more local – Universities and their Colleges, Schools, Hospitals, Lord Mayors and Mayors, Charities, from alms houses to the newest hospices, and clubs of every kind, from the Livery Companies in London and other cities; the “Gentlemen’s Clubs” of St James’s; the Womens’ Institute in villages and “Working Men’s” Clubs in the North. Some are “one offs” like the Chelsea Pensioners’ Hospital, others occur in different forms like the County Agricultural Shows.

The people who run these institutions, large and small, cherish their piece of England’s heritage and do their best to hand it over to their successors enhanced. They see their time in office as service to the community. So England evolves at her own pace, not essentially set by the Government of the Day, but the product of her citizens’ efforts for the common good. We respect one another and cherish the best we have inherited.

Lord (John) Cope of Berkeley is a former MP, now a Life Peer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of St George.

Stuart Parr

There are not many people that can claim to have changed nationality without moving but I did.

A few years ago if you’d asked me my nationality I’d have said I was British. If you’d gone on to ask me if I was sure I wasn’t English I’d have told you that of course I was English because I was born in England but I was British. I’d probably have given you a funny look.

Then one day, about four years ago, I decided to have a look if there were any St George’s Day events happening in the local area. I probably wanted something to occupy the kids, I don’t remember, but the motivation wasn’t important. What is important is that Google threw up a website for some group calling themselves the Campaign for an English Parliament.

The article I read told me that I was being denied the right to celebrate St Georges Day because I was English and that because I was English I was missing out on lots of things. This couldn’t be true, surely? I’d always taken an interest in current affairs but I’d never heard any of this on the TV so from where did they get this daft notion? I bookmarked the site for future reading and went off in search of some St George’s Day events. I never did find any.

A few days later, with some spare time to while away, I took another look at the Campaign for an English Parliament website and I started to wonder if they had a point. Then I found the CEP news blog and I was converted in an instant. The blog was discussing current affairs – things that were in the news right now – and telling me about things that only applied to England but were being touted as British whilst Scottish politicians were interfering in English affairs. Why was nobody else telling me this?

I hadn’t heard of the Scottish Parliament before I found the CEP website. I’d never heard of the Welsh Assembly either despite living 30 minutes from the Welsh border. The thought of an English Parliament had never entered my mind but here I was, convinced in a matter of minutes of the need to get our own government and take control of our own affairs.

To be honest, at the time I think the main thought that was going through my head was “But the English are better than everyone else, how dare they do such a thing”. I must confess to having a slight superiority complex on account of being English. I recall once blurting out “the reason why you Europeans don’t like us is because you know we’re better than you” on a forum for programmers. One of the Dutch commentators thought me terribly arrogant – on reflection I probably was – but we’re now the best of friends; he’s godfather to one of my children and he’s asked me to be godfather of his impending first child, which goes to show that superiority complexes can have positive benefits!

So what did that day in April 2004 – the day I idly searched for St Georges Day events – do to me? It set in motion the events that would turn me – less than four years later – into a committed English nationalist. I no longer call think of myself as British, I’m an Englishman through and through. I have become almost evangelical on the subject of an English Parliament and the discrimination we all suffer at the hands of the British state (my eldest son has heard me ranting so many times that he told his teacher that if could be Prime Minister for the day the first thing he’d do is give us an English Parliament to stop Scottish people telling us what to do). I started a blog of my own to get things off my chest. I didn’t imagine at the time it would end up being voted the 8th best English blog or 31st best non-aligned blog in a book written by one of the most successful bloggers in the country. I joined the Campaign for an English Parliament, offered to help out with the website, got invited to take over as webmaster and somehow ended up on the National Council.

So what, in a nutshell, does England mean to me? England is my home, the home of my ancestors and the home of my descendants. It’s about living in a country that doesn’t officially exist but is better known throughout the world than the British state that denies its existence. It’s about being constantly challenged to define my nationality and culture and constantly refusing to do so on the basis that I don’t have to because I’m English. It’s about not liking the French but liking French people. It’s about knowing that despite what it tells you on your passport, your driving licence and your birth certificate, you were born English and will die English. But most of all it’s about finding it immensely difficult to write a short essay on “what England means to me”. It’s something inside that almost defies explanation – like trying to explain why you like the colour blue or Marmite.

Cecil Rhodes said “To be born English is to have won first prize in the lottery of life”. If that’s true then I’m a millionaire.

Stuart Parr is a programmer from Telford. To the blogosphere he is known as Wonko.

Tom Griffin

Perhaps no group of people have been more ambivalent about their English identity than those of us born in England of Irish descent.

It is no secret that the history of Anglo-Irish relations is in large measure a story of conflict. At different times, each nation has defined itself in opposition to the other, leaving little room for those with connections to both.

But it was not always so. At the very dawn of English literature, the Venerable Bede records the first contact between the two nations, a literary and spiritual flowering which first brought Christianity to the English, and then brought orthodox Catholicism to the Irish.

“This seemed to happen by a wonderful dispensation of God’s grace, in order that the nation which had willingly and ungrudgingly laboured to communicate its own knowledge of God to the English nation might later, through the same English nation, arrive at a perfect way of life which they had not hitherto possessed,” Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

This pattern of mutual influence between the two countries is visible even in later, more troubled periods of history.

By the Seventeenth Century, the Anglo-Saxon era had come to be seen as a golden age of English liberty, to be contrasted with the ‘Norman Yoke’ of later monarchs by Protestant radicals such as John Lilburne.

Just as the spread of literacy aided the rise of insular Christianity a millennium before, the new thinking was spread by a new technology, printing, that disrupted old power networks.

Lilburne was arrested in 1637 by officers of the Stationers’ Company, the official government-backed printing monopoly, for distributing subversive books imported from Amsterdam.

He was brought before the royal prerogative court of Star Chamber, where he faced Archbishop Laud, who led the Crown’s attempts to suppress the rising tide of seditious pamphlets being produced by the puritan underground.

Lilburne refused to answer Laud’s questions, a stance which would provide a key precedent for the emerging doctrine of the right to silence. His punishment was to be whipped from the Fleet Prison to Westminster.

He remained in jail until 1640, when his case was taken up by the MP for Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell, as part of the Long Parliament’s revolutionary challenge to Charles I’s regime. It was Archbishop Laud who now found himself in prison, as his system of censorship was replaced by an unprecedented era of free speech. The prerogative courts were abolished, and the King was banned from levying taxation without the consent of Parliament.

It was Ireland that provoked the final break between King and Parliament. After rebellion broke out there in late 1641, both sides agreed on the need for a military expedition to put down the insurgents and their newly constituted government, the Irish Catholic Confederacy. £1 million was raised in the City of London in return for promises of land to be confiscated from the Irish, making the project a huge exercise in military capitalism.

The parliamentary leadership now faced a crucial problem. It had to ensure that an army could be raised against the Irish, whilst also preventing that army from being used against the English. It was this dilemma that sparked the English Civil War.

The royalist defeat in that conflict opened up a unique window of opportunity for democratic ideas. The parliamentary forces met at Putney in 1647 to agree proposals for a new constitution.

The New Model Army’s commanders, led by Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, argued that political rights should be restricted to the propertied classes. The radicals argued, in the words of Col Thomas Rainsborough, “that the poorest he that is in England have a life to live, as the greatest he: and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”

The radicals had by now formed what was effectively the first modern political party, the Levellers, in support of their proposed constitution, the Agreement of the People.

Along with Lilburne, the most prominent figure was William Walwyn, a London merchant who boldly argued that religious toleration should be extended to Catholics as well as Protestants. However, the key to the Levellers’ strength was their support in the army, whose membership was far broader than the narrow social stratum represented in Parliament.

With Parliament’s planned invasion of Ireland threatening to destroy this powerbase, the Levellers appealed to the troops in a pamphlet entitled the English Soldiers’ Standard:

“For consider as things now stand, to what end you should hazard your lives against the Irish. Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder in order to make them [the army commanders] as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England?”

In the course of rejecting their arguments, the Cromwellian paper, The Moderate Intelligencer, published the Levellers’ alternative proposals:

“Whether if the state of England, now in their full strength, should send and proclaim Ireland a free state, repenting of all the evil themselves have acted and intended, and that our kings have formerly acted against that nation, and that they will not further act to their prejudice: but only sit down by them as a neighbour state, as Holland doth: desire only to be in mutual league as friend, to seek the peace and welfare of each other, not countenance or assist or protect each other’s enemies, nor any that shall disturb the peace of nations, only require some considerable seaports or towns for security and bond to tie the Irish to performance of covenants, and whether this may not be every way as advantageous to the state and people of England as a conquest of them, the charge considered.”

This proposal might have been acceptable to the Irish leader Owen Roe O’Neill, who was in secret negotiations with Colonel Monk. It was not however, acceptable to the Army commanders. An Irish invasion would secure the support of the City of London, and get rid of the troublesome agitators in the ranks. It was all too easy for them to whip up fear of the Catholic Irish as an implacable, existential threat.

Nevertheless, influenced by the Levellers, several regiments refused to embark for Ireland. They were attacked by Cromwell and Fairfax at Burford in Oxfordshire in May 1649. In the aftermath, three soldiers were executed, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Church and Corporal Perkins.

With the defeat of the Levellers, the invasion of Ireland became inevitable, and England lost its last chance of securing a democratic constitution for centuries. Without Ireton, who was killed in Ireland, Cromwell proved incapable of delivering any kind of stable republican constitution at all, paving the way for the ultimate restoration of the monarchy after his own death.

The consequences of the invasion are well known: the bloody sieges of Drogheda and Wexford, the expulsion of thousands of Catholics ‘to hell or Connaught’ and the transportation of many thousands more as slaves to the West Indies.

Yet the spirit of the Levellers was not entirely dead in the New Model Army. Despite the efforts of its officers, many of its soldiers married Irish women and were absorbed into the Catholic majority.

By the Eighteenth Century, the Baptist and Independent communities established in Ireland under Cromwell’s rule had become Presbyterian congregations. Their radical tradition expressed itself in the demand for greater powers for the Irish Parliament. With the Volunteer Movement of 1782 this campaign took a form remarkably reminiscent of the Levellers.

Eventually the demand for self-government merged with the call for Catholic emancipation and the older tradition of Irish nationalism. A new generation of radicals, led by figures like William Drennan and Theobald Wolfe Tone created an organisation whose name represented this fusion: the Society of United Irishmen.

It was the birth of a new phenomenon, Irish republicanism, whose radical Protestant strand remained visible in later generations. In the Nineteenth Century, it was represented perhaps most clearly by Thomas Davis who called for “a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter, Milesian and Cromwellian, the Irishman of a hundred generations, and the stranger who is within our gates.” As recently as the 1960s, thinkers who are clearly in this tradition, such as Roy Johnston and Desmond Greaves, were key figures in the Civil Rights Movement.
Irish republicans have often fallen short of these ideals, because of the same dangers of sectarianism and militarism that brought down their Seventeenth Century English counterparts. Nevertheless, this tradition has played a decisive role in shaping Irish national identity. Ireland, like the United States, drew on English ideas to define itself against the British Crown.

That tradition is still alive in England today, the legacy of the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists and their successors. Their demand for the sovereignty of the English people is more relevant than ever. That idea, and the people who have fought for it down the ages, are what England means to me.

Tom Griffin is a Londoner of Irish decent, his online journal is The Green Ribbon.