“O wad some power the giftie gie us, tae see oorsels as ithers see us.”
Those are the words of Scotland’s national bard – Robert Burns. This essay is about ‘What England Means to Me’ from a Scottish perspective, hence the introduction. When asked if I’d like to write a piece for this site, I was flattered and challenged in equal measures. I consider myself very Scottish, although I was born in Coventry. I support the movement for Scotland to once again be an independent nation, which means I support the SNP as the best vehicle to get Scotland there and I’m writing about England.
My first feeling about what England means to me is one of slight frustration. I can’t easily answer the question “What is England?” The geographical area is well defined, but what else? These days it means to me the place where my daughter lives and works. It was, but for a spot of gazumping, a place where I (almost) lived and worked.
England has had a real problem with its identity for a long, long time. England and Britain and UK have seemingly been interchangeable terms forever. So much so that when considering what’s England, or English, it’s difficult to separate them. Even contributors to this site casually conflate the terms “England’s” and “Britain’s” when referring to events and deeds of the past. England wears the coat of Britain with comfort, indeed the coat was probably tailored to fit England. This has to be a challenge for England and the English as Britain goes forward. Just what is ‘England’? How does England take off this coat of Britain and relax into its own identity? Nowhere is this confusion over identity shown more clearly than at rugby/football internationals where the England team uses the British national anthem as their own, even when they are playing against Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland – who all have equal claim to use that song. Staying in the sporting world for a moment there is “The FA” and The RFU”. All the other countries in the UK have a national identifier in front of their sporting bodies, e.g. “The SFA”, “The SRU”. Yet England uniquely seems the have the word “The”. Pause and think about that for a moment, and what it says about national identity.
The Union Flag is similarly easily swapped for the St George’s flag. This schizophrenia about identity runs deeply through English/British/UK history and doesn’t seem to have been resolved yet. Scottish nationalism has been and is a benign force: civic, progressive, pluralist, and deeply multicultural. The English nationalism we are witnessing is practically the mirror opposite – ethnic, regressive, anti-pluralist, and at war with multiculturalism and diversity. There are many essays on this site which talk of the English values of ‘fair play’ and ‘helping the under-dog’. Where are those values being demonstrated in post-Brexit England?
So England, the largest country in the United Kingdom. The dominant country, not a partner to the other countries. The devolution arrangements and very recent pronouncements from the Supreme Court have shown this in sharper relief than ever before. England – the country which rules that it’s too dangerous for nuclear weapons to be stored in its territory yet is happy for them to be stored within 15 miles of 46% of the population of another country in the United Kingdom. Much has been said about the need for a parliament for England, to put it on a level footing with Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff. EVEL will not deliver this. This is the politics of England, not the people. The political direction in which the country is being driven just doesn’t reflect the view the English have about England. English people are really no different from Scots, from Welsh, from Irish people. It’s a puzzle therefore why they are allowing themselves to be pushed in a direction which can only end in diminution of their country.
England is a country with areas of great beauty. The Lake District, the Cotswolds, the garden of Kent, the wilderness of Dartmoor. It’s all there. The Riviera on the south coast. What’s not to like about this land? And I do like the land when I’m there. So is that what England Means to Me? A pleasant place to visit? London is good to visit, but not as stunning as New York.
Right now though, at the end of January 2017, there’s something happening in England which is causing real anxiety in Scotland (perhaps moreso in Northern Ireland and Wales too). England is allowing itself to become characterised by a meanness of spirit. The appalling murder of Jo Cox MP, the societal divisions being foisted, with no care or regard for the future, on England by its politicians, no longer sit comfortably with the Scottish character. Maybe it was always thus, but I don’t think so. The trajectory England is being put on is going to stress the bonds of the United Kingdom as they have never been stressed before. I doubt that they will survive.
So what is England? A proud nation, people who long ago created a vast empire but have yet to really come to terms with its ending. England – a nation with an identity crisis.
Andrew Sinclair, lives in Scone, crowning place of the ancient Kings of Scotland, and maintains a a keen amateur interest in politics and economics. More of his writing an be found at bluesprints.net