As a young man I used to work on a ferry in the stark industrial landscape of Bristol docks. Today the harbour is mainly dominated by housing and leisure, but in the late 1970s Bristol had only recently ceased to be a major port: and industrial decline was symbolised by the empty wharves, abandoned cranes and cavernous, bleak, disused warehouses.
But it also screamed with the cries of ghosts. Over two thousand slave ships sailed from Bristol, transporting half a million black Africans: shackled, tortured, branded, murdered, raped, and reduced to the status of cattle. In all, nearly three million slaves were transported by British ships. Few slaves set foot on English soil, but some did. Under the vaults and caves of that most beautiful of English churches, St Mary Redcliffe, enslaved children, women and men were chained in the dark.
How could we English, who pride ourselves on our fair play, our belief in justice, and our refusal to kneel at the feet of tyrants have committed these crimes? How did we come to build an Empire of pain?
It is interesting how often loss of innocence is a theme in English culture.
The power of Blake’s Jerusalem is that by asking whether there was once a time when England was blessed, he acknowledges that it no longer is. We lost the England of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the England of woods and glades. We put those better days of an early nation behind us to take up Empire.
Of course we English share a beautiful and expressive language, and many of the personality traits and the values we believe in are specific to our culture. We share a landscape that’s mellow and temperate, but also often industrial and urban. Yet England has always been contested.
In mythology, Robin Hood and his Merry Men not only stole from the rich to give to the poor, but also proved that the yeoman with his longbow could fell the armoured chivalry of their oppressors.
The peasant revolt in 1381 asked a simple question, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” The English revolution spawned the Levellers and the Diggers, and a demand for economic equality in our common treasury.
Our England is the England of General Ludd and Captain Swing and of the Chartists. It is the England of the 1926 general strike, of the battle of Cable Street, the fight to free the Pentonville Five, the Anti-Nazi League and the great miners’ strike.
As a largely industrial and urban country, the Labour movement with our belief in social and economic equality, and our belief in extending democracy has made a huge and indelible impact on England’s culture and history.
Of course we share much of this history with our friends and cousins in Wales and Scotland. But England’s loss of innocence was bound up with the birth of the Union. The bloodstains of the British Empire are soaked equally into the souls of the English, Welsh and Scots because “Britain” was always a marriage based on shared guilt.
We should be aware that England has a proud and long history of fighting for equality and freedom that runs alongside our sordid history of Empire. We are a happily multicultural nation that should take a modest place in the world, and aspire to make a fairer, more equitable country, a better England for ourselves and for our children. We need to build Jerusalem here, not only on our green and pleasant land, but in our cities and housing estates as well.
Andy Newman is a socialist activist from Swindon, he contributes to the blog Socialist Unity.