Anyone untutored in history would find it inconceivable to learn that a small island, tucked away in the north east Atlantic, had once commanded an empire that spanned the globe, had given the world parliamentary democracy, countless breakthroughs in science, medicine, industry and technology, some of the greatest literature of all time and a language that is almost universally recognised.
That same person, arriving for the first time on the shores of England today would, perhaps, become quickly sceptical of such history for outside of museums there is little sign that we once – and not so very long ago – imprinted the indelible mark of England on the world.
The late 1950’s, as the ‘Empire’ was dissolving into ‘Commonwealth’, saw the rise of the ‘apologists’; it was time to be ashamed of our past. My generation was to carry the burden of guilt for the blood shed in the name of Empire. The conquests of our forefathers were to become the sins of their children.
In parallel, the post-World War 2 dissatisfaction with the status quo saw the rise of a new political class, the ‘common’ man, dedicated to sweeping away the old establishment recruited from the privileged few. With dedicated fervour for economic equality and to wrest power from the elite who had controlled our destiny for so long, England saw the beginnings of a social revolution that is still taking place to this day.
The results of all revolutions are a mixed bag. In tearing up the political and economic fabric of England and in negating our history, much damage has been inflicted on the England we once knew. There are positives: those in poverty fared much worse than today. Educational opportunity was not open to all. The class system was far more rigid and those on the bottom rungs tended to stay there. Healthcare was not so easily come by. But as the bad was being tempered, so the good was being annulled. The very qualities that made up the English character were being abandoned and discouraged by a growing, intrusive and overly interventionist State machine – self-reliance, determination, respect, a national spirit of brotherhood that could come to the fore in times of trouble. The famous ’stiff upper lip’ was allowed, even encouraged, to droop and pout.
The diversity of the English, politically, economically, socially, has been squeezed at both ends in a short-sighted drive for an elusive equality that can never truly exist. The problem with true equality is that it must use the lowest common denominator as its yardstick.
The cost of this misplaced hand wringing and social re-engineering has been enormous. Simple pride in being English, a natural cornerstone of any nation, has been branded as arrogance. Pride is a throwback to Empire and something not to be exercised. The result is a loss of a national identity; promoting Englishness has become a sin yet paradoxically at the same time we were floundering and being bullied into national guilt, people from all over the old Empire were flooding into our country wanting nothing more than to be English. Even our neighbours in the Union, sensing our weakness, have grown more vocal in reminding us of centuries of abuse, cherry-picking their history to suit.
This is not to say that many of the ingredients of ‘old’ England do not survive. The lush, green meadows; the old broad-leaved forests; the summer sound of leather on willow on the village green; the country inn; courteousness; tolerance and respect. They can all, just about, still be found. But our relationship with these symbols has changed as clearly as the social fabric that once bound us as a nation has become unraveled.
Over it’s long history, my country has stood at many crossroads and who knows if the paths taken were for the better. But those paths shaped the land and it’s people to what we have become today. As the twenty-first century starts to bite, England finds itself at another major crossroads and this is, perhaps, the most important we have ever faced. And we face it at a time when our very Englishness has become almost terminally ill.
Do we allow ourselves to be absorbed into a European ‘Empire’, dominated by others, where we will be but a junior state? Do we allow our three hundred year Union with Scotland and Wales to be torn up and consigned to the rubbish bin of history?
Or do we take back what is ours? Regain our inheritance. Re-establish pride in our nation and forge a new national identity to see us through the next century?
These are not questions for our politicians to answer. The new ‘establishment’ is just as divorced from the people as the one they destroyed. These are questions for the English to answer and I fear they are losing their voice.
Andy Staines is a retired software designer stranded on the edge of the Fens who keeps himself amused with Yellow Swordfish.