What does it mean to be English today?
I was born in Birmingham and am of Irish origin. My father was from Northern Ireland and strongly resented the partition of Ireland and felt himself to be Irish. My mother was born in Birmingham as were her father and grandfather, but her great grandfather came to Birmingham during the Irish potato famine and she and her family had an Irish Catholic sense of their identity. We had a strong ethos of educational achievement and public service in the family. I was always strongly committed to serving my community and country but was strongly opposed to any sense of Englishness or Britishness that gloried in the British Empire. I became aware of immigration to Birmingham from the Caribbean and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh from the age of 10. My father pointed out postcards in shop windows which said things like “Room to let – No coloureds or Irish”. Later, Enoch Powell made his “rivers of blood” speech and the National Front started to grow. My sense of my identity included a deep hostility to racism and a need to organise to resist it. I remember Ghana becoming independent when I was 11 and can still recall the sense of happiness and pride that Africa was beginning to throw off the shackles of colonialism.
At this stage, I did not call myself either British or English but as time went on I was happy to see myself as British of Irish origin. Birmingham was an increasingly multicultural city and we talked of Black British, British of Asian origin, British Bengali, Sikh, Muslim etc. I think we were all evolving a sense of belonging to our country which incorporated our origins.
Until very recently, I would say I am British but not English. This seemed clear because I am of Irish origin and I could not be English and many who boasted of Englishness seemed to be quick to boast of Empire and often mouthed racist sentiments.
I have adjusted this view, I think, since devolution to Scotland and Wales. This leaves Birmingham clearly in England and throws up the obvious anomaly about voting in the House of Commons. I favour the establishment of an English Grand Committee (on the same lines as the previous Scottish Committee) where English MPs vote on devolved questions. This is a simple matter of fairness and democracy but it makes me more willing to accept an English label. I have until recently been totally opposed to the break up of the United Kingdom but am impressed by the argument that if Scotland became independent, Britain’s delusions of grandeur, which led to the role of US poodle, would have to end. We could then become a more useful, modern country helping to build a stronger multilateral system and a more just and equitable world.
In conclusion, events have led me to accept the idea that as well as being British of Irish origin, I am English of Irish origin. In my city, white people will be a minority within 10 years and many of them are of Irish, Scottish or Welsh origin. No one ethnic group will be a majority but we will all be English within a devolved UK. But over the last 50 years, we have evolved a different sense of Englishness. This was brought home when people started to put the flag of St George (much used by the British National Party) on cars and in windows to show their support for England in the World Cup some years ago. I held my breath and then smiled as young men of all origins proudly put up the flag on their vehicles and in their homes.
What do the English think of England?
I suspect there are different English with different views of England. In the Home Counties, there are probably those who see it as pretty villages, Empire and Monarchy. In Birmingham and all our other cities, I think a different sense of Englishness has evolved (as outlined above).
What do the English think of Britishness?
Britishness is the passport we hold and includes Welsh and Scottish people. There are also 8 million people of Irish descent who live in Britain. Interestingly, Britishness is ambivalent about Northern Ireland. I got caught out once after introducing a motion in the House of Commons calling for equality for British women and being criticised by the Ulster Unionists for excluding them!
My original answer spells out how my sense of my Irish origin and rejection of Empire and racism, originally seemed ill at ease with Britishness but later became part of a new sense of Britishness that easily incorporated all the people who were recruited from the Commonwealth to work after the 1950s. Over time, the arguments over racism towards black and brown people from Commonwealth countries reminded British people of the diversity of the existing population and broke down the dominant image of white, conservative, Church of England Britishness. This challenge created a more inclusive sense of Britishness.
The new sense of Englishness that is demanding political power and resents devolution leaving Scottish and Welsh MPs deciding English questions, is not yet fully formed. I suspect it includes people of diverse origins who bring the new inclusive sense of Britishness to Englishness and those of an older mindset who resent multiculturalism and still glory in Empire.
How do others see England and the English?
I suspect there are a variety of views. One is of drunken yobbishness. Another is America’s poodle. People abroad tend not to distinguish between Britishness and Englishness. In Ireland, the reference is always to England. In Sylhet, it is to London which includes Birmingham. Some people say Britain and some refer to the UK. There is a residual sense of an arrogant colonial power in some of the countries colonised by Britain but this has softened and many people saw Britain as a fair country that always stood up for international law. That image has been weakened since the attack on Iraq. Many people who have relatives and friends living in the UK see it as a fair country that gives everyone a chance to improve their lives. Recent events have made the Arab and Muslim world more hostile to Britain and British Muslims also feel increasingly marginalised and under attack.
Is Englishness a spiritual inheritance or does it only describe the condition of living in England?
Englishness certainly is not spiritual in any way whatsoever. I have already described the dissonance between a majority of the people living in most British cities coming from countries colonised by Britain, and the “proud of Empire” sense of Englishness. But there is much in English history that predates Empire and remembers occupation by the Romans or the Normans or celebrates the fight for freedom of religious belief, trade unionism, the vote and social reform. There are different historical emphases that go with different senses of Englishness, but the landscape leads to a sense of affection and belonging that includes all.
Does Englishness have a nature or is there only history?
People often talk as though Englishness has a nature; the English have always loved alcohol, the Englishman’s home is his castle, the English are brave fighters, the English are a polyglot nation etc. I suspect that these are a vague series of images that are called into play when someone wants to claim authority for their view by emphasising continuity with the past.
Is Englishness a political or cultural idea, or both?
I think Englishness is largely a political idea which is changing politically at present. But there are writers, ideas and events in English history that create a broad, and probably self-contradictory, sense of Englishness that is cultural.
Is the cheapest form of pride national pride or is national pride essential to modern England?
National pride has often been used historically to whip up war fever and a sense of superiority that justifies domination and exploitation. These are ugly elements of nationalism. But it is natural to care for the people one lives amongst, the values of society, the behaviour of your government and to be fond of the landscape and developments in your place before these times that helped to shape the present.
There is a sense of national pride which is cheap and ugly and another sense which is about love of place and desire for a just and caring society and world order.
Where does English fit in the new, devolved United Kingdom?
The first response in Labour circles, which I supported, was to balance devolution to Scotland and Wales with devolution to the English regions. We agreed to follow the Spanish model and give the choice to each region. I suspect if the referenda had been held earlier, some may have passed. The Northern region in particular always wanted the same powers as Scotland. But by the time the referendum was held, the Government was unpopular and it was lost. We now have administrative regions and a highly centralised state with weak local government. The demand for decentralisation is growing which may in the future lead to a call for democratic devolution to the English regions. In the meantime, the sense of injustice that Scottish and Welsh MPs can settle questions in England that are devolved elsewhere is unacceptable (also see above). New Labour will not support an English Grand Committee because the Tories would dominate it but with the likely Tory electoral advance, this may be implemented before long.
How does England connect with Europe?
The old pro-Empire, superior, nationalistic vision of England is hostile to Europe and still wants to think “England rules the waves”. The new inclusive England fits easily with Europe but like people across Europe is disgruntled at the EU’s over-regulatory interventions. It is time to insist on real subsidiarity to build a more popular EU.
What is the distinctive place of England in global culture?
Our distinctive place is our land, our history and the English language, though in reality English is the global language more because America speaks it – though the global spread of the language because of colonialism is part of the explanation.
The fashion of the last 10 years favouring the Anglo Saxon, marketised state and booming economy is already losing its allure.
The country that has successfully absorbed a diversity of people into an equal, modern citizenship is an attractive model but is currently being undermined by the marginalisation of the Muslim community.
Clare Short is Independent Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood