Until quite recently I never thought very much about being English. England was simply home. 20 years ago if anyone asked me my nationality I have said British. Oddly enough, it is only in Scotland that I am immediately recognised as an Englishman. I have been mistaken for an Italian (in France), an Irishman (on the ferry to Dun Laoghaire), a member of the Romany people (at university), an Austrian (in Germany), a Norwegian (in Norway and by a Norwegian taxi-driver!) so perhaps I am not a typical Englishman.
When Mr Callaghan and then Mr Blair proposed a devolved Scottish Parliament this seemed a good idea. I assumed naively that if the experiment were successful the same offer would be made to England. When I learned that the Government had no plans to hold an English referendum I joined the Campaign for an English Parliament in the hope that we could persuade the Government to do what was fair, just and democratic. It was Mr Prescott who turned me into an English nationalist. The discovery that our British government had decided to partition England made me realise that we English must stand up for and reclaim our country. You sometimes never know what you value until you are in danger of losing it. After our family, our nation is the strongest bond.
Although I was born and brought up in the small town of Luton in England and my mother was English, my father was a patriotic Scotsman – there is of course no other kind. As a child, Scotland was for me a different, interesting and exciting place where we met relatives we did not see very often. I knew that England and Scotland were different countries though both were part of Britain. I always knew that I was partly Scottish – my friends treated me as if I were Scottish. I was first taken to Scotland, in the cab of a lorry, when I could barely stand. My father humorously claimed that the air was different as soon as one crossed the border. He was quite serious later on when he made me promise that if he had the misfortune to die in England I would ship his body back to Scotland for burial. When very small, my sister and I could count up to ten in Gaelic and the first songs we learnt were in Gaelic. Even at school, we had a dashing Scots teacher who made sure that, for little English boys, we were unusually well-informed about Robert the Bruce and his battle axe, William Wallace and his two-handed sword and of course the Battle of Bannockburn. My father was a piper as well as a Gaelic speaker and when we were older my sister and I did our homework in the living room to the tremendous sound of pipes as my father and his friend patrolled round the room practising their tunes. The volume of sound indoors made by two pipers was impressive and did wonders for our powers of concentration. We frequently took holidays in Scotland when I was a child – visiting relations in Port Glasgow, the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Tiree, or the Kintyre peninsula. My father’s family came from Tiree but when he was a boy his father and mother had taken three children to the mainland to find labouring work, leaving two children with the grandparents in Tiree. The whole family used to camp in the cottage in Tiree in the summer. None of the family was at all well off but in all my visits to Scotland I have never met the “mean” Scotsman of legend. On the contrary, my Scottish relations and their friends almost overwhelmed us with their hospitality and generosity.
Although very proud of being a Scot, my father was not anti-English. He served as a police officer in England for 30 years and told me that the English had always made him welcome and treated him well. He had no complaints. My mother and her relations seemed a lot more relaxed in their Englishness, as befits the majority indigenous population, but they did not apologise for being English. In those days many English towns still celebrated St George’s Day, a celebration that is now happily returning, and we joined in English and Scottish events, Easter Bonnet parades as well as Highland Games. I was not particularly aware of Englishness but I noticed that my agreeable Scottish cousins thought I was English. I have always enjoyed having one foot in Scotland as a “second country”. My home town had grown considerably from immigration – first in the 19th century when labourers moved in from the surrounding countryside to join in the straw plait trade and hat manufacturing; then in the early 20th century when families came from all over Britain and Ireland to find jobs in motor manufacturing, engineering and building; later still from the middle of the 20th century people arrived from the West Indies, India and Pakistan.
Englishness as I grew up was taken for granted. People frequently said “England” when they meant “Britain”. That annoyed the Scots as did post boxes in Scotland bearing the legend EIIR when of course Queen Elizabeth I had never ruled in Scotland. Then suddenly, around the year 2000, it seemed that England had ceased to exist. It disappeared from EU maps. Following the creation of national assemblies which provided devolution to Scotland and Wales, the British government announced (so quietly that few noticed) that England was to be divided into regions. Over 1000 years of national history was to be set aside in favour of recent, meaningless regions which, apart from Yorkshire, lacked any cultural or historic identity. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister explained that this was because England was “too big” to fit in with the Labour government’s idea of the United Kingdom. It became official policy to refer to the “nations and regions of Britain”. The British government poured money into promoting and researching regional assemblies. All regions were to be offered a referendum. Then as the English began to resist, the first round of referendums was restricted to the North East, the North West and Yorkshire. Finally, the North-East was selected for the first referendum. The British government clearly hoped to achieve a “domino” affect but lost by 78% to 22%. It has not given up. Ministers have been appointed “to represent the Government” in each of the so-called regions. It has now become official policy to call England “Britain”. The Prime Minister, Mr Brown, has announced that “Britishness”, whatever that is, will be taught in English schools but not in Welsh or Scottish schools. He says “this country” (not England) when he refers to health, education and transport in England. Supermarkets flag up Scottish and Welsh produce with their national flags while English produce usually bears only the Union flag. Henry VIII is described as a “British king”.
Poland was partitioned in the 18th Century between Austria, Prussia and Russia and ceased to exist politically until 1919. Despite 150 years of partition, the Poles never forgot that they were Poles. We English are now becoming the “Poles” in partitioned Britain. It has become essential to reclaim and defend our Englishness. Recently I met up with a school-friend I had not seen for nearly 40 years. “When we were at school, Ian,” he told me, “if anyone asked me, I used to say I was British. Now I reply that I am English.” So must we all. I thought I lived in a democracy, protected by the great statutes – Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Declaration of Rights – and the Common Law of England. No longer. We English have never been asked what sort of government we want for our country. Being English means that in the last resort we must stand up for England and defend our liberties. We are told that devolution is the “price we pay” for the Union. If that price includes the partition of England, it is too high. Those who speak up for England are often denigrated as “Little Englanders”. The term was used in the 19th Century to excoriate those Radical members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the expansion of the British empire. They did not wish to rule over other peoples. That is probably a majority position today.
1,000 years ago England, already by then a centralised and wealthy country, was seized by the Normans. William the Conqueror built the Tower of London, over which the Union flag now flies. His cronies built castles over England to terrorise the English and snuff out any revolt. Having secured England, the French kings of England turned to Wales, which was finally incorporated into a Greater England under Henry VIII. An English king born in Chinon, Henry II, was the first to sail to Ireland with a great army. The Irish gave in. The Pope had already granted Ireland to Henry as a papal fief. Next the French kings of England turned to Scotland, putting down an insurrection led by William Wallace. They were only defeated when they came up against one of their own, a Norman knight called Robert de Brus who made himself King of Scots. From 1314 until 1707 Scotland maintained a precarious independence from Greater England, briefly united in a Union Parliament under Cromwell. The Acts of Union 1707 were however agreed between the respective Parliaments. Scotland was almost bankrupt and needed access to the English overseas empire. The negotiations were pressed by the English government, anxious to secure Scotland against the French. Money was provided. The threat of military force if the Scots did not come to heel was implied. It was an arranged marriage, with force behind it. The Union was completed in 1801 with the closure of the Irish Parliament.
This is the Union, essentially a guise for Greater England, that the Unionist parties now declare to be sacrosanct because “it makes us stronger”. Stronger to do what? Invade other countries? If the Union is to continue, it should rest on the consent of the people. Many politicians have recognised, in the Claim of Right for Scotland, the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. The UK has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 1 of which recognises the right of peoples to national self-determination. Devolution started a process in Scotland but paradoxically, within Great Britain, England has become a colony itself. No national devolution for England – it is the national equivalent of Middlesex. Sovereignty of the people means that all the British nations have the right to decide whether they wish to have their own national assembly, within or without the Union. They have the right to leave the Union if they wish. British Unionist politicians extol the Union but refuse to test it against the popular will. Outside the UK, peoples have the right to choose. Within the UK, Unionists close down discussion.
So what does it mean to me to be English? My nationality is English but I am a British subject. I am an Englishman who is partly Scottish, just as the son of an immigrant from India may be English. My English nationality is not recognised by the British government. If I speak up for England, I am a “Little Englander”. It seems to me that we need more Little Englanders, and fewer Greater Englanders, so that England can regain its identity, its self-respect, its freedoms and its culture. What began for me as the rediscovery of Englishness has brought me to realise that it is also a quest for democracy. I am happy to be a Little Englander.
Ian Campbell is a member of the Campaign for an English Parliament, the English Democrats Party and the Scottish National Party.