I grew up near one of the naval ports on the south coast when Britain could still be described as a maritime nation. The immediate horizon was set by battleships, uniforms, barracks and forts, not the most prepossessing side of the country. By contrast, there was an exotic air about many of my school fellows, born in far-flung places wherever there was a British base. Our enviably thick stamp and postcard albums reflected a certain global consciousness courtesy of a navy that was still on worldwide patrol. In these circumstances it often seemed that England was ‘no place’, overshadowed to a much greater extent than Scotland and Wales by the institutions of the British state and the commitments of an empire, albeit an empire in decline. In the absence of any formal provision at school for addressing such issues, still less cultivating patriotism of any description, the sense of Englishness could easily have gone by the board.
And yet there were historic ships in this midst as well, lovingly preserved and quietly but powerfully suggestive of a proud and heroic past that was as much English as British; this was without the benefit of hard marketing that has made defence, no less than other areas of national life, big heritage business, and all the more effective for being unspoken. Then there were war memorials, sites of commemoration but not bitterness and recrimination – unlike countries whose borders had been overrun in two world wars – nor the smugness of the victor. There was also a tolerance that made those outside the mainstream, i.e. Anglican, culture seem different, but their differences in beliefs and practices were treated as being in no way anyone’s business but their own, a feeling that was fully reciprocated. There was, too, contact with folk songs in primary school evoking English streams, vales and woods and something of what Yehudi Menhuin memorably described as “the infinitely shaded green of the English summer”. The many varieties of fruit and vegetables – each with their own distinctively English names – testified to the fertile nature of the soil. Looking back, the impression can only be one of immense good fortune in being born into a society that enjoyed such natural geographical advantages, and with few hang-ups about itself.
It was of course true that the cohesion of this society was somewhat fragile, on the surface at least, with class divisions that were especially apparent in the armed forces. But the gaps were by no means unbridgeable, and did not preclude mutual respect. Indeed, class might be seen as one of many distance-setting mechanisms which have maintained the liberty of the English nation, and what G.K. Chesterton termed the “sleepy sanity” of its people. Class also made for some of the best English comedy, nowhere more so than in Dad’s Army and the tension between the grammar-school educated Captain Mainwaring and the public-school educated Sergeant Wilson.
Much of this is fast disappearing, especially a lush countryside, given over to developers. But while the erosion of some aspects of England, ‘old style’, may be for the best, there is little now to replace the strong but invisible threads on which a common sense of Englishness hung in the past; certainly not the heavy-handed attempt by government to foster identities based more upon ideals of ‘citizenship’ forged in Europe than indigenous sensibilities.
Julia Stapleton is a Reader in Politics at the University of Durham.