The pedantic part: England, in a proper sense in which culture and institutionality cross-fertilise, means the victory of the nation over the state-nation, and the release from a corrupt political class. This is also the recovery of what England had, will regain, and will rebuild. It’s hard to avoid a ‘listing’ tendency (Orwell has a lot to answer for here) – indeed the listing of listings has now established itself as an academic sub-genre. Beer gardens on a long sunny day. The South Bank. The Angel of the North. Premier League football. Bottom-up democratic traditions. But more fundamentally, what you experience in England, that is, in England – in large part swamped since 1945, or indeed 1746, by a biscuit-arsed, managerial, surveillant British call-centrism – is a sense of privacy which easily turns into a goodnatured neighbourliness, a sense of honesty and a dislike of pilfering and cheating which crosses classes, a politeness which is crucial to quality of life, and an unique dark and weird sense of humour which has often mistakenly been described as British (though the other of the UK’s nations have lots of this too).
Most pressingly, what England may ‘mean to me’ (as a possible non-member of the EU – though I find statements about England’s ‘naturally Tory’ status deeply suspect, as they are almost always based on British data), in the unlikely Doomsday Scenario of no (con)federal solution being reached, is having to apply for a work visa, since not only have I lived in England for only a few years, if we must do the DNA business I have nothing to offer, since both my parents and all four of their parents were born in the same Scottish town. (This may beg the question of why I spend so much time writing about post-British England, though very few English people take umbrage – a good sign). A real test of civicism is whether in a hypothetically non-EU, non-confederal England, the treatment of immigrants would get better than it is under the UK. I find it hard to imagine not. The thing is that I would be applying for such a hypothetical work visa, because England is the place in which I want to be – a fact thrown into immediate relief by the other fact that the United Kingdom is one of the last places on earth in which I want to be. What’s not to like: England, like Scotland, has great countryside and great cities, acres of decent people who will give you a conversation as well as the time of day (though less so the closer you get to Canary Wharf), widely-accepted basic standards of civility, and a sense of the ironic which exists almost nowhere else.
No, it’s the UK that’s a shit-hole: politically corrupt at the most fundamental level; given up to systematic theft by banks and streamlined agencies which think that people can be fooled by repetition of the term ‘unfortunately’; struggling with a wall-eyed imperial hangover which it tries to cure by throwing non-wealth-producing financial instruments at a small corner of its land to create debt bubbles; home to an Established political class which has come to seem unshiftable with its constitution which can only be approached when it has already happened; a brain-rotting celebrity culture; a sense of besiegedness that creates a total pickling in security, profiling, and, bizarrely, nuclear weapons… None of this last part is what England means to me. England is the possibility of escape from all this, of tapping resources that were already there and that have remained there underground, of building a country that knows and celebrates its medium size like its dodgy weather and lets its workers do real work and pays them real pay for it, elects who it wants instead of placing a despairing x next to the least bad profile, and knows how to have a laugh. It is, or rather it will be, a country in which PR gurus are pelted with tomatoes till they find a real job, in which estate agents are not counted as ‘professionals’, in which planned managerial strategies are never described as ‘unfortunate’, and in which the Queen lives in a council flat in Deptford (or however that saying goes) – but finds that she quite likes it, since the underclass created by the British political classes have realised that council flats are perfectly fine places to live if they’re surrounded by infrastructure and community; in fact its togetherness reminds her, in some aristocratic gene memory turned Gothic and ghostly, of some of the ideals of empire and Commonwealth that at the time no-one noticed were thoroughly rotten, because all they were were the grubby, mean-spirited capital interests of Britain.
Dr. Michael Gardiner is Associate Professor at Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick