What does England mean to me? I don’t know if I can think of England without thinking of Britain. We are inextricably linked (for now at least), a reminder of our colonial histories. I think England is possibly a country which is not honest with itself; the history of England over the past 100 years is largely the history of Britain, and one of diminishing individual importance on a global scale. I remember being taught about the World Wars at school, especially WW2, but at no point do I remember being told that England went into that war at the head of an empire, about which it had been too ambitious and was overstretched, leading to ever-more compromising treaties. Over the decade(s) following the war we (relatively peacefully, to our credit) largely withdrew, leaving countries to forge their own independence, but settled into a role more suited to our size/population. I think there is a cognitive disconnect, an ignorance about the scale of oppression England and Britain caused across the world – across the largest global empire ever to exist – and the legacy we bear. The British Empire was not a Scottish, Welsh, or (Northern) Irish empire, it was an English empire.
Of course, we were instrumental in the building of European co-operation, which we have helped lead to what the continent and the EU have become today. In many ways, we appear to have reflected on our legacy and tried to prove a force for peace and unity in the world – however in reality I would suggest that it has been done at least as much in the interest of self-preservation, to try to ensure nobody else can wield the power over us which have done over others.
All of this is about England, and Britain, as a nation/nations, and not about me as an English person or my relation to England; I have a simple reason. Nations – as has viscerally been seen as Britain withdrew from India, and from Palestine – are a way to divide people, to exclude people. Geography is no better a way to divide people than gender, skin colour, sexual preference etc etc – it is something that any one individual has no say over. You are born where you are born, and are arguably to different degrees lucky in that respect – and we are free to say it does not define us, most of us have some choice over where we live. And so I take my identity from the largest, most inclusive denomination I can: yes I am from Watford, from Hertfordshire and the ‘home counties’, from the Southeast, from England; but I am also British and European, most of all human, and of the world.
So, what does England mean to me? I do love the country I grew up in, despite all I’ve said above, but to me that country is Britain. England is a community, perhaps a super-community, within Britain, of people who identify with a common shared ancestry and culture, and yet within that commonality there are many more divisions, different subcultures and regional or local peculiarities, all of which add up to make richness – which is enhanced by additions from outside, not diminished. Inclusive Englishness is something I believe in, but also I believe it needs to be outwardly inclusive too; given which, I will always identify as British above English.
Pete Kingston: artist, educationalist, researcher, community facilitator. Working towards – and trying to understand – what is best for all.