When I first visited India a wise man said to me: “You English were so kind. You did four things which were really good for us. You gave us cricket, democracy and the English language. And then you left.”
I think that sums up being English for me. We are an understanding, tolerant, phlegmatic people. We’re happy to lead the world, if that’s all right with everyone else. But even when we struggle to put an eleven together on a village green on a Saturday afternoon, we agonise when a potential twelfth man turns up without a full set of whites. We’re actually quite proud of not being able to cope with snow (or autumn leaves) whilst our fondest memory of a family Christmas is Morecambe and Wise rather than anything more spiritual. No one but us finds Tommy Cooper funny.
I am a typical Englishman. My family has been here for oh, well over 200 years, and I have a Polish wife. Our children married an American, an Italian and Australian. Two of my foreign children-in-law speak excellent English (the Australian and the Italian). We have a taste in beer which is unique and a climate which discourages passion 365 days a year. Our Parliament may have been modernised but it’s still ‘quaint’. ‘Sorry’ was never the hardest word: too many of our spoken sentences begin with it.
My grandmother was a British Israelite, a misnomer if ever there was one. She believed that the English (definitely not the British, perish the thought) were God’s chosen people and that the zodiac signs picked out in the field boundaries around Glastonbury proved it. HM The Queen is a direct descendant of David (via King Arthur), she told me, and tea is always preferable to coffee. A true Englishman today would say that all this was going a bit far, though she was spot on about the tea.
A newspaper has been asking people to suggest a motto for the English. The judges are being asked to compare and evaluate ‘Great people, Great country, Great Britain’ against ‘Sorry, is this the queue?’ and ‘At least we’re not French.’ These are all sentiments to which every true English person can relate, including the ubiquitous sense of self-mockery. I’m glad I’m not having to judge the winner.
The wise Indian was right. When half the world was pink on the map we English were not in our true metier; yet conquering an immature world was as much one of our rites of passage as being subjugated was one of theirs. It has taken several centuries and two world wars for us to accept that others have a right to a say on the world stage. When Marx (an adopted Englishman) said that capitalism was a necessary stage on the road to socialism he could have been describing the relationship between the Empire then and England today. We were reluctant but right to enter the political Europe when we did so and when English rapidly became one of the lingua francas of the E Union that was obviously a historical inevitability.
We laugh at the sentiment ‘Fog in the Channel: Continent cut off.’ And then we think ‘Sorry, there’s nothing funny about that. It’s true.’
These days, despite the popularity of the flag of St George (who was not even English, for heaven’s sake) we find sporting victory mildly embarrassing. Notwithstanding the best efforts of Rooney and Flintoff the need to celebrate too often is probably best avoided in the long run. Thank heavens we don’t now have to bear the burden of being in the European Football Finals.
Even the prospect of thinking about being English feels a bit… unnecessary, let alone writing about it.
Tom Levitt is the Labour MP for High Peak.