What England means to me
Concept: A “Domesday Book” of the mind for England at the beginning of the 21st century.
Context: Englishness is in vogue but it is an elusive notion. When it comes to defining English identity culturally one useful rule of thumb has been: what you see is what you don’t get, a phrase that goes a long way, perhaps, towards explaining those social and cultural characteristics that many have thought definitive of Englishness: hypocrisy, which is a way of not saying what you mean; witticism, which is a way of avoiding serious argument; gentility, which is a way of concealing more vulgar passions; civility, which is a way of moderating self-interest; tolerance, which is a way of ignoring others; self-criticism, which is another measure of self-esteem. The arts in England , one might say, have been an imaginative dialogue between what is seen and what is got and if the impression conveyed is often negative this is not universally true for these English characteristics are virtues as well as vices. There is also another dimension which goes a long way to explaining much about the politics of English identity: what you don’t see is what you do get. The uncodified constitution has been more resilient than written ones and its conventions often more robust than strict formalities, its monarchical gloss less significant than its democratic substance. English nationalism has often been another example of what you don’t see is what you do get and it is rather striking that much of the academic literature on Englishness in the last few decades has assumed a peculiar lack: what is thought to be lacking is a politically significant national identity. At the very centre of Englishness there seems to be a void and only when national sentiment becomes visible in public displays of the Cross of St George – and these certainly have become more frequent since the 1990s – is it thought that the void is being filled. There is something deeply unsatisfactory, indeed rather superficial, about that assumption and this project will address it directly.
Questions of identity – so familiar to the academies in Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland and their respective conference circuits – have now become an important part of reflection on the condition of England . As Professor Susan Bassnett observed about the range of publications which appeared in the late 1990s, anyone looking at the question would be tempted to conclude that the English are currently obsessed with England . This obsession has grown since then and there is a large literature on the subject across a range of academic disciplines from political geography to English literature, cultural studies to contemporary history and political science to policy studies. These include academic texts such as Geoffrey EltonThe English Blackwell 1992; Julia Stapleton Englishness and the Study of Politics Cambridge University Press 1994; Antony Easthope Englishness and National Culture Routledge 1999; Paul Langford Englishness Identitifed Oxford University Press 2001; Robert Colls The Identity of England Oxford University Press 2002; Krishnan Kumar’s The Identity of England Cambridge University Press 2003; Robert Hazell (ed) The English Question Manchester University Press 2006 and Peter Mandler The English National Character Yale 2006. They also include books that are on the boundary between manifesto and academic text like Richard Weight Patriots Macmillan 2002 and Roger Scruton England: an elegy Chatto and Windus 2000. There is a further academic literature covering distinct aspects of Englishness, eg David Matless Landscape and Englishness Reaktion Books 1998 and Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire 1939-1965 Oxford University Press, 2005. There is also a large and flourishing market in popular texts on England and Englishness. For example there are Jeremy Paxman The English: A Portrait of a People Michael Joseph 1998; Pete Davis This England Abacus 1998; Michael Wood In Search of England Penguin Books 1999; Maureen Duffy England: The Making of the Myth Fourth Estate 2001 and most recently Billy Bragg The Progressive Patriot Bantam 2006. Moreover, as any book catalogue will show, there is an insatiable market for books on all aspects of English life from the Country House to Village Green and these books are commonly filed under the collective label “Heritage”. There are also anthologies “of all things English” such as Gerry Hanson’s England my England Robson Books 2005 which also appeal to a large public.
The inspiration here is rather different. The premise of this “Doomsday Book of the mind” is that to be English is to participate in a conversation, an imaginative rather than a purely functional engagement, about the country’s history, culture and society. The writer Ford Madox Ford, for example, himself of Anglo-German ancestry, believed that Englishness was not an innate birthright but rather a conscious personal choice that could be made by everyone, regardless of their personal background. This notion is particularly relevant in today’s multi-cultural England where the conversation about Englishness is in continuous flux, although there is discursive continuity as well, illustrating a distinctive tradition. This understanding is taken from Michael Oakeshott for whom the conversation involved an exploration of the intimations of a tradition of behaviour – and Englishness, this book will show, is such a tradition of behaviour with many intimations. As Oakeshott observed (1991: 61) a tradition of behaviour “is neither fixed nor finished; it has no changeless centre to which understanding can anchor itself; there is no sovereign purpose to be perceived or invariable direction to be detected; there is no model to be copied, idea to be realized, or rule to be followed. Some parts of it may change more slowly than others, but none is immune from change. Everything is temporary”. However “flimsy and elusive” such a tradition may be, it is not without an identity. Everything is temporary, yes, but Oakeshott adds the crucial qualification that “nothing is arbitrary”. It is, rather, “a flow of sympathy” and the object of this project is to illustrate that flow of sympathy (and sympathy also involves criticism) with Englishness in present times. And the times are propitious for such an enterprise.