Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

27 October 2008

The Olympics and That English Britishness Again

I was in London on business on the day of the English and British Olympics victory parade a week and a bit ago. In fact, my meeting was at a location right on the route of the parade; and, as luck would have it, the meeting finished just moments before the procession came past. So I duly lined up to greet our victorious Olympians as they rode along.

Where I stood was at a relatively ‘quiet’ part of the route compared with Trafalgar Square and its environs. So there were a few Union Jacks and silly Lotto giant hands being waved about; but the atmosphere was not especially jingoistic. I looked around but didn’t spot any Flags of St. George; although I couldn’t exactly say they were ‘banned’ – but as I hadn’t come prepared, I couldn’t put this to the test! Nor were there any busy officials distributing Union Flags by the dozen to the naively enthusiastic masses; just one street vendor pushing a cart along the route and doing a brisk trade: a nice bit of English-British entrepreneurship, I thought!

As for the procession itself, I actually enjoyed it. There was surprisingly little tasteless British patriotism involved. I’d expected open-topped buses bedecked with Union Flags and slogans proudly proclaiming the ‘Great British’ team. But no, the single-decker floats were pretty plain, and all you saw were the athletes themselves: fit, healthy young people with beaming faces, clearly somewhat overwhelmed and delighted by the acclaim (including from myself, I have to say) they were being greeted by. There was something almost innocent about it: the people expressing their delight at these young persons’ individual triumphs, and the athletes in their turn showing pleasure at the joy they had brought.

I am sure that one of the reasons why the floats were so devoid of patriotic symbols was to avoid offending the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes – and viewing public – who had already been treated to their own ‘national’ celebrations immediately on their return from the Games. And maybe also, it was to avoid offending the many English people who feel there should have been a separate opportunity to celebrate the successes of the English athletes. I suppose the last thing the organisers wanted was angry shouts from St. George’s Flag-waving protesters attempting to rip off the British flags and banners from the floats. Well, one can but dream!

Maybe the organisers had more sense than the politicians who couldn’t resist making capital out of our athletes’ triumphs at the time by saying how it proved that ‘Great Britain’ was still something we could all take pride in; and then further rubbing our noses in it by trying to seize the moment and push through a football Team GB: something which – in a sense, with fitting irony – may still be realised even if it ends up being just a Team England in disguise.

But what of the question as to whether England should have had its own Olympics victory parade? I myself went on record at the time to say that I didn’t think it was realistic or sensible to demand one, even if I agreed that it would have been both a fair and popular thing to do given that the other nations of the UK had organised their own celebrations. As with so many illustrations of the ambiguous inter-relationships between Englishness and Britishness, the question is complex.

I think it’s important to differentiate between what you would like to eventually see happening – i.e. English-national civic institutions, sporting teams and celebrations – and what is realistic or practical in the present day. But, at the same time, it’s also important to find a language in which to describe what goes on in the present that more accurately and fairly reflects its variable dual English and British character.

This relates to why I called it the ‘English and British’ Olympics victory parade at the start of this post. The parade was effectively doing double duty as both the ‘British’ and English victory celebration. This was the case not just out of political expedience and logistical practicality, but also for the reason that, as an England-only event would need to be on the same scale – if not greater – than a British parade, holding a British procession after an English celebration would come to seem embarrassingly redundant and also, ironically, a duplication of the English event. And this is because a celebration of ‘British’ achievements of this sort is already primarily an expression of English patriotism, albeit articulated in terms of Great Britain and Britishness.

It’s important to be precise in these matters to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not saying that a British celebration of this sort is somehow ‘sufficient’ to allow English people an outlet to express their national pride and that an England-only event is therefore on principle unnecessary. Such a position would effectively involve conspiring with the present behaviour and attitude of the British establishment, which actively seeks to suppress any form of expression of English-national identity and pride – indeed, to deny the very existence of England as a nation – and to put ‘Britain’ literally in England’s place.

But you have to distinguish, I think, between at least two forms of Britishness, from the English perspective: there’s an objective – institutional and, as it were, ‘instrumental’ – Britishness; and then there’s a subjective – emotional, personal and ‘existential’ – Britishness. The objective Britain basically comprises the establishment: the institutions of government, law, civic society, and formal ‘national’ identity, media and culture. In relation to these things in isolation, you could say that – for the time being, at least – there is no such thing as England. The formal Britain – the UK government and establishment – reduces England to a mere territory over which it has jurisdiction: no English-national governance; English Law, yes, but this is also the law of Wales and it’s decided on by the UK parliament; only British-national media (e.g. the BBC) and their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish subdivisions, but no English-national channels, newspapers; etc, etc.

At this point, some people (e.g. Cornish nationalists) might pull me up and say that there are plenty of English-national institutions, e.g. the Bank of England; the Church of England; the English language as the official language of Britain; English Heritage; English National Opera; the English National Ballet; English sporting teams; etc. But then these examples neatly illustrate my point. Some of these things are English only in name, rather like English Law. The Bank of England, for instance, is the central bank for the UK as a whole, and it’s only a historical anomaly that it still has ‘England’ in its title and hasn’t – yet – been re-named the ‘Bank of Britain’. Most of the other examples are not what you would call exclusively and objectively English institutions other than in the sense that, post-devolution, some aspects of UK government power relate to England only, such as heritage, culture and sport. But there’s no English national political control as such, at government level, over these organisations; nor do institutions such as the English National Opera see it as a particular part of their remit to celebrate English culture. The main exception here is the Church of England, which does have both a formal role and status within the UK establishment, and is an England-only institution in more than just name – which is one reason why I’m opposed to its disestablishment, at least until there are some properly England-only government bodies or formal recognition of England’s nation status. Otherwise, disestablishing the Church would mean there would no longer be any aspects of British governance that need make any reference to – or were in any form answerable to – England as a nation.

As for English sporting teams, these relate to the other type of national identity I set out above: the subjective, personal and ‘existential’. There is no sense in which the existence of England teams necessarily equates to the existence of England as an objective, formally established nation; but they do indicate that people living in England identify with England as their nation, subjectively and emotionally. That’s why I call this form of nationhood ‘existential’: England may not exist formally and objectively, but it does exist in the sense that people’s subjective identifications confer existence on it. ‘England exists because I am English, and many millions of my fellow countrymen also feel they are English’. Incidentally, this is the same basis on which a Cornish nation can be said to exist.

And the same could also be said of Britain. As I stated above, Britain, too, possesses this subjective character as a nation alongside its objective, institutional existence. For instance, there are many people living in England – possibly now in the minority – who feel and identify as British more than, or even to the exclusion of, English. This is just a fact, which those of us of the English-nationalist persuasion just have to accept, whether we like it or not: some English people claim they don’t feel any sense of Englishness at all but see themselves – if they see themselves as anything in national terms – as British first and foremost, or even British only. But, of course, a statement like this is deliberately paradoxical: it’s English people who tend to feel British rather than English; whereas feeling one was British to the exclusion of being Scottish or Welsh would be an almost incomprehensible attitude on the part of persons native to Scotland or Wales.

In other words, this form of Britishness is an English phenomenon. Traditionally, in fact, the British and English identities, at this subjective level, have tended to be inseparably intertwined, with the terms and symbols of Britishness and Englishness being seen as interchangeable – in England, that is. And, for many, this is still the case. In other words, the British and English identities are so indissociable for many English people that their feelings of patriotic pride, and the nation they felt they were celebrating, would be the same whether they were attending an Olympic Team GB victory parade or the English Ashes triumphal procession of a few years back. Therefore, in both this subjective sense and the objective, practical sense, the Olympics victory parade was indeed both an English and British celebration, as I wrote at the start of this piece. One iconographic acknowledgement of this I noticed were the billboards for that day’s London Evening Standard, which I glimpsed only in passing. What I thought it depicted was a group of Union Flag-waving Olympians (or perhaps they were just spectators) set in relief against a massive Flag of St. George. Don’t get too excited, though: this was one of those photo-editing jobbies, where one image is superimposed on another – the English flag wasn’t there in reality. However, this seemed to me to exemplify the old happy balance whereby the British and English national identities were fused and celebrated together.

Of course, there are many for whom this was never a ‘happy balance’ – particularly, those in the other nations of the UK. The Scots have always regarded the objectively ‘British’ character of the Union state as really just a front for England and English power; and the subjective merging of the English and British identities was adduced as evidence for this: when English people talked of Britain and British governance as supposedly inclusive terms that also incorporated Scotland, what they really meant – and what was in fact the objective political reality – was English dominance over Scottish affairs. And, indeed, English people did use to think of the British state and government as ‘theirs’, based on their subjective blending of the English and British national identities: the British state was the objective correlative and institutional expression of a British national identity that was essentially English in its subjective and emotional character, and its cultural manifestations.

Many Scottish people seem to think that this state of affairs still prevails, which is one of the reasons why they just don’t get English nationalism. In my terms, they think that the ‘instrumental’ and ‘existential’ British identities are still in harmony with one another. In other words, they see the UK state and its institutions as essentially the instrument of English power, propped up by the unthinking, subjective identification of English people with Britain. But, in fact, instrumental and existential Britishness are increasingly diverging, a process greatly accelerated by devolution. What this means is that the British and English identities are separating out and becoming dissociated from one another. English people are identifying increasingly as English in the first instance, at the subjective, emotional and existential level. And this means that Britishness is defined more and more in relation merely to the institutional and instrumental aspects of public and civic life: British governance, its traditions and the civic values that underpin them.

The whole Britishness agenda of the British establishment could be described as an attempt to rekindle English people’s identification with Britain, and as British. But because, post-devolution, that Britishness can no longer truly be the explicit expression of English national pride and political power, it ends up having to be a new form of Britishness: a Britishness that deliberately evacuates any overt acknowledgement or expression of the English subjective and national identity that has traditionally underpinned it. And this, ironically, condemns the new Britishness to being something of an empty shell: expressed in terms of civic, political, institutional and philosophical ideals without reference to the English national character, people, and sense of mission that once animated it. This is one of the reasons why the Olympics, which is one of the few sporting occasions where ‘the country’ is represented by a British team, constitutes such a powerful vehicle for the ‘Britologists’ (the would-be architects of the new Britain) to try and reconnect English national fervour and identity with Britain.

But then again, the pride in being British that English people feel in connection with Team GB’s Olympic successes is precisely that: the traditional pride of English people in ‘their’ Great Britain, or – another way of saying the same thing – pride in the greatness of England that is Great Britain. If politicians want English people to feel pride about Britain and her achievements, then there’s no escaping from the fact that that pride is essentially an English feeling and part of the subjective British identity that is an English phenomenon, and is based on a blurring of any distinction between Englishness and Britishness.

But what of those ‘English’ people who say they feel British only, and not English? It’s dangerous to generalise, and there are many different ‘types’ of people who might describe themselves in this way. But I can’t help feeling that the great majority of them still are ‘British only’ in a highly English way. This could be said for instance of Richard Morrison writing in last Wednesday’s Times. The author claims that “We [i.e. the English] are now a nation with a history but no destiny. We exist; we have needs, but no sense of self”. In support of this thesis, he points to all the things we tend to think of as typically English that are in reality of foreign origin. And yet, at the same time, this openness to a cosmopolitan array of overseas influences and newcomers is itself seen as something typical of England. But all the same, the author goes on to state: “I can’t recall a time when so many people living in England, people of all colours and creeds, are so obviously unsettled by the feeling that we no longer have control of our future, no ideal of what we want to be”. Well surely this is because the establishment keeps telling us – the English – that there is no future for us as England; that we are, and can only be, British; and that one of the defining characteristics of Britain is precisely the kind of openness to global influences, trade and migration that the author observes. But no one is saying that such phenomena are leading to a dilution of Britishness: and that’s precisely because Britain – the new Britain – is a nation-less (supra-national, global) concept that is dependent on stripping out Englishness and the English national identity from its core. And it’s this that leads to the alienation Richard Morrison describes.

So what I’m saying is that a ‘British-only national identity’ (itself something of a non-sequitur, as the new Britishness is something that points beyond nationhood, whereas traditional Britishness sat comfortably with complementary English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities), when it is felt by English people, partakes of a very English alienation from what it means to be English; precisely because Englishness, for those people, has more than ever lost itself in Britishness.

And this brings me back round to one of the issues I raised at the start of this piece: the problem of naming and describing the national-existential crisis we are going through. I think it can be a very powerful means of resistance against the establishment’s attempts to banish England from public discourse, and hence from the national consciousness, to reintroduce the terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ wherever appropriate, or even inappropriate. On the one hand, this is a political tactic; but, on the other hand, it’s also an attempt at describing things more accurately and honestly than the establishment, which deceitfully omits and suppresses references to England, even when what’s being discussed is either exclusively or at least partially English. It’s a case of subverting the official language in a way that points up what they don’t want you to notice.

In my example of the Olympic victory parade, officially, this is indeed correctly described as the British Olympics victory celebration. However, in reality, as I explained above, it was also the English victory parade, in more ways than one. Therefore, it is correct in another sense to call this the ‘English and British’ celebration. This approach can be extended to many other aspects of public life, particularly the language used about national government. For instance, it would be both subversive and, in my sense, accurate to describe the UK government as the ‘British and English government’ – since, in matters otherwise devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish government, the British government is a de facto government for England only. Similarly, the prime minister is accurately described as the British and English prime minister or, when talking about England-only areas of government, the ‘unelected English First Minister’ – my favourite designation! UK government departments with responsibilities for England only should also be referred to as, for instance, the ‘English Department for Culture, Media and Sport’ or the ‘Department of Health for England’.

In the case of government departments, neither the England-only ministries nor those with a genuine UK-wide remit tend to include ‘UK’ or ‘British’ in their title, as it is just a given that they are UK-wide bodies even when they’re not. Hence, adding ‘England’ or ‘English’ to them could even be regarded as a helpful aide-mémoire to ensure that people remember when some aspect of the government’s responsibilities is limited to England. But what of the many instances of when things are called ‘British’ when they are actually English or, more subtly, the media’s constant efforts to shape and articulate a common Britishness even when many of the cultural expressions of that Britishness are primarily, if not exclusively, English?

An example of the former is the large supermarkets’ and food producers’ growing tendency to (re-)label English produce, such as meat or fruit, as ‘British’. If you can establish that a given item is in fact English (as the labels often indicate which county they were produced in), then I think you should resolutely refuse to call it British, for instance, in conversation with your family as you go round the supermarket or when you refer to it at the tills. But should you boycott produce of this sort altogether out of protest against the suppression of the England tag or, indeed, the England flag from the labels? It’s a matter of individual choice; but I think that, if you can be sure that an item is English, far from boycotting the English produce, you should boycott any goods in the store in question that are labelled as Scottish or Welsh as a mark of protest against the discrimination against England that is being carried out. English farmers and food producers need all the help they can get, especially amid a recession; and it’s not their fault if the supermarkets decide to mis-label their goods.

You should also try to find opportunities to explain to the store why you’re buying ‘British’-labelled produce, and not Scottish- and Welsh-labelled items. For instance, you could say that you might buy Scottish and Welsh items if the English items were labelled as English (which would be fair and non-discriminatory) or if those Scottish and Welsh items were labelled as British, which is, after all, a term that is supposed to apply to Scotland and Wales, and not just England. One convenient opportunity to have this conversation is when a ‘British’-labelled item does not indicate explicitly whether it comes from England. You can simply then go to the Customer Service desk and ask them to find out for you whether it is English or not; and casually toss in the observation that you assume it is because the Scottish and Welsh items are labelled as Scottish and Welsh, and only the English items don’t appear to be correctly packaged!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’m going to try to do from now on. But what of the plethora of TV programmes that try to foster the idea of Britain as a ‘nation’, ranging from the sublime (such as BBC’s Coast – predicated on the clever idea of a Britain that is ‘one’ nation because it shares a common coastline and maritime heritage; and which, of course, just had to be presented by a Scot) to the ridiculous, such as ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent? Here, on one level, the ‘nation’ that such programmes refer to is correctly described as Britain, in the sense that they deal with people and places from all over the UK. But, insofar as these programmes are part of an establishment agenda to set Britain up as ‘the nation’ – for English people only, that is – I tend to favour the deliberately politically incorrect and derisive approach of re-labelling such programmes as English, especially as most of what they relate to is English. So: ‘that programme about the coast of England’ works well – aptly re-evoking England’s proud seafaring tradition and maritime culture; or ‘England’s Got Talent’. The ‘England Olympics team’ also gets people’s hackles up quite nicely, I find, too; although, if you want to be less sarcastic and more fair-minded – in a rather English manner – my choice of the ‘English and British Olympics team / victory parade’ perhaps gets you more of an audience. And if you’ve followed me till now, thank you.

The point about such linguistic acts of subversion, however petty they may seem, is that they are both a private and public act of revolt against the suppression of England from public discourse and, ultimately, from the identity and governance of ‘the nation’ as a whole. England exists and I exist as an Englishman. So long as we keep saying that, then they won’t get away with abolishing our nation.

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