2 June 2006
All campaigns need a manifesto! So I’ve trawled up this piece written a year ago, which pretty much gives you an idea where I’m coming from. Some of my views have evolved a little since then; but if you check back to this blog every now and then, you should get an idea of how. So, here it is:
The ambiguous overlaps and interrelationships between the national identities referred to as ‘English’ and ‘British’ are familiar to us all – to say nothing of the extra layer of confusion concerning the use of the terms ‘Great Britain’ and ‘United Kingdom’. Generalising a bit, we could say there has been a tendency – on the part of the English, at least – to merge the meanings of the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’. When referring to British values and culture, the English have often viewed these as an extension to the whole of the UK of what are essentially cherished English characteristics. Similarly, naïve usage has often involved substituting the word ‘English’ for ‘British’ when referring to all the peoples of the UK. Children and foreigners frequently ignore the distinction to this day – getting muddled up, for instance, between English and British sporting teams; or referring, as do the French, to the culture of the British Isles and North America as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. (A parallel and, in fact, even more anachronistic mislabelling sees us referring to French culture as ‘Gallic’.)
This identification of the English with the whole of Britain has now been largely repudiated: by the politically correct classes, which view it as exhibiting the kind of cultural and political imperialism which did, in the past, lead to the projection of the English-British identity across a worldwide empire; by the Scottish and Welsh who, with their own national parliamentary bodies, are reaffirming their identities as distinct from the English-British; and by ethnic and religious minorities, some of whom define themselves as ‘British + ethnicity/religion’ (e.g. British Asian, black British, British Muslim) rather than English – even if they live and work in England, and enjoy (to some extent, at least) social and economic opportunities that the English of whatever race have struggled to achieve and uphold over the centuries.
Partly in reaction to this rejection of shared English-British values, there has been a popular attempt to reclaim a distinct English identity, one of whose manifestations is the mass display of flags of St. George and of patriotism around major sporting events such as the football World Cup. Interestingly, in the 1970s and 1980s, English football supporters tended to demonstrate their patriotism by parading the Union Jack (while Scottish fans – even at that time, it has to be said – mostly carried the St. Andrews Cross and the Royal Standard of Scotland (red lion on yellow background)). Nowadays, hardly a Union Flag is to be seen, as the sporting competition concerned is taken as a relatively harmless opportunity to celebrate the English identity and nation, as distinct from that of the British as a whole.
There is always a risk that this sort of patriotism could cross over into a more aggressive nationalism, characterised by racism and xenophobia, and indeed Islamophobia. This is partly because, in some people, it involves an element of hurt pride and anxiety about the perceived threats to the integrity of the English identity and the country’s prosperity and security. But just because of those concerns, the aspiration to affirm and be proud about what it is to be English should not be dismissed out of hand. Few countries, in fact, have been less nationalistic and given over to pompous displays of national pride than the English – at least as the English and not via their alias as the British. And it is arguably necessary to the cultural and political health of any nation to take pride in being a nation, with the caveat that that pride must be prevented from spilling over into contempt towards other cultures and peoples.
And this is the point: the English have historically defined their national identity – in a formal, political and institutional, sense – as British; while their sentimental national identity has remained English. This is one explanation for the emotional infusion of Britishness with all things English, on the one hand, and the technical misnomer of referring to officially British entities as ‘English’, to which I referred above. Now that the sentimental projection of Englishness on a Britain-wide scale is rejected by many of those upon whom that proxy-Englishness has been foisted, perhaps it is time also to change the official, public discourse: to actually allow the English to develop a language to express their Englishness that is neither culturally insensitive to the Scots, Welsh and other British minority peoples; nor is formally inaccurate, in that it uses the ‘wrong’ term – ‘English’ – to refer to what is technically British. But to enable this to happen fully, it would almost certainly be necessary to change some of the highest institutions in the land, so that an English nation as such could come into being.
At this stage, it is worth taking a step back in time to consider the origins of some of these terms. Originally, ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ referred to the pre-/non-Anglo-Saxon island and its peoples. The Latin ‘Britannia’ – precursor to our ‘Britain’ – derived from a Celtic word that is seen to this day in the Welsh ‘Prydain’. In a sense, then, it is ironic that ‘England’ has projected itself historically into an identification with the whole of Britain – an entity that originally did not have England as its centre – and that the non-Anglo-Saxon Britain has increasingly withdrawn from the project, leaving Englishness with, almost literally, nowhere to go.
One of the purposes served by the assimilation of England to ‘Britain’ was to find a way of not actually calling the English-dominated state ‘England’ – as, for instance, the centrist state of France originally drew its name from that country’s own Germanic invaders, the Franks. Calling the nation ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’, from the 17th century onwards, was a way to invoke a ‘united kingdom’ through reference to the unified geographical territory that that kingdom encompassed – neatly eliding the fact that this was a nation ruled by the Kings, Queens and Parliament of England, albeit with a grafting on of Scottishness through the Stuarts. (The name ‘Great Britain’, by the way, was not originally a reference to some idea of a Greater Britain – a greater political union of all the nations and islands of the state – but merely a term distinguishing our Britain from the ‘Little Britain’ that is Brittany: in French, ‘Grande Bretagne’ versus ‘Bretagne’.)
But has there ever really been a unified British nation as such? Even Roman Britannia did not encompass the whole of this island but was more a forced political union of foreign invaders with the Celts of what are now England and Wales, in which the vigorously independent, non-Celtic Picts of Caledonia declined to participate.
‘Britain’, as a political concept, has always been more of an idea than a reality: the idea of a political, national and – in the post-Reformation context – religious union encompassing all the British Isles that has been driven and to some extent imposed by peoples coming originally from outside the actual island of Britain – the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans. In a similar way, the very identity and existence of the nation of England has for centuries been parasitic on the British project: the raison d’être of ‘England’ has been to bring about, uphold and embody the union of Britain. Perhaps this mission is the particular way England has striven to reconcile the tensions from which it was born: the pull between an identification with the authoritarian centre of power in the land, on the one hand, and an identification with the people of the land on whom that rule – coming from the outside – has been imposed.
The shift in our thinking and language about English nationality I am advocating essentially involves re-centring our current concepts of Britishness on the English. It involves accepting that the British project was always primarily an English undertaking and, to the extent that they have shared and participated in it, the Welsh, Scots and Irish have identified with a Britain and with a cultural and political entity that was essentially ‘made in England’. We should then start to use ‘England’ and ‘English’ to refer to all of these ultimately ‘anglo-centric’ aspects of our history, culture and political life, i.e. those aspects that reflect the strategic interests, values and socio-cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of England in previous centuries and today. We could, for instance, refer to the British Empire as having been really an English empire (an extension of the English dominion of Britain across a vast geographical expanse). Our democracy could be thought of as a mainly English – rather than British – creation; ‘British values’ should be viewed as synonymous with ‘English values’, where those values clearly reflect characteristics, conventions and a historical heritage that are generally accepted as rooted in England.
We could then perhaps develop a language about Britain that is differentiated to some extent from the idea of Britain, i.e. from the English-British political project that I have described. ‘Britain/British’ could be used to refer – historically – to the pre-English peoples of the land (the Celts, Picts, etc.) and – in the present – to all the ‘indigenous’ peoples of these islands: the continuing nations, cultures, ethnicities, and Christian and liberal-humanist traditions that have inhabited the geographical territories of Britain over a long historical period. Insofar as the Welsh and the Scots wish to define themselves as culturally and ethnically distinct from the English – as well as being merely geographically demarcated from England – they could define that ethnicity, perhaps, as ‘British’ in the first of those senses. Of course, they would have to work out in their own way how to resolve the problem of defining their national identity in any kind of ethnic way, with respect to integrating the minorities in their lands.
The English, on the other hand, could now turn the unworkability of defining their own identity in ethnic terms into a considerable virtue. By this, I mean that the English should now be free to appropriate to themselves the ‘British’ values they have previously sought to extend to the whole of Britain. One could therefore consider oneself to be English almost by virtue of a conscious identification with, and espousal of, English culture and civilisation seen as something that embraces and holds together the very diversity of the national and cultural influences that have shaped us over the centuries. Not an England as an island-nation Britain but as an inter-national civilisation that we took to the world in the past and to which the whole world now contributes. Is English who lives or is born in England (or considers England to be their home while dwelling abroad) and identifies both with English personal and social characteristics, and with English civic and cultural values, as the ground on which their rights and responsibilities within the nation are based. So we could now easily talk of ‘English black’ and ‘English Muslim’ (indeed, ‘English Indian’ or ‘English Irish’) people because, in fact, we now see it as being the English civilisation that has given these groups their hybrid cultural identity – their cultural home as part of England, as much as their physical one. ‘England’, in this acception, can be viewed in relation to a core ‘mission’ as a ‘bringer together’ of nations and cultures, not the byword for an ethnically homogenising, dominating civilisation.
So in a sense, we are talking about a reversal of conventional values: ‘Britain’ becomes associated more with a narrow, insular and possibly ethnically restrictive focus; while ‘England’ is articulated as the place of an international, cosmopolitan culture – open to the global culture which it arguably has done more than any other nation to create. This does not mean that we forget or disown the mistakes and misdeeds of the past by, for instance, attributing all the negative aspects of our imperialist past to a domineering and racist Britishness that is somehow opposed to Englishness (whereas, I’ve argued, it is an intrinsic and ambiguous part of the English historical heritage). By the same token, we should not pillory ourselves pruriently about our past imperialism. This is because the internationalist values and culture we wish to own as an important part of our ‘new Englishness’ – and which are expressed in the post-imperialist context in terms of freedom, democracy and cultural openness – would be unthinkable without the English and other European empires that largely created the modern world and our ‘multi-cultural’ societies.
And just as the new English identity can positively affirm its international outlook, there is an opportunity to give greater voice to the regional identities and communities of England, now that Englishness in all its guises is no longer a dirty word and need no longer hide behind the supposed inclusiveness of Britishness. This would involve, on the one hand, reaffirming traditional, rural English identities, lifestyles and economies, insofar as they actually survive in the present. These should be viewed not as the domain of socially anti-progressive, economically backward and racially exclusive communities, as some with a more urban outlook might have it. On the contrary, they must be affirmed as absolutely vital in preserving traditions reaching far back into the precious history of our land, and in maintaining a connection to that land – through labour, cultivation and mutual dependency – that is more than merely economic and industrial, but ecologically and spiritually vital. But equally, the various vibrant urban regional identities and cultures of England should be affirmed and valued. Gone for ever should be the contempt of the political, social and economic elites – concentrated around the capital and the richer regions of the south – for the diversity of other English voices and cultures they have often sought to exclude: the contempt, in other words, of the very class that has driven the British project for an English diversity it sought to suppress. And, by the same token, even the oft-dismissed middle- and upper-class culture of the wealthy home counties can surely also find a cherished place, somewhat like an Agatha Christie novel, in the newfound pride we take in Englishness.
The English language in all its diversity should of course take pride of place in the articulation of the new Englishness – a language with so many rich regional, international and class variations that encapsulate the history and contradictions of English expansiveness in Britain and throughout the world. It often seems that as the English language becomes ever more the global lingua franca – a term which, when applied to our tongue, must really irk some people in France! – it belongs less and less to us in England. But now, if we reclaim that history of passionate engagement with a new world (albeit a world which seemed to the English of our past to be ‘there to be conquered’) as English history, we can also reclaim the multiple global forms of English as our language – to be embraced, loved, understood and cultivated in all its rich variety. My word-processing package’s spell checker gives me 18 varieties of English to choose from, ranging from Australian to Zimbabwean: they are all mine, they are all English.
As I suggested above, it would almost certainly be necessary to modify the constitutional relationships between England and the rest of the UK in order to give full expression to this new sense of England and the English as a distinct nation. This would not necessarily entail the break up of the UK but it might involve finally differentiating the UK from Britain: the UK would become a political alliance of distinct nations and not a merging of them into a nebulous synthesis – a ‘Britain’ that has never been a true nation as such in the people’s hearts, other than when it was effectively another name for England. The implications of a change such as this are potentially vast; but moving towards a legally and politically distinct England might at last bring some clarity into the constitutional titivations and partial devolutions of the past decade. And it could potentially revitalise English civic and political life in some unexpected ways because it would be a process of restoring the nation to the people: giving the English a sense of ownership over their nation, political institutions and democracy that appears for the present to be in ever greater decline – and arguably has been since the sense that the destiny of English people was inseparable from a Britain that was Great began to be eroded.
I am no constitutional or legislative expert. But let’s take a moment to imagine what forms the new English constitutional settlement could take.
· Separate parliaments or assemblies could be instituted, complementary to the current bodies in Scotland and Wales, for a number of English regions grouping together counties with shared historical links and economic interests, e.g. the North-East, the North-West, the Midlands, East Anglia (including Essex, Herts and possibly additional counties), London, the ‘Home Counties’ and the South, and the South-West. These could be essentially federal assemblies with responsibilities for managing the public-sector purse, social policy, and law and order in those regions (while the Scottish Parliament would preserve its legislative role). The UK parliament would retain its responsibility for economic, security, and (excluding Scotland) fiscal and legislative issues affecting the UK as a whole. The upper house of the UK parliament (perhaps a new proportionally elected body) could exercise oversight over the actions and decisions of the regional parliaments, examining their implications for the whole of the UK.
· An alternative arrangement would be to allow the House of Commons to act as a second house in relation to decisions from the regional/national parliaments affecting the UK as a whole; while the regional/national parliaments could exercise second-house-type scrutiny of the national parliament’s legislation. Indeed, a new second house could be drawn from the regional/national assemblies, with members elected by those assemblies or voted for by the electorate using a proportional system as part of the elections for the regional/national assemblies
· Alternatively again, if the people of England did not wish to have separate regional parliamentary bodies, arrangements similar to the ones above could be put in place with just a single national English parliament, rather than multiple regional parliaments. This would probably do better justice to a revitalised sense of England as a distinct nation. In this case, full legislative – as well as merely administrative – powers could possibly be transferred to each of the three (or four, if Northern Ireland were added) national parliaments. The Union would then be preserved and protected by a proportionally elected ‘upper’ house with responsibility for safeguarding the economy, integrity, legal rights and responsibilities, international relations, and security of the UK as a whole. This body would be something half-way between the current House of Commons and House of Lords, with the difference that, together with the national parliaments, it would more accurately reflect public opinion. It would have to have real power to refer or veto legislation and decisions from the national parliaments in order to truly function as a guarantee of the Union.
The role of the prime minister would become more akin to that of an elected president: heading up the Executive, and driving forward policy and legislation through the national bodies – but with more limited direct power to dictate policy and legislation, which would be dependent on greater democratic consensus, and checks and balances. The prime minister could be chosen on a slightly modified basis from the present arrangements: (s)he would be the leader of the party with the greatest representation across all the national parliaments or, alternatively, the leader of the party best able to form a coalition of support across the parliaments. The Cabinet would become more like a company Board of Directors, while executive management of ‘UK plc’ would be delegated to the individual national administrations.
These are just a few bare outlines intended to suggest how our political and cultural life could be radically transformed and reinvigorated by allowing the peoples of the UK – English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh – to take renewed pride in their nations and retrieve a sense of ownership over the institutions and political processes that are supposed to give voice to their wishes and fears, their values and ambitions.
Given its ineluctably ‘multi-cultural’, multi-ethnic and multi-faith character, England in particular has an enormous opportunity – one could even consider it a duty – to redefine and revalorise its identity: to affirm what is distinctively English, including the very openness to cultural, ethnic and national diversity within its territory and beyond. This is particularly essential in the light of some of the major challenges facing us today: the need to absorb large waves of new immigrants, and the need to present a strong alternative set of national and civic values with which alienated minorities (particularly, Muslim youth) can identify. This new English identity would be one that seeks at once to accept and understand Muslims’ faith background, but which sets that inclusion within a broader context of common English values, both traditional and modern. ‘Britain’ and Britishness are now too abstract and disputed to provide a set of shared values and aspirations, and too tainted in the eyes of many minorities with associations with our imperial past. Indeed, one could go further and say that encouraging minorities to define their identity in relation to supposedly common British values actually offers them a ‘cop out’: it allows them to limit their commitment to this country to the level of formal legal nationality (to consider themselves legally British but, in their hearts, Asian, Muslim, Polish, etc.) – rather than to a strong tradition and civilisation that is concretely grounded in the places where they live, i.e. in England. But while ‘England’ remains too timid to assert itself as a nation freed from the shackles of an idea of Britain that is no longer relevant or meaningful to possibly the majority of the inhabitants of these islands, it also cannot serve as a sufficiently attractive focus for people’s identity, ambition, pride and respect.
England has indeed much to reproach herself for, in the past and the present. But the country has in many ways been as much of a victim of the attempt to impose the domination of ‘Britain’ as have the other nations of our islands and former empire. It is time for the flawed but also vibrant and diverse civilisation and identities of England to find their voice and become a nation.