Last and final episode of Andrew Marr’s mini-series Unmasking the English aired on BBC Radio Four this morning (and again this evening). This one revolved around Dr. Johnson, the writer of the first dictionary of the English language. Not much discussion of his groundbreaking contribution to English philology and to lexicography in general, which disappointed me as a linguist. But then that wasn’t Marr’s remit.
Instead, he concentrated on Johnson as a type of the English curmudgeon: a bad-tempered, angry and yet eloquent and witty enemy of social climbing, pretension and insincerity. With the series’ customary linkage of a figure from the past – real or fictional – with contemporary manifestations of English culture, Dr. Johnson was compared to the likes of Richard Ingrams and the satirical magazine Private Eye, and to Tory newspaper columnists railing against the turpitudes of the chattering classes and the encroachments of political correctness.
Something in all of that, without a doubt. And yet, in keeping with the pattern of the series as a whole, Marr alluded only in passing to one of the central issues raised by his subject, which could have been used to bring out a deeper understanding of the whole problematic the series was supposed to be exploring: how to get behind the public mask of the English and understand their deeper motivations. Marr referred to Johnson’s use of religious language in his writings, which, according to Marr, presented a point of difference with contemporary England, where religion is strictly a private matter. Such a statement is probably more a reflection of Marr’s own opinion that religion should be confined to the private domain than the reality of all but the most recent past (and even so). For instance, Richard Ingrams has never made any secret of his Anglican faith, which he shares with Dr. Johnson. The same open acknowledgement of faith has also characterised many Conservative columnists over the years and today, as well as the traditional Tory Party as a whole (the Church of England being ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’) and Ann Widdecombe, whom Marr introduced as the best example of “Dr. Johnson in a skirt”.
In short, there has been no lack of defenders of England as a conservative (note the small ‘c’), Christian nation. If those voices are increasingly heard mainly in private, this is arguably because much of the public discourse as purveyed by the media (including the BBC) is dominated by the liberal (small ‘l’), pluralist agenda of which Andrew Marr is such an able spokesman. Christian faith in England has, then, in part been relegated to the private space partly because it has been banished from the public domain: ‘we’re a liberal, secular Britain – tolerant to a plurality of faiths and beliefs because none of them have any privileged claim or right to our adherence – not an England, one of whose defining characteristics is its millennial Christian tradition’.
But in a sense, the de-sacralising of the public space has accentuated what is in fact a defining characteristic of Englishness, which Marr connected with traditional Tory hostility towards governmental and regulatory interference with individual freedom: our love of privacy. If the private realm is for the English the natural home of religious faith, this is because the privacy of the home is a sacred realm. The Realm – the world of the State, of the Union and of politics – rarely engages the same passions and commitment as do our private concerns: our families, homes, communities, personal pursuits and dreams.
This is one of the defining characteristics of Englishness: the private lives behind the public masks. But Marr did not really delve. He merely concluded that, because the public realm appears so devalued to the English, we have always and always will feel that England is “going to the dogs”. Well, maybe. But some of us hold out the hope for an English nation that is re-connected with English people, not a British state for ever in pursuit of the alienating goals of modernisation, secularisation and progress for their own sake. But what hope is there for England, this nation of private persons?
There’s always hope for England. That, too, is a defining national trait. Our private genius can once again become nation-building – but only when the public domain is again allowed to be sacred to us and to be our home: to be England.