Sunday, 29 April 2007

The Importance of Being English: The Quest for An English Identity


Reflections on St. George's Day (posted several days after the fact!):

“If I were not French, I would wish to be English”, said a Frenchman seeking to flatter Lord Palmerston. “If I were not English, I would wish to be English”, replied His Lordship. When Queen Victoria ’s steely Prime Minister uttered those memorable words, winning a double-word score by simultaneously managing to praise England and stick it to the French, few Englishmen would have disagreed. Some might have wondered why he had bothered to state the obvious. Palmerston’s England was self-assured and self-aware. The English knew they were blessed by God and by golly it was their duty to spread that blessing as far as they could, from the darkest corners of their own island to the farthest reaches of the globe. It mattered not one jot or tittle that no-one had actually requested their intercession. It was true that the transmission of Albion ’s seed was to take place under a recently created “Union” flag, but everyone knew that the English called the shots. Johnny foreigner’s inability to distinguish between “ England ” and “ Britain ” was proof of this.

How remarkable then that the English nation today suffers Europe ’s greatest identity crisis. Whilst Estonians, Croats, Scots and Montenegrins gorge themselves on lavish portions of national bluster, the English scavenge for scraps. Europe ’s finest nation is lost and confused. It is surely the supreme irony that England ’s current malaise has been caused by its greatest creation: Britain . Does this mean that England ’s survival requires the destruction of the United Kingdom ?

As the protagonists in the British story, generations of Englishmen, secure in their identity, were happy to offer up their cherished ideals and values and have them woven into a new British national fabric. The creation of British symbols and institutions blurred the distinction between England and Britain ever further. Elevation of Britishness above Englishness posed few problems whilst there were pink bits on the map and even the retreat from Empire failed to dent the Englishman’s devotion to the Union . But in Scotland and Wales the gradual weakening of British power caused many to question the continuing relevance of imperial symbols and institutions and even of the Union itself.

History tells us that where union between states is achieved, its foremost advocates will belong to the dominant state. The strong exert greatest influence, we all know that. We also know that smaller states, fearing assimilation, are more likely to foster and maintain their pre-existing cultures and traditions. Whilst the English, Serbs and Prussians thought of themselves firstly as British, Yugoslav or German, the same could not be said for their junior partners (Scots, Bosnians, Bavarians). We find evidence of this in the New World as well: many American southerners belong to Dixie first and the USA second; in Canada the residents of Ontario , Canada ’s most powerful province, are the most likely to identify with nation before province.

As Scots and Welsh and Irish celebrate their rich cultural legacy and bask in their Celtic identity, dipping into the vast stores of tradition that earlier generations have preserved, the English appear bereft of culture and burdened by the guilt of what is perceived as a racist and imperialist past, thereby ensuring that any budding pride is well and truly nipped. Such is the degree to which England and Britain are entwined in the public psyche that the major role played by the Scots in the expansion of Empire, and in its nefarious excesses, has been forgotten, obscured by the myth of Braveheart and the struggle against English oppression. It is the English alone who are to blame for Britain ’s past wrongs and whilst other inhabitants of these isles may celebrate their national pride with impunity, similar English expressions are attacked as racist. Quite what the rest of the United Kingdom was doing whilst England was colonizing, lopping hands off and stripping resources boggles the mind. The bizarre double-standard reached its apogee upon the election of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of England’s capital city. Shortly after attaining office Red Ken turned Green, allocating funds for a parade honouring St. Patrick but banning one in honour of St. George. The celebration of Englishness was deemed insensitive and divisive. Ken has a point though, as any film buff will attest, the English tendency to evil is indisputable. Has anyone ever seen a Hollywood film where the villain did not speak RP?

Partly due to such negative stereotyping, supporters of Englishness have for many decades retreated to that which is cozy and unassertive: warm beer, bicycling vicars, picnicking in front of a car’s exhaust and watching belled and tassled fetishists bash each other with sticks. It is English Lite. For many, to whom overt displays of patriotism are vulgar and decidedly un-English, this castrated hey nonny no has been sufficient. An Englishman’s pride was always serene and personal. And so it remained. And all was good. However the English have finally awoken to the fact that patriotic fervour has enabled the other inhabitants of this island to accrue considerable benefits, often at English expense. And this offends that most sacred of English values: fair play.

The English did not object to the creation of a Scottish parliament or a Welsh assembly, neither have they raised a fuss over the issue of Scottish over-representation at Westminster ; but they object vehemently to those same Scottish MPs meddling in English domestic affairs, particularly when they secure the passage of English-only legislation which would otherwise have failed. That’s just not cricket. As the wealthy partners in the Union the English did not mind giving the others a leg up, even if it meant that more money was spent per head in Scotland and Wales than in England . But to see these subsidies lead to vast improvements in Scottish hospitals and schools whilst their English counterparts lay mired in squalor is simply not on. The English see their neighbours rewarded for throwing the rattle out of the pram. Such clear injustices rankle, particularly when those whom the English subsidise add insult to injury by supporting which ever country opposes England on the playing field. That really is too much! Like a baited bear in a Southwark pit, England has been roused and is preparing to defend itself.

Drake’s drum may have yet to sound, but a renewed and invigorated England is reacquainting itself with its traditions, its culture and its symbols. Where once the Union Jack greeted English teams, the St. George’s Cross now flutters. Content to sing God Save the Queen whilst the disloyal Welsh and Scots sang their own “national” anthems, the supporters of English sport are now contemplating Jerusalem . Once an activity of the quaint and eccentric, the exchange of St. George’s Day cards grows from year to year. And, significantly, an Englishman is now as likely to identify himself as English as he is likely to say he is British. Most importantly, that Englishman may be of Asian, Afro-Caribbean or European descent: twenty-first century Englishness reflects twenty-first century England .

Such displays may stiffen the sinews, but they are meaningless without a proper appreciation of England ’s contributions to civilization. To truly establish an English identity, its people must reclaim and celebrate as their own, those values and concepts which have become an established part of the British character: from tolerance, justice and the rule of law to the Monarchy, Parliament and the English language, each is as English as it is British. Only then can England be said to have found itself.

© Rafe Heydel-Mankoo, 2007

10 comments:

Alfie said...

Hello Rafal,
Alfred the OK here.
The penny is finally dropping, English people are at last beginning to get it. This appalling inbuilt discrimination the Labour party has created over the last 10 years - on public spending, in education, in health and in matters constitutional is at last coming back to bite them.

Add to that the constant meddling from Scots and Welsh MPs in English-only legislation - in planning, education, transport, health etc and the breathtaking arrogance and incompetence of this government is there for all to see.

And as for the Opposition? Useless - none of them has said anything - apart from the pathetic and unworkable EVoEL & 'English Grand Committee' strategies from the Tories. Indeed, Cameron drones on about how the union is sacrosanct - how proud he is of his Scottish roots - and dismisses people from south of the border who question the Scots unequally favourable treatment as "miserable little Englanders"...

There is only one solution - an English Parliament with a First Minister for England. If that means a federal UK - so be it. If that means the break up of the UK - tough.

Democratic representation cannot be denied to the people of England because of some so called idea that it will break up the UK. All that should have been thought about when the great devolution experiment was rolled out in 1998.

True to form,it wasn't - and as per usual, Government smoke and mirrors are attempting to maintain this flawed status quo. Gordon Brown has been waxing lyrically about British education and British health - even though he well knows he is only talking about England. Duggie Alexander whitters on about the need for British road pricing when he knows that the Scots Executive are against it and that his power ends at Carlisle. Alan Johnson rolls out the great "Let's teach Britishness in British schools" project - when he well knows that the Welsh Assembly and Scots Executive have absolutely no plans to introduce them in their schools..... So it's just Britishness in English schools whilst in Scottish and Welsh schools, kids will be getting lessons in both Scottishness and Welshness.

The media are willing participants in this deception. The BBC being the most enthusiastic exponents - they have taken the dark art of mendacity to new levels of misinformation.

And our English MPs? Where are they when one of their constituents dies from bone cancer - for the want of a drug that is freely available everywhere else in the UK. Where are they when a Scottish claque of Labour MPs vote through tuition fees for English students? Where are they when new planning laws (naturally, for England only) are introduced which means a nuclear power station can be built in their constituency and there is nothing they can do at all to stop it? They should hang their heads in shame.

At the recent Justice for England march in London, every single English MP was invited to meet with us - to show solidarity and to express their anger at the current state of affairs. Not one MP could be bothered to turn up. Not bloody one of them. Sort of says it all really.

The establishment ignore the English question at their peril. At the last poll taken in March of this year, 68% of people in England expressed a desire for an English Parliament. They had better be listened to - and soon.

W G Gruff said...

I would take issue with your assertion that we are suffering a crisis of identity; I have always known that I am English, and been quietly proud of the fact, as I suspect has every other Englishman and woman. I see no crisis there but there is certainly an identity crisis in England that is wholly Br*tish, rather than English, hence proposals for 'Britain Day'.

Jim Winfield said...

I generally agree with the post. It was odd, years ago when I lived abroad, that I gave my address as "UK", and my nationality as "British". But when asked to stae "country of birth", I always said "England". I used to ponder then what the significance was; but I could not bring myself to state "Britain" as place of birth. Jim. More on my blog: http://alfredsdomain.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with this post, I live in central london. Any forms we have to fill out never have my true identity on there which is English! I have to live in a community where I am called racist when all I want to do is celebrate my heritidge like the rest of world, yet the same people are allowed to be racist to the English. I have been told by my council to not make a fuss. This is the same difference as inviting someone into your house and they just insult one throughout the visit.

I have many friends from other cultures and I don't mind celebrating any other culture but we too should be allowed to be PROUD of ours!!

Dave Langridge BEM said...

Hey Rafe,
I'm out here living in the former colonies of the USA. It takes aobut 10 seconds every time someone decides to argue with me here about being British :) I have found that the easiest way to make my point...I ust ask why it is that they are not Canadian... the smell of burning footwear as they backup ast is impressive :)
I am PROUD to be English and am so fed up with the way that we as a nation do nothing to promote ourselves whilst allowing all other nations to dictate our actions!! the time has come to change this and, small though my stand might be, I make sure at every opportunity I find a way to promote England not Britain as being my home. And my US born wife does the same as well :) BEing american is important to her but she understands the importance of being English :)

Keep up the good work to promote our new diverse England.

Achilles said...

I agree with this post.
With the fall of the British Empire and the new focus on devolved power in the UK, this in turn with a country that is Multicultural. A sense of Anxiety has come over England as to who we are and what it now means to be English in the 21st Century. All my Friends, work colleagues and Familly feel the same. St Georges day will never be recognised officially as a bank holiday or any Government support for England be given, while Britain is the main focus. Only with Devolution will the people be allowed to celebrate England and a new sense of Pride come over the country. England to me is the land and its wealth of history. Anyone who wants to live in England of any ethnic background is welcome, we are all immigrants to this land. St Georges day represnets all English people. For me Sport is a great example and a powerful way of showing that all citizans in England can unite and celebrate England, just look at the England Cricket team anf Football team.

Anonymous said...

To Rafal Heydel-Mankoo.
I am a resident in the borough of Slough in the south east of England.Slough is a town, just a town and it is the most multi cultural place in England per square mile.
I was appalled that the Slough borough council, during last football and rugby world cup prohibited the residents from displaying the flag of Saint George in any form.
The penalty for this would be arrest and possibly fined by minimum of £500.Bobbie Faulkner is disgusted!!
The following thoughts are from Chris Bare.
Taxi drivers in Slough are predominately of Asian origin and they were, to all drivers that I spoke to, disappointed that they could not display our flag.
England is a fantastic country and the English culture is to be cherished and celebrated.
One of my favourite events this country hosts is Notting Hill Carnival which is a passionate display of national pride, English men and women should be allowed to show our love for our country, in our country in the same way.
Make St George's Day a national holiday.

Anonymous said...

I like your new 'proportional' flag. Did you work out the exact size in relation to the English population? The funny thing is I'm a British citizen. I carry a British passport and, yet, I'm not represented on that flag at all. Funny, eh. Yes you've guessed it. I must be one of those annoying Welsh people. You know, the ones who decided to make up their own language just to be awkward. I am a fluent Welsh speaker. I was born to Welsh Parents, was educated in Welsh from the ages of three to eighteen in Welsh only includig English lessons in most of primary. I love rugby and singing but never fealt an attraction towards sheep, odly enough.
I AM MOST CERTAINLY NOT ANTY-ENGLISH. I support you gin football. I can't support you in rugby. I do love the Lions tour, though! I've tried... excuse the pun. I consider myself equaly Welsh and British, which is a conversation stopper at home, I can tell you!
Yes, it's a shame that most of us don't feel the same way as I do. Please, don't quote me on politics because that has nothing to do with me. What I will say is what on Earth did you expect when there's people like you over the border.
For years our laguage wasn't allowed to be taught in schools. Our name was given to us by you. The name means f*reigners. It came to mean li*rs. You would't let us play in our own cricket team (not that that bothers me in the least).
You mention people getting England and Britain mixed up. You have absolutely no idea what that feels like. You do't know the meanig of the phrase 'identity crisis'.
I'm a railway enthusiast. Here, we don't destinguish betweenthe constituant countries of the UK (obviously excluding good old Northern Ireland!) We're all mates and I life English people to think of me as a compatriot. We are all proud of our rich railway history and respect each other emensely.
I am in love with Yorkshire. You could say if I wasn't Welsh, I'd like to be a Yorkshireman.
You talk about Scottish over-representation in parliament. What about Scottish, N. Irish and most of all Welsh over-representation in the armed forces?
If only we all blived by Christ, our saviour's example.
I'm only representing another point of view.
Diolch am gwrando. Prydain am fyth! Look it up! I'm off to get Hanged!!
p.s. Don't tell me the media wouldn't love to call us all English if they could. Wales grand slam: a thired of a collumn. England coming second: two pages in one NATIONAL newspaper.

Kieran Marchant said...

In this day and age what is wrong with saying that all 4 home nations can celebrate their heritage and culture without political hinderence?

I believe in full devoloution.

I believe in the richness of culture of all 4 home nations.

I am English and believe I have the right to celebrate that on our patrons day.

I believe Gordon Brown and the PC local councils should back the hell off.

Britishness rarely exists and trying to promote this sort of culture change is a folly.

The English have been mis-treated by the allocated of budgetary funds for many a year. This a complete mis justice (although perhaps this is pay back for some of the injustice visited upon our home nation friends by the English in the past).

ALL PATRONS DAYS SHOULD BE NATIONAL HOLIDAYS WITHIN THEIR COUNTRY. The UK has far less Public Holidays than the rest of the EU anyway.

Brown & Co - stop treating us like prats.

skruffs said...

What a great piece. I will most definitely be coming back to read more.
Can't say I agree with the following paragraph though.

Most importantly, that Englishman may be of Asian, Afro-Caribbean or European descent: twenty-first century Englishness reflects twenty-first century England

Although that theory would make for harmony amongst residents, it simply isn't true.

Deano - High Wycombe