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Englishness is a cultural identity

Paul Kingsnorth responds to Mark Perryman's call in Breaking up Britain for a progressive English identity.

‘What is Englishness?' is a question I have always studiously avoided answering. I can't stand the kind of lists that are sometimes drawn up by people trying to define ‘our national character', which always seem to come down to either a list of things that an English person should feel an attachment to (real ale, the countryside, David Beckham) or a list of Brownite-style ‘values' (tolerance, democracy, love of queuing) to which all English people should apparently feel equally committed.

But having read Mark's chapter, ‘a Jigsaw state', I am left with the feeling that perhaps we need to start trying to answer the question after all. Whether or not Britain ‘breaks up' in the political sense - and I am less convinced that it will ‘inevitably' do so than Mark seems to be - it is clearly already breaking up in the cultural sense. Scotland and Wales today feel more Scottish and Welsh than they did ten years ago, and so it seems do their people. The English, meanwhile, still struggling out from under ‘greater England', as Mark correctly calls the modern British identity, are in something of a fix. Still confused about the difference between Britishness and Englishness, always reluctant in any case to explain and define themselves, changed by immigration and the resulting policy of ‘multiculturalism', the English seem confused.

The ugly economics of immigration

Paul Kingsnorth (Oxford, author): In a recent, and very interesting, post here on OK, in which he dissects Enoch Powell’s views on ‘cultural essentialism’, Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society first agrees with me and then takes me to task about a recent blog post in which I addressed the impact of mass immigration on population pressure in the UK.

Here’s what Sunder wrote

The impact of immigration is back in Britain's headlines. The new Minister Phil Woolas taking a good deal of flak for talking about the need to restrict immigration in a downturn. Woolas may have got the tone wrong, but a recession will surely affect immigration flows and government policy too. Picking up on this, the writer Paul Kingsnorth, a progressive critic of globalisation, challenges the idea that the correct left-liberal position is "open borders". He is right. Social democrats take a liberal position on cultural diversity, but need to manage migration so that it does not exacerbate inequalities. We need a politics of solidarity to protect standards and avoid exploitation at the bottom. However Kingsnorth's quest for a progressive Englishness could be fatally undermined by his ugly language of "shipping in millions of cheap foreigners ripe for exploitation in order to keep the markets happy". The language of swamping continues to derail a rational migration debate. 

Kingsnorth responds to Ware

This is the second part of an exchange on national identity and belonging sparked by Paul Kingsnorth's review of Vron Ware's book. We will be publishing Vron's reply tomorrow.

Paul Kingsnorth (Oxford, author): My recent review of Vron Ware's book Who cares about Britishness? has evidently upset the author. I can't deny a twinge of guilt: as a fellow writer, I know the frustration of a bad review, and the things it can make you say. So I'm not surprised to read Vron's retaliation about me, my review and indeed my own book, Real England, on OurKingdom.

I don’t respond from pique, but because this is, at heart, a crucial debate about the future of England and Britain, and about two competing understandings of what constitutes 'belonging.' More than anything else, perhaps, it is about how that dread term 'multiculturalism' has, in my view, undermined a shared sense of community in both England and Britain, and continues to do so.

Who cares about Britishness?

Paul Kingsnorth reviews Who cares about Britishness? by Vron Ware.

(Ware, Arcadia Books, July 2007, 180pp)

It doesn’t seem an especially good start to this book-length exploration of the fading essence of ‘Britishness’ that even its author openly admits to not caring very much about the question posed by its title. That title, writes Vron Ware, ‘wasn’t even a question, it was more of a reply.’ When she began the project, she explains, she didn’t care about Britishness herself. The trouble is that she doesn’t seem to care by the end either, and along the way she hasn’t persuaded us that we should. Quite the opposite, in fact: if this confused and self-negating book is the best that ‘Britishness’ can do, then the long-heralded end of the union might turn out to be rather a good thing. One suspects that the book’s sponsors, the British Council, were hoping for rather a different conclusion.

Ware lays her cards on the table in the first few pages. Britain, she writes, ‘may be a country, but it is not really a place.’ When you come through the channel tunnel, you are informed that you have arrived in England, and the signs at Heathrow welcome you to London. Britain is not a nation at all, but a composite of four nations. It has, she observes, ‘a standing army but not a football team. It has an anthem, a flag and a queen’, but no patron saint and no constitution. These are all good points, but Ware goes further. Britain, she reckons, is essentially rubbish. The most noticeable things about the Brits are their ‘flaws’: ‘they drink too much, swear too much, blame the government for everything and laugh at themselves when things get rough.’ Pretty much the only good thing about this poor bloody country, in fact, is ‘its record of functioning multiculturalism.’ In other words, the best thing about Britain is the bits that aren’t British.