openDemocracyUK: Opinion

For England to be England, it needs to abandon British delusions

You don’t need to be proud to be English to accept that you are. You can’t abolish a system you don’t recognise

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
9 August 2021, 1.33pm
England needs to start recognising that it’s England
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Ruth Swan / Alamy Stock Photo

When the Archbishop of York declared on the front page of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph that English identity needs to be understood, I agreed with him. England needs to start recognising that it’s England. Where it was once the cockpit of the biggest empire in human history, now it’s just another country.

There is a tendency among some English people to try to pretend away their Englishness. Rather like a certain kind of white liberal pretending not to see race, they try to ignore their location in the international system of nation states – a system that not only constructed England but which, in large part, England invented; a system that does so much to decide who is rich and who is poor and, as the pandemic reminds us, who lives and who dies.

You don’t need to be proud to be English to accept that you are. I’m not proud to be straight, white, male, cis, posh or Scottish. I’m not ashamed either. I just am.

If I am ever going to understand the world, I have to start by knowing those things about myself, by turning those lenses over and over in my hand until I can feel how they have refracted my reality.

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Acknowledging your place in this system doesn’t mean you don’t want to abolish it. You can’t replace something you can’t see.

Modern Englishness won’t be built on the monarchy and the church: it is outgrowing class strictures

And when the Archbishop, Stephen Cottrell, rails against a certain narrative in the media that sneers at England-outside-London, dismissing it as backwards and bigoted, he is also right.

The most striking example is Brexit. In the five years since the referendum, much of the press has collaborated in painting a false picture of the political economy and geography of the event. In reality, Leavers were more likely to live in the south of England than the north, and more likely to see themselves as middle class than working class. And this trite trope digs much deeper than that one vote.

Read much of the tabloid press, and you might think that England is a nation of small-minded bigots lurching between moral panics about anyone who challenges the precarious social hierarchies in which they stand.

Read much of the liberal press, and you will find hectares of misery about this same supposed phenomenon, as well as an endless seesaw between those who want progressive politicians to capitulate to the confected bigotry of some imagined Middle England, and those who choose to mock it.

In the nearly 20 years that I’ve had regular forays into every corner of the country to talk to people about politics, I’ve found – as anyone with any sense would expect – a much more complex picture. As polling bears out, in England as across the Western world, most people’s instincts are broadly progressive, even though they are bound together with strands of racism and sexism.

Yes, some people booed England’s footballers for taking the knee. But most supported them. Racism colours how all of us see the world, but most of us also yearn to free ourselves of it. And working-class people – who tend to identify as English – are certainly no more racist than their ruling class, who more often see themselves as British.

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But the problem with Cottrell’s Telegraph column is that it gets as much wrong as it does right. It celebrates as English the BBC – built by a man from Aberdeenshire – and the NHS, whose father was Welsh. It calls England an island. He makes, in other words, the very same mistake he is trying to criticise, of confusing England and Britain.

And when he does write about Britain, while attempting to simplify a story he calls ‘confusing’, he rubs out the crucial line. He talks about being British in his 1960s childhood, saying that identity extended across the UK – perhaps not how people in Derry saw it. But at the time, the British Nationality Act of 1948 was still in force. British citizenship extended to people from every colony: legally, a Jamaican was as British as an English woman. And you can’t really understand modern England without understanding that fact.

And it’s delusions left by this imperial Britishness that prevent England from accepting its place in the world of nation states that’s emerged since World War Two. It’s a Britishness bound up with the class system, the monarchy and memories of conquering the world. It’s the Britishness promoted by the rulers of the country, which stifles the growing sense of working-class English people that they are just English, and that’s fine.

Whatever the Archbishop says, modern Englishness won’t be built on the monarchy and the church: it is outgrowing class strictures, and will be as Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and atheist as it is Christian.

But to build that new Jerusalem, it must first overthrow its imperial Britishness and become a modern nation in its own right.

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