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England is the country: How language hinders our understanding of devolution and English identity

When our media and politicians use the term 'the country', they often mean 'England', rather than Great Britain. The subsequent confusion is used to promote the idea of the UK as united under the control of Westminster, while muffling the debate around England as a distinct national, political and economic community.
Gareth Young
10 January 2011

My pick of the articles that appeared while I was enjoying a Christmas break in Canada is this one from Matthew Parris. 

“The presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was doing a quick round-up of the weather on a freezing December morning, just before signing off at 9 a.m. Very cold all over Britain, he said. Later there would be ‘snow in the north of the country’. ‘Which country?’ I thought.

"It was an immediate and unconsidered reaction; and of course on reflection context often does make clear. But not in this case. I still don’t know which country Today meant. If the country they were referring to was Great Britain then they must have meant snow in Scotland. If it was England they were talking about then we in the north Midlands were due for snow too. 

"A small confusion, and slight enough. But faintly it troubled me. As an Englishman, and as 2010 drew to a close, I was experiencing for the first time the thought that, when directed towards a predominantly English audience, the ordinary and natural meaning of ‘the country’ might now be England.”

This is a subject close to my heart.  Regular readers of my posts and blog will know about my ‘say England' campaign in which I nag politicians to say 'England' when it is England to which they refer.  Politicians often prefer to use the word 'Britain' to falsely convey the impression that they have a vision and mandate for the whole of Britain; or they may use more nebulous terms like 'our country' or 'this country', leaving the un-enquiring mind to assume that they're referring to stories that apply to the entire UK, which, post-devolution, is very rarely the case.

As far as I am concerned our politicians do not mention England because they want to give the impression that the UK is still united, to all intents and purposes a unitary state, and that they and their pronouncements, policies and initiatives are still relevant and of interest to the entire UK.  They also have no desire for England to start viewing itself as a distinct national, political and economic community, an idea that constant utterances of 'England' and 'English' might impress upon their audience.  Until recently the media, who also like to portray themselves as British and who offer no specifically English news portals, have been in connivance with the political class, but that attitude has been undergoing change over the last few years and as Matthew Parris notes, Scotland is fast becoming a foreign country to the extent that English ears now substitute 'England' for 'this country' and 'our country'.

Many Scots and Welsh will say 'it was always thus', that for them England was always 'the country'; but according to Roger Scruton, the territorial ambiguity of Westminster politicians is a tradition that flows from a wider ill-defined sense of self. Scruton says in his England: An elegy:

“Vague notions of 'kith and kin' animated the builders of empire; but who was included and why remained uncertain.  When politicians appealed for support, they addressed not the nation or the kingdom but 'the country' - meaning all those people who were represented in the Parliament of Westminster.  But what these people had in common, and what brought them together under a single crown remained wholly obscure.”

If the ambiguity is removed and 'the country' now means 'England' - or 'Scotland' or 'Wales' depending on your nationality - then politicians are going to have to be more specific about when they are discussing England. They'll need to do this for the sake of Britain because it is 'England' not 'Britain' that is now the ordinary and natural meaning of ‘the country’ in whatever part of Britain you reside in.

This article was originally published on Gareth Young's blog, toque.co.uk

 

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