Tomorrow is St George's Day, as good a day as any to revisit the question, “What is it to be English?"
To be English today is to be represented by a political class who rarely dare to mention England or the English for fear of raising questions that they cannot answer and emotions that they cannot contain, emotions that may threaten Britishness, social cohesion and the Union. Where once our leaders spoke of England when they meant Britain, they now speak of Britain or 'our country' when they mean England. For various reasons England is the nation that dare not speak its name.
David Cameron recently delivered a speech on public service reform and the Big Society. It was a speech that contained 18 instances of the phrase “our public services”, four instances of “our country” and two mentions of “our schools” (not to mention “our schools and hospitals”, “our universities”, “our teaching hospitals and universities”, “our children”, “our health outcomes”, “our society”, “public services in our country” and “our Foundation hospitals”). Britain was mentioned four times and Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Poland, Germany, France, New York and Shanghai were all mentioned once. Yet there was no mention of England, the country directly affected by Cameron’s Big Society and his reforms to public services.
Labour's faltering response to Cameron's Big Society is Maurice Glasman's 'Blue Labour'. Glasman is on the right track but 'Blue Labour' is an unfortunate phrase. A far better phrase would be 'Little England', the Little England of lollypop-men, community bobbies, playing fields, libraries, local hospitals, primary schools, publicly-owned forests and arts and cultural bodies - the very things threatened by the Coalition's cuts. As J.B. Priestley once said,
I thought about patriotism. I wished I had been born early enough to have been called a Little Englander. It was a term of sneering abuse, but I should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love.
People will fight to preserve what is local to them, but to successfully oppose the Coalition Government it is to the national community that Labour needs to appeal - and mobilise. And post-devolution that nation is England, not Britain. For a brief moment Labour suddenly seemed to understand the new territorial dimension when they joined the fight to save England's forests; for a brief moment Labour appealled to English nationalism and harnessed English patriotic feeling. England will warm to Labour when Labour politicians speak of England's schools and teachers, England's hospitals and nurses, with the same English passion and English emphasis with which Ed Miliband wrote about England's forests on 30 January in the Sunday Times:
This is not the big society, it is just a big sale. It is the sale of the physical heart of England, of irreplaceable national assets, enjoyed by communities for generations….The sign of a good society – big or small – is what it is prepared to protect, be that universal benefits, health or ancient woodland; public goods for the benefit of the whole nation and future generations. Unrestrained free market ideology has no place running rampant through ancient English woodlands. Jerusalem is a song we all sing. The next time that David Cameron stands up to sing it, I hope he spares a thought for what his government is doing to England’s green and pleasant land.
It is time for English politicians to start speaking of, to and for England with the same sense of patriotism that would be natural for Scottish and Welsh politicians to use in Scotland and Wales.
To be English today is to have no official recognition of your national day. Instead of a day of celebration St George's Day is a day on which it has become a tradition for left-wing politicians and academics to deconstruct Englishness, lament the exclusivity of English identity, question the appropriateness of St George as a national icon (ironically because he is foreign), and then preach about dangers of a resurgent English identity.
Instead of a day of national celebration the 23rd of April is a day for anti-democratic groups to exploit the democratic vacuum in which England exists, a space vacated by the self-absorbed and apologetic British political class.
There is an emerging Englishness. But it is still thought to be incorrect politically while being patronised culturally. Something is bursting to come out. But sadly, the English intelligentsia, or the liberal English middle class, which ought to be leading its political developments, ought to be taking over this emerging feeling — saying “Yes, let's make a democratic, tolerant, forward-looking nation” — is just sitting back and saying, as Neal Ascherson has noted: "English nationalism, awful, horrible, leave it to the yobs."
To be English today is to be obligated by the past, expected to carry the can for Empire and colonialism, and expected to be financially and politically disadvantaged within our own internal Empire of the United Kingdom. These sacrifices we make for the sake of unity with the Scots, Welsh and Irish, and the immigrant communities (who, disgracefully, are told by the politicians that they are British, but never English).
To be English today is to be part of the only nation of the United Kingdom that is expected to participate fully in the Government's Britishness project, with no political recognition of our nationhood and no democratic English voice. This we do for the sake of Britain. It is contingent upon us to repress our Englishness for fear of upsetting the Union applecart. Besides which we wouldn't want to be branded a chav (snobs sneer at expressions of English identity), a yob or a Little Englander. These rules do not apply to expressions of Scottish, Welsh or British identity - for those identities are healthy, class-neutral and inclusive, and promoted as such by their respective governments.
But it's not all doom and gloom.
To be English today is to stand on the shoulders of giants, to be aware of our magnificent cultural pedigree, the inheritors of a heritage of scientific, social, democratic and literary achievements. To be English today is to be proud of that heritage but slightly ashamed that despite it Jerusalem remains unbuilt. Our past out-shines our future, an English future that is unimagined and left off the political agenda - it is perhaps that embarrassment that accounts for our modesty, self-deprecation and lack of nationalism, hampering our ability to address our future.
As England strives to define its modern self and looks forward to an English future - in conjunction with parallel developments in Scotland and Wales - it will be the political role of Britain and the social role of Britishness that becomes more uncertain. At present our political leaders are engaged in an attempt to refashion Britain, conscious of Scottish and Welsh national identity but in denial of England and the English. So this St George's Day I would like our political leaders to consider whether they are making a mistake in doing so. English politicians would rather be caught fiddling their expense accounts than put England's Cross of St George on their election literature, yet ironically that doesn't stop them engaging in the annual round of hand-wringing about the far-right's ownership of English national symbols that occurs every St George's Day. It's not just England’s national symbols that our politicians leave to the far-right, it is appeals to English nationhood and the very language of politics itself, rarely are the words 'England' or 'English' used when another word will do.
Yes, of course England should have its own parliament and government; yes, there should be an English Labour Party and an English Conservative party with manifestos for England; yes, English sports fans should sing Jerusalem instead of God Save the Queen, and; yes, St George's Day should be a national day of celebration for all England's people. But language comes first. We need to start speaking of England, imagining a vision of England’s future, appealing to that Little England whose patriotism begins at home.
Get our weekly email