Englishness is a cultural identity

Paul Kingsnorth
7 May 2009

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.

If, next month, some of that confusion, and frustration, translates into votes for BNP MEPs at the European elections, England will have something of a crisis on its hands. As Mark points out here, this would make the BNP the most successful far right party in our history - more successful in electoral terms than either Mosley's blackshirts or the National Front, they will be on the verge of becoming a ‘respectable' political party (forgive the oxymoron).

The BNP are, despite their name and their union flag logo, largely an English party, simply because the force which provides them with the most support - immigration and ethnic tensions and divisions - is largely confined to England. Any victory will be represented by them as a victory for ‘the English' against the combined forces of foreigners, non-white Britons, the cosmopolitan elite, Europe and maybe even globalisation. England, they will tell us, is rising from its slumber.

In this context, and if we are going to be able to contest their version of events, we will all need to start thinking hard about what ‘England' actually is. Mark makes a stab at doing so in this chapter, but I am left with more questions than answers. After rightly saying that ‘it's no longer sufficient to "reclaim" the St George Cross flag; in a disunited Kingdom it has to mean something too', he goes on to try and explore what that meaning might be, but he stalls. Perhaps because he, too, doesn't like prescriptive lists but also, it seems to me, because he is trying to fit the internationalist politics of the left into the nationalist politics to which he also feels a commitment. Thus we end up with a recipe which is something of a liberal cliche: ‘We need to construct a framework which celebrates diversity as a core value of social solidarity.' I'm not quite sure what this means, but however worthy it might be as a goal, there doesn't seem to be anything specifically ‘English' about it.

Perhaps what needs to be done here is to take a step back. Mark, myself and a growing number of other people feel that our ‘English' identity matters. But why? Why does it matter more than, say, our Britishness - or, come to that, our common humanity? If there is an answer to this it surely lies in our attachment to at least some aspects of the culture in which we have grown up and which is consequently embedded in us - a culture which we clearly regard as sufficiently different to, say, Scottish, British or global culture to be worth defining or even fighting for in some way.

In other words, Englishness is our cultural identity. To say that Englishness is a culture is effectively the same thing as saying that England is a nation - a word that Mark uses several times in this chapter. And a nation is not simply a piece of land, a political construct or even a random collection of people dwelling in the same place. A nation is a people who feel they are bound together by a culture, a history, a language, a homeland (in most cases) - in other words, a shared sense of self.

Mark sees England as a nation and he sees himself as part of that nation. So do I. But in this case, the cultural identity of that nation has to be about more than simply ‘celebrating diversity'. England is indeed - always has been - a very diverse nation. The nature of that diversity has changed over time, but the fact of it hasn't. Nevertheless, Englishness is - must be - still a recognisable cultural identity, or none of us would be writing about it.

And here perhaps is where liberal-left values come up uneasily against the celebration or promotion of Englishness. If Englishness is a cultural identity we have to concede two things. One, that it cannot in itself be ‘multicultural'. We might say that England is a multicultural country, or that Britain is a multicultural state, or that we would like them to be; but we cannot say that Englishness itself is multicultural, because a culture, by definition, cannot be.

Secondly, English identity must be by its nature exclusive, simply because all identities are. If you identity yourself as one thing you cannot be something else. For some time we have tried to sidestep this by talking about our ‘multiple identities' as individuals, and while there is truth in this observation, it will only take us so far. Englishness, like any other cultural identity, must necessarily be defined by what it isn't as much as what it is.

And here, of course, we can get very swiftly onto dangerous ground. The BNP brand of Englishness is an ethnic nationalism, which sees only ethnically ‘pure' English people as ‘truly' English. As well as being culturally and historically specious, this is obviously also extremely pernicious. It may also, in a time of economic crisis, be tempting for more and more people. It is imperative that those of is who would like Englishness to be a binding agent and a welcoming identity have something to say to counter this line; talk of ‘celebrating diversity' will simply not cut it, not least because it reeks of the kind of ‘multicultural political correctness' that the BNP rails against, with increasingly open support from the disenfranchised margins of the English nation.

Mark's answer to this - and mine - is a brand of English civic nationalism, which sees Englishness not as a racial or ethnic identity (though there is what we might call an English ‘ethnic group', which still dominates England and to which Mark and I both belong, it does not have sole claim over Englishness as a wider identity) but something which is open to those who wish to be part of it. Where perhaps we differ is that I think this nationalism has to be more openly and self-consciously English, in a cultural sense.

What do I mean by this? What I don't mean is that in order to ‘be English' you have to enjoy, say, Morris dancing, country walks and Inspector Morse; though you might do, of course. What I mean, I think, is three things.

Firstly, Englishness must surely involve a commitment and a sense of belonging to a place. I have written about this extensively in my book Real England; in summary, a sense of belonging to your dwelling place, the place where you live and were perhaps born, draws you into the English community, both in its present form and through the history of that place, whether it be an inner city or a rural village. By being in England, you become English.

Secondly, because this is not enough in itself - it is quite possible to be in England and not be remotely English or want to be - I think the key ingredient is a desire to belong. It is not enough simply to be in England; you need to want to be of it. You can have this desire whether you are descended from Ulfric the Saxon or from parents who arrived in the country last year to make it their new home. It is harder, of course, for new arrivals, and it is the duty of the English to make them welcome; but to make them welcome not to some formless, meaningless ‘British' or ‘multicultural' airport lounge, but to an England which has a long history, a real identity and a desire to see that identity develop with the times as it always has done (if Englishness were not a deeply flexible and mutable thing we would not still be talking about it a thousand years after it emerged as a national identity). It means, in short, seeing yourself as part of a historic nation, with specific cultural markers and traits, with a specific sense of itself and of its place in the world.

Lastly, as Mark correctly points out in his chapter, both of these things need to be openly attached to a clear anti-racist politics. Englishness, in my view can belong to those who choose to claim it as their own. If this is your home and you consider yourself to be English then you are, as far as I'm concerned, English. Full stop. This who would seek to divide us along racial or ethnic lines need to be firmly and loudly resisted. ‘England for the English', under these circumstances, should perhaps be co-opted by those of us to whom the BNP's vision of our nation is a repulsive step backwards.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of Real England: the battle against the bland (Portobello Books.)

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