Being English?

I was born in Australia. An enduring trope as I grew up was that of the “Pommy Bastard”. There was a real antipathy to all things English – to the way the English assumed too much of their place in the world. That colonial mindset that unconsciously expressed innate superiority.

We moved to England when I was seven. I learned a valuable lesson about my new home: I saw how straightforward it was to be English. The people I met, the friends I played with – simply knew their place in the world.

Somehow, though, I could never quite assume that mantle. I was always from somewhere else.

When I went to University in Scotland the antipathy was there too. Then it was useful to have been born in Australia. I wasn’t a Sassanach; nor was I a ‘Yah’ – one of those Oxbridge failures who came to St Andrews as the next best University in the (upper) middle class pecking order. They stuck together, with their own social circles, that seemed so arrogant compared with the disparaged Wee Marys and Wee Alistairs, who, after highers, went through university working hard within their own very different culture.

In those days, ‘England’ was sure of itself; it didn’t have to agonise about national identity. Nor did it have to worry about how it was perceived in the world. You just knew, if you had a British passport, the world was your oyster. As Jeremy Paxman says

Being English used to be so easy. They were once the most easily identified peoples on earth, recognized by their language, their manners, their clothes and the fact they drank tea by the bucketload. (The English: A Portrait of a People, 1999)

The worry started, though, when the other nations of the UK began to pull away, seeking devolution. It was then that a puzzlement set in: why don’t they want to belong to us any more? What does it mean to be British? That nice, easy federation of the English, the Scots, the Welsh and yes, well, the Irish, became seriously problematic. ‘The British Isles’ began to fall apart.

The lack of clarity about what we were had worked; didn’t any more. We had been a cake of different ingredients, with the English at the heart of the United Kingdom, always been rather understated, even empty of content. Perhaps the butter that melted away. It was something you apologised for; no need to boast – because, of course, everyone just knows what it means to be English. Don’t they?

It’s gone, pretty much. To be ‘English’, now, is to be shrouded in a cloud of confusion. It’s to be uneasy in your own skin, unfamiliar and uncertain about how to behave, unsure how to expect others will react. So the behaviour can be bad; the expectation, arrogant.

What’s changed? Well, no longer is the Commonwealth a significant place to belong. When we joined the EU, the links were severed – often rather brutally – with ‘the colonies’, who had to look elsewhere to develop new markets, different independent economies.

We have an opportunity to learn to be English in a different way.

The Brexiteer imaginary thinks those Commonwealth links can be re-established; that the benefits of an Empire long gone can be recaptured. I don’t think so. Why should they want us? And the last 40 years of belonging (sort of) in Europe has shifted things. We can’t go back. Ireland, Scotland know this. They feel European; know the value of being in Union. What is it about the English that wants to pull away?

It’s interesting how Edmund Burke is so often claimed by the Brexit Camp. If you read Daniel Hannan, for instance, Burke is used to support the Brexiteer passion to live again an Englishness that is beyond dispute. Hannan tells how he was born in Peru, and one of his first memories was the threat of eviction from his family farm, with no hope of protection by the state. He has seen Englishness from the outside, and knows what he likes.

Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin. (How We Invented Freedom, 2013: 10)

Edmund Burke was significant in the development of this polity that Hannan values so much (and so do I). Hannan argues, using Burke’s attitude to the American Revolution as evidence (Burke thought the colonies couldn’t be ruled over such distance) that Burke would now want the UK to withdraw from the EU, to regain the sovereignty so hard won, so exceptional.

I don’t agree. Burke, today, would argue with a political imagination for increased global government, not diminished. He would argue that being English, being British, takes us further into Europe, to get the governance right, because there are global issues that require global politics. Climate Change – Burke would have been a leading light at Paris in December 2015. Terrorism. Developing new economics, with moral content, now that neo-liberalism is so defunct – just as he waged legal battle against Warren Hastings for his extreme, aggressively commercial exploitation of India.

Leading Brexiteers propound aspects of ‘Englishness’ that take us in a nativist direction, appealing to populist sentiments that are easily stirred when a nation is uncertain. The latest Guardian series on Populism draws on Cas Mudde’s definition:

What is populism?

Populists tend to frame politics as a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite – and insist that the general will of the people must always triumph. The Guardian is adopting the classic definition of populism proposed by political scientist Cas Mudde. Populism, he says, is often combined with a “host” ideology, which can either be on the left or right.

A binary outlook will dominate within populism: defining something by what it isn’t. The conflict between elite and the will of the people is one aspect; nativism is another.

The will of the people, betrayed by the established elite. The English native, swamped by others who come in their hordes to  threaten the very idea of Englishness. Nativism identifies the stranger in our midst, and declares she or he doesn’t belong. Nativism judges who is on the inside of community; who is out. To call a nativist “racist” doesn’t really work – it simply prevents the nativist from speaking, and renders her resentful. Much better, surely, to engage, and listen. To hear that resentment into words and then show the rich heritage of kindness and trust that the confident English of the past exhibited as the expression of a deep and open hearted hospitality. Which made yesterday’s strangers today’s natives.

Contemporary populism expresses how hard it is to know how to belong anymore – and so appeals to left and right. Party politics collapse.

A new imaginary is required – a re-romanticising of Englishness that brings out the best of British. Yes, the list Hannan supplies – but more. A sense of irony and self-deprecation when there is conflict and division; a pragmatic approach to seemingly unsolvable problems; the ability to compromise. Other things too. Where Left and Right are transcended into the search for global governance to tackle global issues.

What would it be to re-romanticise Englishness? Withdrawing from Europe won’t do it; splendid isolation has been tried before, and doesn’t work. Born in Australia, I’ve come to value the following

  • The countryside, now so threatened – so in need of global solutions to pollution, decreasing biodiversity, climate change
  • The literary and artistic and musical traditions – the wit, and depth of the moral and emotional knowledge
  • Our governance, that puts the rule of a rich concept of natural law at its heart – so valuable in today’s world, where arbitrary power is increasingly exercised
  • A refusal to be tribal or engage in identity politics
  • An openness to the Other, so we are not defined by our self understanding, but always transcend it into something greater and more generous
  • Doing things for their own sake – like education, friendship – and so resisting the commodification and instrumentalisation of life
  • Kindness, fairness, the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes in all humility (loving kindness, doing justice and walking humbly with God)
  • Finding national identity as English as part of something bigger, not over against Others
  • Being European and bringing our common European culture to the world.

The Welsh, the Scottish, the Irish have a strong romantic sense of national selfhood. What might it be to find a common English culture that draws the English together into a cohesive core at the heart of a renaissance of a re-united Kingdom? One that belongs firmly with our European neighbours, looking outward from Europe to the world?

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