Working out what it is to be English

Peter Hill argues that unlike their larger neighbour, the Welsh and Scots neither deny their nationality nor adopt an exclusive sense of identity

Peter Hill is studying Arabic literature at St John’s College, Oxford, and joint Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Left Review. This article first appeared on the OurKingdom website here

In 1960 in his first book The Glittering Coffin the playwright Dennis Potter wrote of the struggle around identity that he and others like him were undergoing. The book as a whole is a fervent protest against the outwardly prosperous, but culturally and morally deadened world which he saw Britain turning into in the post-war years. On one side, he felt that any authentic sense of national identity – British or English – was being assailed by a creeping consumerism, somehow both American and anonymous. On the other, there was a powerful reaction into a nostalgic, jingoistic nationalism.  As Potter wrote, it was a struggle between:

“… remaining patriots in the decent sense of the word, when our identity is dwindling away… before the Coca-Cola onslaught of the New World on the one hand, and a dangerously militant… nostalgia for the supposed glories of the past on the other”.

This was written when Potter was 23, a time when he planned to become a Labour MP, and before he began his later career as a stage and television playwright. Neither could he really relate to the kind of place he was from – the Forest of Dean, then a rural mining area on the border of Wales. It seems to me that this struggle, the sense of almost insuperable difficulty in finding a way to be proud of one’s native place without falling back into either indifference or nostalgia, is just as difficult now as it was in 1960.

And since then the decline of the British Empire, and of Britain (with England at its centre) as a power in the world, has of course continued. England, which once treated half the countries of the world as its provinces, has for a long time been becoming a province itself. The probability that there will soon be an independent Scotland is only the latest stage in this process.

To deal with this loss of status, we have been tempted again and again to grow nostalgic about the lost ‘glories’ of Empire. And again and again, seeing that these ‘glories’ were in fact, so often, deeply shameful, we have been led to repudiate any desire for nationhood or independence, and consent to becoming just one more minor district in a homogenous, globalised world.

It seems to me that the resurgence of national consciousness in Scotland and Wales has helped people in those parts of Britain to deal with this problem, to find a ‘decent sense’ in which they could be patriots. The problem Potter refers to is not exactly exclusive to England. However, it seems that Scottishness and Welshness have helped people to avoid the retreat either into anonymity, the denial of any sense of belonging to a place, or into jingoism, a xenophobic and exclusive version of national identity.

In England, as is now becoming painfully evident, this ‘decent sense’ of patriotism remains harder to achieve. “Love of place,” Potter wrote, “is something so fundamental that it must be divorced from the claims of jingoistic nationalism or sophisticated insularity.” I believe that this is true. However,  making the distinction becomes desperately hard in an atmosphere where any talk of local loyalty or belonging to a place seems automatically to belong to the world of hard-edged, divisive nationalism. As in 1960, any sense of authentic local or national identity seems usually to be lost between two defensive responses. On the one hand, the retreat into indifference, the assumption that local ties or identities do not really matter, or that one is above them. On the other, the retreat into nostalgia, into an idyllic world free from the struggles and clashes of different identities – but which must also be defended, perhaps with violence.

It is easy to see how this overwhelming association of local and national belonging with jingoism and imperialism has led, for many, to a simple indifference to all such questions. There is, people have assumed, simply no decent sense in which one could be a patriot – the whole idea seemed tainted. And this led not just to scepticism and denial of belonging on a national level, to England or Britain, but also of any sense of ‘nativeness’, of affection for a more local place.

This indifference has been backed up by a rather elitist attitude which assumes that local ‘roots’ of any kind are somehow demeaning. In a curious way, this seems to have been the inheritance of certain liberals and ‘progressives’ from older ruling classes: the assumption that all feelings of local belonging, to one’s native place or home or land, are simply backward and archaic.

The ruling classes of the time had of course condemned the cottagers who resisted enclosure in England, and later the clearances in the Scottish Highlands, precisely in the name of ‘progress’. The same accusation was applied to those who fought British imperialism abroad. That kind of resistant local or national identity came to be seen as the mark of immaturity among other peoples, while ‘we’ were above such petty and archaic feelings.

Despite its efforts to disown any links to imperialism, a good deal of this attitude is preserved in a certain kind of ‘progressive’ ideology. There is an assumption of superiority which seems to be in a direct line from imperial thinking – the officer-class confronted with the quaint and outdated thinking of the natives. This attitude sets out, perhaps, to ‘celebrate diversity’, but whenever it comes up against an actual living tradition, it seems most concerned to kill it off or tone it down.

And, of course, the opening up of England to the powerful forces of anonymous, consumerist globalisation has intensified since 1960. The fact that so many people, in England I think more than in the rest of Britain, have fallen into a basic indifference to ideas of national or local identity, has made the ‘Coca-Cola onslaught’ Potter wrote of much harder to resist.

But then the reaction against that utter anonymity has been so often a retreat into an altogether older type of thinking, a legacy of the old ruling classes and the Empire. It is one in which all one’s ties, local loyalties, and roots added up to one, official sense of national identity. Think, for instance, of John Major’s description, in 1993, of what he hoped Britain would be like in fifty years’ time: “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers…old maids bicycling to holy communion” and of course Shakespeare.

What is problematic about this image is not that the things themselves – beer and Shakespeare and so on – are old-fashioned or reactionary, that we should condemn them as backward, as ‘progressive’ ideology sometimes seemed bent on doing. Rather, it is the way our identity is presented as a thing frozen in time, forever fixed in a certain image. The past is offered, as Potter put it, “as a kind of packaged totality, where the struggles and emotions that made it are smoothed over with awesome talk of ‘our heritage’.”

Major’s ‘Britain’ is a world that has never known class divisions, racism, or industrial wastelands. Nor does it seem aware of the divisions between the British nations – between England and Scotland, say – or those between different regions of England itself. All this is simply collapsed into a single ‘middle England’ identity – a peaceful, dull, Home-Counties kind of place, a sort of enormous Surrey. Then this idyllic pastoral image, what Potter called “the ecstatic myth of a merrie land peopled by gentlemen and yokels”, is made to stand for the whole of Britain.

Just as much as in 1960, whenever we talk of nation or patriotism we seem trapped between these two unappealing alternatives: no identity at all, or ‘merrie middle England’, with its overtones of xenophobia. This has been the dilemma of England, more so I think than the other British nations. It is a desperately narrowed space for us to be “patriots in the decent sense”, between nostalgia and jingoism on the one hand, and indifference to any local attachments on the other. It is easy to see why many people are now seizing on English identity, an English Parliament, as a way out of the impasse.

I share their sense of hope, but I think we must remain alive to the dangers of ‘Englishness’. For one very real danger of the break-up of Britain is that this nostalgic image of “merrie middle England” may come to dominate England even more. It may prevent us from seeing the bonds that connect England with other places, both in and beyond the British Isles. It may obscure, just as importantly, the internal connections which bind our different communities together in a complex interdependence. And it may prevent us from seeing the real conflicts of interest between local communities and institutions of power and privilege, by covering it all with a veil of patriotism.

Without the correctives of Scottish and Welsh identity to remind us that Britain and England have always been far more than a mythical ‘middle England’, our country may become a more defensive, narrow-minded little place. The danger is that without Scotland, and potentially without Wales and Northern Ireland, it will be harder to see that kind of middle-England chauvinism for what it is.

In other words, we cannot simply treat ‘Britishness’ as the scapegoat in all this, tie all the jingoism and imperialism and racism round its neck and send it off into the wilderness. An ‘English’ identity is capable of being narrow, isolated, and defensive as much as a ‘British’ identity is. If the exclusiveness of ‘middle England’, masquerading as an authentic Englishness, is what is replacing the domination of ‘Britain’, this will be a loss, not a gain. The insistence on exclusiveness, on shutting out the rest of Britain and of the world, will be disabling – not just for those ‘outside’ those borders, but for those within England too, who have in fact so many bonds and connections with the other British nations and the rest of the world.

This is perhaps why many in favour of Scottish independence are now so supportive of the concept of a ‘social union’ between England and Scotland. They see that to try to cut off people’s very real ‘external’ ties impairs a nation internally, makes its people less at home with themselves and with the rest of the world.

That is one real possibility for an ‘independent England’ – a swift retreat into middle-England smugness and narrow-minded isolation. But I do not think it is the only one. After all, many of us possess strong local and regional loyalties that diverge a good deal from that “merrie middle England” image. The question is whether such local identities can link up into something genuinely popular, a different image of England as a whole. If this is to happen, then a more authentic – rather than nostalgic, or artificial – way of thinking about England and being English, will be vital.

There have been a range of movements recently which have tried to resist outside exploitation, in various places and domains which have been marginalised. Some have remained very much locally or regionally based, like the campaigns to stop the building of a superstore, or to save a local football club. There are some, though, which maintain their local roots and distinctiveness, while at the same time extending across England and indeed Britain. Think of the Campaign for Real Ale and the wave of new microbreweries, described in Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 Real England: the battle against the bland (Portobello Books, 2008). But they have not linked up into anything resembling a general movement.

If links with national politics have been made at all, they have tended to be with the Right, and on the whole this has incorporated them into an official ‘middle England’ ideology. For instance, the Countryside Alliance, supposedly a movement to defend rural communities, in fact tends to put defending fox-hunting first and agriculture and rural livelihoods second. All the same, there has been widespread support for it, not just because lots of people are involved with fox-hunting, but because so many people in rural places seem to have no better defenders. The idea of anybody standing up to the urban elites on their behalf is very appealing.

It is important to see the possibilities of linking such local concerns into a more general movement, without losing the strong loyalties we feel to communities and places. Community organising of the type practised by London Citizens, for instance, offers one kind of model – the gradual working out of a common interest, a common set of values, out of the particular interests and values of different groups, different sorts of people. The answer to middle-England chauvinism is not an abstract doctrine, not an identity imposed from the centres of power, but the more detailed and complex work of making the connections between different local communities and identities, different local battles and interests.

And here we need to remember that we do have rich resources to draw on. We have the examples of other places, both close by – the Scottish independence movement – and further afield – the Arab uprisings, for instance. And we have the examples of our own past. For if the English are the inheritors of the dominant traditions of Britain and the Empire, we are also the heirs of many traditions of resistance. We have the legacy of the Levellers and the Diggers of the 17th Century; the working-class radicals in early 19th Century, and the Chartists and the subsequent British labour movement.

We also have the intellectual contributions of Winstanley, Tom Paine, William Blake, and William Cobbett. We have the tradition of Romantic radical thinking from Coleridge, Carlyle and Ruskin to William Morris, D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell. And not least, we have the early New Left – writers like Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and Christopher Hill, who tried to extract some of the values of those earlier traditions and extend them for a new generation.

On-line resources for thinking in the English radical tradition

A sample of essays available online is: Christopher Hill’s lecture on the Leveller Gerrard Winstanley; E. P. Thompson’s ‘God and King and Law’ on the period of the Peterloo massacres; Raymond Williams’ ‘The Social Thinking of D. H. Lawrence’. More detailed works are: Christopher Hill’s Reformation to Industrial Revolution, a concise and lively summary of the early modern period; E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class brings to life the late 18th Century and early 19th Century working-class movement. Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society 1780-1950summarises the radical intellectual tradition from Cobbett’s time to that of Orwell and Williams himself.

There are movements, in England as in other places, that have tried to resist both the retreat into anonymity – the capitulation to “the Coca-Cola onslaught” – and the retreat into isolation – the defence of a “merrie middle England”.

These movements were not, of course, in any way exclusively English – Carlyle was a Scot, for instance, and Raymond Williams was Welsh – and their writings and actions speak to a wider world than just England, or indeed just Britain. Tom Paine inspired American radicals as well as British ones, while Ruskin inspired Gandhi.

Nor do they offer us a single, unified ideology. A great deal of their value lies in their variety. But they have tried to imagine an England of a different kind, based neither on identity-free rootlessness nor on xenophobic exclusivity. In such traditions as these we may find the resources to link up the local resistances now being made into a different kind of identity – authentic, radical, and generous.

If these emphases are maintained, there is reason to hope that the trend towards English rather than British identity can be a liberating force. It can help us to work towards some more authentic sense of Englishness that affirms both our various local loyalties and the links between them, that helps us to feel at home with our past and our country, and to see the connections that exist among the English and beyond the English. For those of the English who have thought of our (in fact quite limited) experience as somehow typical of the rest of Britain, or indeed of the rest of the world, it can help us come to terms with what it means to be not universal or typical but rooted, local, specific. If we can detach ourselves from the official identities and go native in our own land, this will be an important affinity, rather than a barrier, between us and other peoples.

There may yet be a way through these dilemmas, a way for us to be “patriots in the decent sense of the word”, beyond both anonymity and chauvinism. Our local and regional resistances, our rich radical traditions, and the examples of other places, are all there to be built on. But if we are to do this, we need to see the narrow and elitist versions of national identity for what they are.

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