Friends of mine on Facebook will have noticed the astonishing amount of comments which have been posted as a result of the question I asked in this blog two days ago. My question was about the nature of 21st Century England and what sets it, and the English apart from the rest of Great Britain. I have attempted to gather up all the comments and emails I’ve received and turn them into something coherent. Much of this is, of course, conjecture, based on people’s thoughts and instincts, and a brief attempt on my part to group the comments which were made into a series of headings which I will nevertheless share with you now.
Eccentricity/ Individuality/ Pragmatism:
English people are viewed as more individual and often more eccentric than their neighbours. This may have its roots in Common Law, described by many Scots (who are governed by Roman law) as the “finest system of judgement in the world.” In simple terms (and please forgive me; I’m no lawyer) one of the many differences between the two systems is that Roman law tells you what you CAN do, whereas Common Law tells you what you CAN’T. It could be argued that this subtle distinction encourages individuality because it means that those living under Common Law are freer to push boundaries. The English are, after all, renowned for their slightly left-field, anarchic, rule-breaking humour and approach to the arts. We cannot ignore the ground-breaking contributions to world pop and rock from the likes of Bowie, Kate Bush, The Beatles and Queen; all specifically English, despite Kate Bush’s proud Irish heritage and Freddie Mercury being born in Colonial Africa. I’m going out on a slight limb here, but perhaps there’s more of a tendency for the Celts, who tend to veer towards the group, to respect the laws and safety of their own folk arts?
The celebration of individuality in England may also explain why the English tend to lean to the right in political terms when the Scots and the Welsh tend to lean more to the left. According to one friend, the Scots have a keener sense of the group consciousness; more of a desire to fit in and a tendency to place an importance on being “down-to-earth.”
English Regionalism undermining Englishness.
There is a definite lack of a sense of what Englishness is. Part of this, I would argue, is to due to the perceived (and actual) supremacy of London, which is seen as a quintessentially English city. Many criticise our London-focussed government for basing its laws on the interests of Londoners and not the will of those who live in the country’s regions. It doesn’t recognise, for example, the individuality of Yorkshire, or Manchester. Homogenisation leads to a mistrust of London and a sense that Englanders feel more pride in being Northern or Lancastrian or West Country folk, than they feel in being English. England in terms of accents, dialect and even topography is a great deal more diverse than any of its neighbours. Diversity isn’t just about racial minorities in inner city districts and many English people feel that successive governments have forgotten this fact.
The rural idyll.
This is not just an American fiction. Thatched houses, rolling hills and village greens with duck ponds are a definite and unique part of the English countryside. It’s the thing which English composers and poets picked up as quintessentially English at the turn of the 20th Century and it remains an important part of the make-up of this country. The Scots and Welsh tended to build houses out of more available substances like stone rather than wood, which means the chocolate box timber-framed houses we associate with England are indeed more likely to appear in England. In brutal terms, the reason why so many Elizabethan houses have survived in England is due to the wealth which rolled into the country during that particular era, which led to houses being built to last for the first time. It’s also worth pointing out that the English didn’t really want to annex Scotland under the Stuarts. Elizabeth I did much to unify the English, and give them a real sense of who they were based on the Arts and exploration. For the first time in history, English people under Elizabeth felt unified and patriotic. Ask them what it meant to be English, and everyone would venture an opinion.
The embarrassment of the invaders.
So much of Britishness is defined by the Empire, which ultimately collapsed after the Second World War and led to a crisis of British identity which was only briefly revived in the 1960s. There’s a sense that the English, as the guys who started the business, need to go down with the sinking ship, whilst the Celts get to say they never wanted to be part of it in the first place, and celebrate a new dawn; a phoenix rising from the ashes of disaster. The Scots ,of course, are accused of wanting this to all happen on their own terms, as one reader said, “it’s like the woman in the divorce demanding the house, the car, the pension, the kids and a monthly income.” To an extent, the post-imperialist English were forced to keep their heads down and put up with a degree of bashing from the Scots. But after many, many years of being told we CAN’T celebrate being English, because being English is wrapped up with an innate sense of superiority and failed supremacy, the English have started to lose their love for and pride in their country, and in the process their sense of national identity. My Dad reminded me of a headline in The Times in the 1890s which read; “fog in the channel. France cut off.” That superiority is a far distant thing, but there remains a hint of it in the English, who I still believe, in many ways think we can still punch above our weight. It’s a little sad. When I think about being English, part of me feels like a half-coloured-in cartoon, or a faded photograph.
Immigration altering the perception of Britishness.
There is some sense that waves of immigration and invasion have left us with a watered-down sense of identity. There is also a sense that the rapid immigration witnessed in recent years has led to a lack of integration of immigrants, and therefore England has become defined by a series of ghettos of alien cultures, which weakens its over-all cohesion.
The effect of Thatcherism:
England was plainly more affected by Thatcherism than the more naturally socialist-leaning Celtic nations. So, if you asked a pre-Thatcher England what it means to be English, their response would almost definitely include discussions about class; stiff upper lips and all that. Thatcher, however, replaced class-obsession with an obsession with money without really changing the language. Posh people were suddenly the ones driving around in Porches and carrying mobile phones rather than those who had been born with a silver spoon in their mouths or those with certain values. However we defining class these days, England, in many people's opinions remains more class-obsessed than its neighbours.
So those are my thoughts. In no particular order. I am pained to point out that they are just my views based on what people have written to me in the last 48 hours. I am more than happy to be shouted down, or told I’m talking stereotypical bullshit, but I rather like the debate the question has opened, and would love to hear more thoughts on the issue.