If you want to understand what it means to be English, don't ask Westminsterby David Skelton / June 26, 2012 / Leave a comment
As England licks its wounds after its Euro 2012 bid came to an end on Sunday, it may be time to reconsider what else makes the English proud.
The subject is back in vogue amongst political circles. Earlier this month, Ed Miliband’s “Englishness” speech was the subject of plaudits and brickbats from across the political spectrum which saw Dan Hodges, Owen Jones and John Rentoul forming an unlikely alliance in arguing that Englishness was a vague concept. The criticism on the left is particularly interesting and says a lot about the state of today’s Labour Party.
Owen Jones, author of Chavs, wrote in the Independent last week that “there is no coherent or cohesive ‘Englishness’.” As ever, Owen is lucid and fascinating but in this case, he is wrong. There is such a thing as Englishness, and politicians and opinion formers would do well to remember that.
By suggesting that pondering and pontificating on the meaning of Englishness is the domain of “think-tankers, political advisers and certain academics,” Jones is almost proving my point. The fact that Westminster wants to analyse and sometimes deny Englishness shows that too many politicians just don’t understand it.
Yet if you went into a pub in most parts of England outside of Westminster and suggested there was no such thing as Englishness, people would laugh into their pints.
No wonder then, that according to recent Policy Exchange polling, more than eight out of ten people think that politicians “don’t understand the real world at all.” To most people in England, Englishness exists, it’s a positive force and being English is something to be proud of. A quick glance back at the Jubilee celebrations makes clear that patriotism remains a powerful unifying force.
And even if Westminster hasn’t picked up on it, the English are decisive about their identity; a recent British Future/YouGov poll found that 18 per cent of people in England regard themselves as more English than British, 43 per cent felt equally English and British and 19 per cent felt English, not British.
What does this clear sense of Englishness really mean? Orwell called it an “unconscious patriotism,” and that’s a good start. But the roots of this intangible identity run much deeper.
First, there’s the concept of the “freeborn Englishman”—an idea popularised by the Levellers with its roots in the Magna Carta. It’s a romantic but important concept that Englishness is rooted in freedom and liberty, something ingrained in the soil. A freeborn Englishman has fundamental liberties that should not be trammelled by higher authority—an idea that ironically, is regularly tossed around Westminster. And alongside this belief in English liberty is what Orwell described as a “respect for constitutionalism and legality.”
These liberties are expressed through Parliament. Ex-Labour leaderMichael Foot rightly said that, “no comparable institution… has shaped so continuously the life and society of any Western European state.” John Lilburne, the great Leveller, talked of “the free Commons of England—the real and essential body politic.”
Second is the English language. There is great pride in its influence and its beauty, from Shakespeare and Byron to Blake. Eighty nine per cent of English people in the YouGov poll felt proud of the English language and think it plays an important part in their sense of Englishness. Then there’s English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally; and more locally, the English pub, the unique beauty of the English countryside and, yes, tea, football and cricket.
Politicians used to understand this sense of Englishness. Attlee quoted Blake about “building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”; the idea of a new Jerusalem was fundamental to his Government. As Brian Brivati suggests, a sense of patriotism was crucial to a whole generation of post war Labour figures, believing that their country was “special because of its history and political system.”
Some modern political figures still understand this sense of patriotism felt instinctively in most of the country. Jon Cruddas, for example, has spoken about the importance of Englishness and tradition:
“a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood. England once had this kind of conservative, common culture; it acted as a counter to the commodification of labour and to social isolation… At one time Labour gave expression to this kind of conservatism.”
But too many people in politics, on both left and right, don’t understand the importance of this Englishness and this patriotism. It isn’t a narrow nationalism based on exclusion of the “other.” It’s a patriotism that is not negative or exclusive, but is rooted in pride in country.
People are right that politicians should be focusing on the squeeze in cost of living and in creating jobs and growth. But that doesn’t mean policy makers should reduce man to the homo economicus, as the Marxist left and neo-liberal right have done. A sense of belonging and patriotism is real, it is important and it shouldn’t just be ignored or wished away.
The denial of this Englishness amongst parts of the Westminster commentariat is reminiscent of a conversation between Hugh Dalton and GDH Cole, recorded in Dalton’s diary. Dalton suggested that “Labour would only win power with the votes of the football crowds.” In response to this, “Cole shuddered and turned away.”
Some people in the Westminster bubble may not like the concept of Englishness. But shuddering and turning away cannot be an option for Tory or Labour politicians still struggling to win the votes of the patriotic football crowds.