Do you feel English? Most people’s answer to that question at Cambridge would probably be no, or at least not much, even if they are from deepest Surrey and pronounce the word bath as if it’s spelt with at least six as. No would certainly be my answer. Like many other people in my position I prefer to feel British, an identity that has always seemed warmer and more welcoming. At risk of sounding like Emily Thornberry after a few too many, England can sometimes seems a bit infra dig, the territory of the football hooligan and the EDL supporter. It is certainly not the national identity of the Guardian reader. And yet the idea that England is the sole preserve of an unsavoury fringe is nonsense: 57% of respondents in a recent poll claimed to be proud to be English. At a time when wafer thin majorities are enough to give us plenty of grief, that looks pretty decisive.
And the English are making their presence felt. Brexit was principally a vote by the English. When voters talk of getting their country back, they very often mean England as much as Britain. And they have good reason to feel that way. England is the heart of the United Kingdom, and yet it is the only constituent nation without a national parliament, and the only one whose national identity is frequently marginalised: the Scots, Welsh and even the Northern Irish receive far more official sanction and encouragement to openly celebrate their nationality than the English ever do.
Part of the reason for this has been to keep British identity together, with it understandably difficult to revel in English culture and history without offending the Scots and Irish (and to a lesser extent the Welsh), all of whom have been the victims at one point or another of English expansionism and oppression, and thus all of whom have at least some sense of cultural animosity to the English.
Another explanation that is frequently put forward is that we have retreated from the English identity because it has become tarnished by the crimes and abuses of colonialism, and the chauvinistic culture that made those abuses possible. Instead we have gravitated towards the cleaner, more guilt free British identity instead. This theory certainly seems plausible when we look at many of England’s most enthusiastic supporters today, many of whom display levels of podsnappery and bigotry that would make even the most hardened member of the East India Company cringe. This attitude displays considerable historical amnesia, however. The British Empire was always exactly that, a thoroughly British undertaking. Its growth principally occurred after the United Kingdom has been formed, its agents came from every corner of the British isles (indeed Scots are greatly overrepresented amongst its leading participants) and any crime it committed was committed under a union jack. If anything it is the English identity that is much purer, associated with a national history that essentially stops being told by the late seventeenth century: after that it becomes obscured by British history.
Whatever the reason, in promoting making this decision, we have English identity to be hollowed out, with all of its best aspects hived off to form part of the wider British identity. Shakespeare has become British. Isaac Newton has become British. So too have the Beatles and Wimbledon. Many national characteristics have gone the same way too. Humour and modesty? British. Tea drinking and queuing? British. The husk that remains is a generally unappealing one of Sunday Roasts, Morris dancers, a bizarre national legend about a wandering Turkish mercenary killing a dragon, and football, football, football… No wonder it is difficult to encourage the broad-minded or the bien pensant to rally round English identity, not least when that involves associating with many of the more culturally undesirable members of English society (that they are frequently the exact sort of people the left are supposedly meant to be helping tends to be quickly forgotten when they pick up the English flag).
But reinvigorating English identity is essential in these trying times. Only as long as the English have legitimate grievances will they feel then need to channel those grievances into ugly politics. Reinvent England’s identity and you will take the wind out of the sales of the racists and contribute to national harmony.
There is no reason why the cross of St. George should be the sole preserve of the racist and the hooligan. English identity is as complex and varied as any: after all most aspects of British history are primarily English history. England is one of the world’s most ancient coherent political entities. It has used that time productively. It is the source of innumerable inventions and discoveries. It has become the adopted home of generations of refugees, from Huguenots and Lithuanian Jews to Somalians and Albanians. It has a tradition of literary excellence that runs back to Chaucer and encompasses many of the finest stories ever told across numerous genres and styles. Its architecture includes everything from Salisbury Cathedral to the Library of Birmingham. Its countryside is often staggeringly beautiful. Even art and music, sectors where English culture may have historically lagged behind its neighbours have been invigorated by exceptionally prolific twentieth centuries. The material is there for a dynamic, pluralistic and proud identity, and we should use it.
I do not encourage any of this because I am a fervent nationalist or a believer that England is superior to the other nations of the United Kingdom. I am neither of those things. All nations are equal, and all worthy of celebration. And it is because I believe that that I want the English identity to flourish so that in the years to come the United Kingdom can continue to flourish, free of the antagonisms that currently afflict it. Only so long as many Englishmen feel that they are without a home, will they be prepared to set the house on fire…