Arthur Aughey's speech to the Literature of an Independent England Conference, 6th November 2010:
"Recently, I was reviewing a book for Parliamentary Affairs – a very intelligent book on the British political tradition – and there was a Lord Copper moment. The authors claimed that: ‘The Scots, the Welsh, and the Northern Irish can and do debate national identity at length and with arms. The English can mount the occasional sortie but, like sex and religion, it is not deemed a suitable dinner table topic’ – well, up to a point.
I would suggest that the English always have discussed their national identity but have done so in a distinctive manner and it is this manner I would like to explore.
I start with a few familiar references for those attending a literature conference:
‘Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the Twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th Century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.’
‘solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, the pub, the football match, the back garden and the "nice cup of tea".
‘England, Shakespeare, Elizabeth, London; Westminster, the docks, India, the Cutty Sark, England; England, Gloucester, John of Gaunt; Magna Carta, Cromwell, England’
Here are two more recent examples:
cucumber sandwiches (no crusts), the National Trust, Thomas Rowlandson, inglenooks, knotted handkerchiefs, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, the Shipping Forecast, Gardner’s Question Time, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Betty’s Café, Guy Fawkes Night
Ian Dury & The Blockheads - England's Glory (from which I take only a sample)
Frankie Howerd, Noël Coward and garden gnomes
Frankie Vaughan, Kenneth Horne, Sherlock Holmes
Nice bit of kipper and Jack the Ripper and Upton Park
Gracie, Cilla, Maxy Miller, Petula Clark
Winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips
Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps
For Ian Dury, these are the jewels in the crown of England's glory. And, as the song ends, the chorus claims:
And every one could tell a different story
And show old England's glory something new
Are these lists nothing more than quaint eccentricities, eccentricity being itself a traditional self-definition eliciting not only national approval but also evoking the national ‘genius’? Are they evidence of the old adage that ‘twice makes custom’ encouraging imitators to stand self-consciously in the line of Eliot and Orwell? Both these things may be true but I think there is something else at work which is worth reflecting on.
Firstly, they are all concrete references.
In his England: An Elegy, Roger Scruton also notes this tradition of eccentric lists of ephemera. For Scruton, recourse to listing suggests that England is ‘not a nation or a creed or a language or a state but a home’. He goes on:
‘Things at home don’t need an explanation. They are there because they are there. It was one of the most remarkable features of the English that they required so little explanation of their customs and institutions. They bumbled on, without anyone asking the reason why or anyone being able, if asked, to provide it’.
Secondly, the relationship between references is implicit rather than explicit
They only make sense in an association distinctively English, even though what may be representative of that association changes. Patrick Parrinder remarks in his Nation and the Novel how, in English literature, ‘associations of Englishness are built up’ - such that, for example, ‘Falstaff’s green fields are English by habitual association’ not because anyone else’s fields (like those of Ireland, for instance) are any less green.
Thirdly, if the changing character of the lists does suggest something ephemeral - the fragments of experience – continuity of association is also evoked.
Take, for instance, Ernest Barker’s conclusion to The Character of England. He thought that it was possible to be too seduced by change and to miss the larger picture. ‘But this long slow movement of the character of England’ he asked, ‘has it not something enduring?’ The answer, of course, is in the question. Orwell makes a similar point when he described England as ‘an everlasting animal stretching into the future and past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same’. And there are affinities also with Anthony Powell’s reflection on English sensibilities in A Dance to the Music of Time: ‘Everything alters, yet does remain the same’.
Fourthly, what remains the same is a feeling of personal connection – for good or ill – with England. This may be grasped by Pierre Bayard’s thesis in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. For Bayard, culture is a matter of orientation: ‘being able to find your bearings within books as a system’. This requires ‘a command of relations’, not knowledge of every book in isolation. Thus it is possible to feel part of a culture even if one is ignorant of ‘a large part of the whole’. We may not know much of our history, of our culture or of our politics without in any way feeling unable to say something meaningful about it.
Listing is a case in point. It is a way of talking about England without having to analyze it, for enumeration intimates a personal command of relations.
If there is a moral it is possibly the one which Robert Colls makes in the conclusion to The Identity of England: ‘the nation’s propensity for seeing itself as diverse should not be allowed to outstrip its propensity for seeing itself as unified’.
Listing seems a very English way to acknowledge diversity but also to imply its own unity.
However, how do we express continuity in change or sameness in difference? Here is the first analogy taken from that very English of political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott. It is the metaphor of the ‘dry wall’.
Oakeshott uses the ‘dry wall’ to capture how events are related to one another without premeditated design. A nation remains stable (or not) by virtue of the touching shapes of things rather than by the mortar of national purpose, deeply-held values or collective destiny (which is not to deny that some people do see nationality in that way). The parts of a nation ‘stand-in-relation’ to one another and for Oakeshott the term designates an intelligible connection between related circumstances not mere accident. And it was Ernest Barker, Oakeshott’s friend, who described a nation as ‘united by the primary fact of contiguity’, its members being led by such contiguity to develop forms of ‘mental sympathy’. It is this mental sympathy, Barker thought, which constitutes a common will to live together. Perhaps a better term than common will is Oakeshott’s own – a collected will, suggesting more list than manifesto.
This may seem too thin for a national identity. But consider Julian Baggini’s distillation of what he calls the English philosophy, a product of his having lived in England’s Everytown, which turns out to be Rotherham – strangely, since Stuart Maconie once described it as more like a forgotten chemical town in the former Soviet Union. Baggini’s believed that worries about insufficient national glue holding society together were misplaced: ‘the shared values we all need to sign up to’, he writes, ‘are actually pretty minimal and civic’.
This civic relationship is conveyed by the second Oakeshott’s analogy: ‘conversation’.
Conversation has become a cant political term. Indeed, there is popular suspicion that politicians really mean something very different from colloquial usage. As former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott once put it: ‘Conversation means you have a two-way exchange. You ask the question and I answer it. It’s called conversation’. Public cynicism rests on the assumption that the answer is a pre-determined one in the mode of Oscar Wilde: 'I delight in talking politics. I talk them all day. But I can't bear listening to them'.
For Oakeshott, one activity which has benefited from ‘the civilising touch of conversation’ is politics. He thought this to have been the mark of English achievement for ‘remarkably enough it was Englishmen (who are otherwise not greatly disposed towards conversation) who first explored the recognition that politics is supremely eligible to be a conversational art’. And it is interesting to note here that Peter Ackroyd in Albion tracks the emergence of modern English identity to trends for conversation. The term conversation was described by one scholar of nationalism as a very English way of thinking. Indeed it is. Englishness as conversation does not exclude fierce debate and contest. It assumes, to use EP Thompson’s term, that politics is conducted a distinctive idiom and that there can be mutual understanding.
I will cite one illustration without comment.
At an IPPR seminar on Englishness last week, John Denham recalled a train journey from Durham to London with an NUM delegation during the miners’ strike. Its members were going to London to lobby in support of Arthur Scargill. When he asked what they were doing afterwards, they said they were going to Buckingham Palace. They always did just in case they’d catch a glimpse of the Queen.
The popular travel writer H.V. Morton prefaced his The Call of England with lines from GK Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse: ‘An island like a little book / Full of a hundred tales’. England (if not quite an island) is full of many tales and to speak of the ‘identity’ of England at any one time is to speak of the conversation implied in those tales. And that repeats, of course, the glory of England according to Ian Dury. However, mention of Morton suggests a sub-text to the English conversation: feelings of impending loss, of threat, fear of an England that is going to the dogs.
Morton wrote that the English suffer from a ‘vague mental toothache’, a disquiet often based on the feeling that they should feel anxious rather than actually being anxious.
Such anxiety provokes the search the essential England, for the mortar of purpose holding the wall together, for permanent foundations which keep it all up. And it may be – as Oakeshott suggests – that these journeys to find the heart of England indicate a failure of national nerve.
This anxiety today – the English Question – is equally a list of different questions, social, cultural and political and its current expression has a particular context: the new complexity of United Kingdom governance and the uncertainty of how England fits.
Citizens of Nowhere
Hence, by way of a rather Chestertonian English road, I arrive at the title of the paper: the intellectual anxiety that the English have become citizens of nowhere. The phrase is from Paul Kingsnorth’s book Real England. However, it could have been taken from Scruton’s elegy where the English where ‘England has been forbidden’. Or it could well be taken from Simon Heffer, or more recently, Mark Perryman.
This really is News from Nowhere. And those familiar with Morris’s work will recognize the ironic passage:
‘I must now shock you by telling you that we have no longer anything which you, a native of another planet, would call a government.’
The English ‘are very well off as to politics, - because we have none’.
But this is no longer an English utopia. It is a English dystopia. The call to action is to politicize England and to give it a government.
The mood is the message. That mood can be described as 'irritable growl syndrome', a complaint of varying intensity about present conditions. And there is no doubt that it has encouraged nationalist sentiment: support for an English Parliament – Kingsnorth’s preference – or even English separatism – Perryman’s preference. As yet it is a mood and not a movement. But it is capable of transforming from mood to movement - perhaps in a Chestertonian moment - when the people of England finally speak, this time of freedom and not of ale.
The first aspect is institutional.
Simon Lee has argued that constitutional changes have created ‘deficits in citizenship rights, democratic accountability and the denial of the expression of England’s national identity as a distinct political community’. The political case for England, then, must involve ‘the self-determination to vote on policies and issues that affect it alone that devolution has extended to the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom’.
These themes find popular expression in English nationalist blogs, sometimes in the tabloid press (but not only there), and in the Campaign for an English Parliament. There is a tendency to argue that there is an official conspiracy keeping the ‘English question’ out of political debate. And there are two consequences.
Not only are the English as a people rendered invisible.
But England as a place is also erased – spoken of as ‘regions’ without the integrity or dignity of nationhood.
As that distinguished former member of Warwick University, Jim Bulpitt, observed a generation ago, England was never the centre of the United Kingdom. British governments, he argued, ‘attempted to relate to (or distance itself from) all parts of the country in a similar fashion’. For central government ‘if not for the English, England was part of the periphery’.
For nationalists, England should be put at the centre.
The second aspect is economic.
The English need to assert themselves – not only for reasons of patriotic dignity but also for material reasons. For when it comes to public spending, devolution shows how England’s lack of identity is a handicap.
Devolution means subsidized self-determination. The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish get the self-determination and the English do the subsidizing. This is a very different take on conversational nationhood. As Gordon Gekko put it in Wall Street - ‘It’s all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation’. Or as the Cumbria News and Star - put it a few years ago: ‘Scotland the free, England the fee’.
The imperative seems clear. England needs a separate political voice to protect its interests.
One can certainly point to evidence that this anxious mood is having political effect. More people today are willing to call themselves ‘English’ rather than ‘British’. Some newspaper polls put support for an English Parliament as high as 68%; English support for Scottish independence as high as 59%; and majorities opposed to higher levels of public expenditure outside England.
Nationalism, as Tom Nairn might say, has finally caught up with the English. And there are those – like Perryman – who argue, following Nairn, that the mood of the English is already ‘after Britain’ and on the road to independence.
Nevertheless, caution is required for the evidence is at least questionable. For those who wish to do it, translation of mood into movement for change remains a large task.
In their essays for our book These Englands, John Curtice’s polling analysis and Susan Condor’s social psychology show what the difficulties are.
Curtice’s figures suggest:
There is little sign that English support for the UK has eroded following devolution
Most people prefer England to be governed from Westminster
The majority accept that other parts of the UK should have some form of self-governance
English self-identification has increased but this Englishness does not necessarily correspond with nationalism.
Susan Condor’s interviews discovered something interesting about English responses. Rather than presupposing an ‘other’ against which to define itself, Englishness tends to function as its own ‘other’, constructed not in relation to the other UK nations, but self-referentially. This operates through contrasts with:
the English past
different places (North vs. South, urban vs. rural locations),
different social classes
different political persuasions.
For most respondents, England remains somewhere and home. If it seems invisible or nowhere that is because most people take England and their Englishness for granted
English patriot and professional Yorkshireman, Roy Hattersley, captures this disposition in own collection, In Search of England. Hattersley proudly proclaims himself English but sees no point in making a fuss about it. ‘Indeed’, as he puts it, ‘not making a fuss about being English seems to me an essential ingredient of Englishness’.
Insofar as this is fairly representative – and it still seems to be – it is a condition not overly favourable to political nationalism.
Baggini’s experience of England’s Everytown led him to conclude that those who ‘wring their hands over the question of national identity’ were missing the point. They mistook the need for people to feel they belonged to England with the need for everyone to feel the same kind of belonging to England, like some collective mortar of national cohesion. Baggini remained a dry wall patriot, where Englishness was a tolerant but tolerable ‘live and let live’.
To persuade the English of the virtue of nationalism, then, is to convince the English to think differently about themselves and their country. This may be difficult, but it is not, of course, impossible.
To return to Ian Dury’s list:
Nationalists must believe that one can tell a different story and show old England's glory something new."
Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has also written widely on He has published widely on Northern Ireland politics, British Conservatism and constitutional change/ nationalism in the United Kingdom.