23 March 2023

The problem of England

I'm not sure there's anywhere in the world that annoys me more than Ireland, but England surely runs it a close second. One of the strangest English delusions — we all have our national delusions, and I spend far too much time talking of Irish ones, so indulge me here — is the conviction that nationalism is a disease that afflicts other countries, and especially the emotional Celts. I'm not talking of those English who openly recognise and parade their English nationalism, but those who identify, rather, as British, and who do so proudly and even condescendingly. Nationalism, for these, is for lesser countries and lesser peoples.

Viewed from outside, or even from the porch with one foot in the door, it seems very obvious that 'British' is itself a nationality, one that when embraced as an identification carries with itself all the baggage of nationalism. This might seem jarring, but as Orwell pointed out in his 'Notes on Nationalism', that's the deluding nature of nationalism: 'All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by "our" side.'

'In England,' he said, 'if one simply considers the number of people involved, it is probable that the dominant form of nationalism is old-fashioned British jingoism.'

The term 'British', it's worth remembering, is rarely used to mean simply 'from Britain', but instead comes with a whole host of connotations and tropes: the flag and the anthem; the monarchy and all its pageantry; the pound; the army, navy, and airforce; Remembrance Sunday and the sanctification of wars just and unjust; 1066 and all that; Magna Carta; Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess; the bloodless Glorious Revolution and the supremacy of Parliament; the Mother of Parliaments; Rule Britannia, ruling the waves, and never being slaves; Cool Britannia, Britpop, and British is Best; British values; stiff upper lip; Land of Hope and Glory; the National Health Service, whether loved or hated; WW2 as myth, whether in films, 'Britain stands alone', the spirit of the blitz, Churchill, 'keep calm and carry on', or 'don't mention the war'; the language of Shakespeare; you can't be educated unless you read the KJV; the established Church; a suspicion of and antipathy to Catholics and Catholicism; bloody foreigners; John Bull; Britannia; the British Bulldog; fog on the channel, continent cut off; 'British exceptionalism'; Zulu; 'look what happened to them when they left the Empire!'; Britain as a synonym for UK, and British as an adjective to describe the monarch's Irish subjects; lists of great Britons coopting Irish people whether subjects or not; claiming sportspeople as British when they win and Scottish or whatever when they lose; Tebbit's cricket test; fish and chips; as British as Finchley; Our Island Story; Team GB; the workshop of the world; the British Isles; ex-pats not migrants, and a refusal to assimilate abroad; the insistence that Britain is not part of Europe; Ulster Unionism, the Orange Order, and the BNP; the belief that there's no such thing as British nationalism.

Even look at the great post-imperial popular fiction exports James Bond, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, all of which set up Britain as the centre of the world, whether as the real heroes of the Cold War, the decisive battleground in the wars of good and evil wizards, or the place where if you can fight off invading aliens in your beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, hills and indeed quarries you can save the world — a thesis memorably expounded by HG Wells at the height of the Victorian empire.

This is nationalism by any reasonable definition, and it might be rather healthier if it were acknowledged as such, not least because it's overwhelmingly an English nationalism, one that has no space for statues of such great parliamentarians as Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell in Parliament Square, let alone a national famine memorial to recognise the single most lethal event in the history of the UK: the 'Great Hunger' that ravaged mid-nineteenth-century Ireland.

In some ways weight of numbers alone ensures this English emphasis: while the English made up only slightly more than half the population of the UK a couple of hundred years ago, now it's about 85% of the UK population, and in practical terms that means that what England wants goes. No law can be passed in the UK without the direct or indirect support of at least 40% of English MPs, whereas in principle there's no limit on the number of laws that could be passed without any Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish support whatsoever. A big problem of these islands — perhaps the big problem — is how to deal with the fact that while there are several nations here, the biggest one by far has a long history largely defined by dominating its neighbours, often through force and the threat of force, whether implicit or explicit. And part of this tendency towards domination has entailed the suppression of others' national feelings and aspirations combined with the denial and concealment of its own.

A healthier British nationalism — call it patriotism if you want, but that'll start a whole fresh row — would be one that acknowledged that British nationalism is real, no more and no less aspirational than other nationalisms, and just like other nationalisms far from simple, a nationalism that recognised overlapping circles of nationalisms within and without the UK. Such a nationalism, engaged with properly, would embrace these facts, and heed others' grievances, accepting that the victims of empire and their descendants may be in a better position than those in England to judge the realities of English and British imperialism. Because, as Chesterton put it so well in his 'Paying for Patriotism', if we want to boast of our best, we need to be willing to repent for our worst.

The thing is, Britain as a whole has lots to boast about, and the part of Britain I know best has lots to boast about: England is brilliant. I mean, even aside from my family and friends, anywhere that can give us the Lake District, Hadrian's Wall with its accompanying magical pubs and the spectacular shift in dialects marked by the river Irthing at Gilsland, Turner, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Jane Austen, Chaucer, Le Morte d'Arthur, York Minster and Durham and the other great cathedrals of English Catholicism, Isaac Newton, Cornish pasties and the general pathological conviction that if a thing can be cooked it can legitimately be encased in pastry, Avebury and Stonehenge (even if the latter was magically stolen from Ireland), the Brontës, George Eliot, Dickens, PG Wodehouse, TH White, MR James, GK Chesterton, Keats, Wordsworth, St Margaret Clitherow, the Chartists, ending the Atlantic Slave Trade (even if that doesn't cancel out having so murderously dominated it for a century and a half first), St John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Box of Delights, Five Children and It, George Orwell, Bletchley Park, Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder, Cecily Saunders, Jennings, James and the Giant Peach and Danny the Champion of the World, The Dark is Rising, The Weirdstone of BrisingamenThe Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Terry Pratchett, 2000AD and even its spin-off Crisis, Leo Baxendale, the films of David Lean and especially those of Powell and Pressburger, The Third Man, Hitchcock, Ealing Comedies, Quatermass and the Pit, folk horror, Kes, Withnail and I, The Beatles, Kate Bush, Thea Gilmore, All Creatures Great and SmallCold Comfort Farm, the writings of John Le Carré and by extension Alec Guinness's magical performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alan Bleasdale, Michael Palin and Monty Python's Flying Circus, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, the glorious charred skeleton of Brighton's West Pier,  Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Wombles, Paddington, Roobarb, Oliver Postgate, Floella Benjamin, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, When the Wind Blows, Everton Football Club, Westminster Cathedral, Brixton, Preston, the Olde Cheshire Cheese pub and the Cittie of Yorke on High Holborn, Goodness Gracious Me and The Fast Show, the fantasy Britain of the 2012 Olympics, Olivia Coleman, and above all Wallace and Gromit has to be a place worth loving, right?

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