Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Proud to be British, "Meh" to being English.

I rarely refer to myself as English. This is not an affectation but a genuine reflection of how I feel. And that is British. The fact that I was born in England, live in the country and have no claims to being of any other part of the United Kingdom is evidence of my Englishness should anyone want to pursue it. But for me there is almost nothing that distinguishes being English from being British - except, and crucially, that of exclusion. To be of the UK and English only really means that I am not Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish. To define my nationality by what I am not rather than by what I am seems odd and unhelpful. But as a British citizen I am so much more than what I would be if I was just "English". The modern history of my nation is of British triumph and, a bit, of British failure. The Industrial Revolution, the growth and decline of Empire and the rest were singularly British phenomena. Having lived for some years in Hong Kong when it was still a Colony I never heard anyone call it an English territory - which is just as well as it was largely built by Scots!

The trouble with "England", except when it is used in error as a synonym for "Great Britain" (as some foreigners still do), is that if we correctly define it as the part of the UK south of Scotland and east of Wales we struggle to find any unifying factors. The peoples of Wales and Scotland, and the two peoples of Northern Ireland, have a clear view of their countries. To be Welsh or to be Scots has clear meaning - from history, culture and language. But there is no such homogenous English culture at all. If we ask a sample of  Englishmen or English women to define what being "English" means, and a matched sample to say what being "British" means, I doubt that you would see any differences at all. And if "British Values" means anything (I doubt that it does actually) it cannot be that it is any different from "English Values".

My Englishness is pretty much confined to sport and I readily admit that to support England in Football, Rugby and (to a lesser extent) Cricket is a patriotic expression of my Englishness. (The "lesser extent" for cricket is because it is officially an Anglo/Welsh team and a de facto British one. Plenty of Scots have played for England and one or two Northern Irishmen as well). So, yes, I am English at Twickenham and at Murrayfield, Wembley and Cardiff. But playing other parts of the UK/British Isles at Rugby or Football (sometimes at Cricket) is really the only time that I see England as being at odds with Scotland or Wales. I lived and worked in Scotland for three years in challenging times (during the miners' strike) - all of my staff were Scottish as were all the people outside I did business with. I don't recall my obvious Englishness or non-Scottishness being a problem once. It was never a problem and never even referred to.

The other problem, for me, with the idea of Englishness is that it assumes a cultural unity that doesn't exist. As with the Scots or the Welsh there are parts of England that are very sure of their own identity. A Yorkshireman, for example, has a distinct set of characteristics that make him different from someone from, say, Sussex. A proud Lancastrian, like my father, was no less a proud Briton. The "English" tier in-between was largely superfluous.

The United Kingdom is comprised of a happy mix of peoples. From Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and from the distinctive regions, counties and cities of England. I am much more a Londoner than I am English. I earnestly hope that the Scots next month will decide that they can stay British as well as being proudly Scottish. Because, you see, the Scots and the Welsh are my people just as much as the English are. And, we are, surely as the slogan has it "Better Together"


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