Saturday, February 06, 2016

So what actually is Englishness ?

I'm sitting wearing my England rugby shirt as I write this and later today I will be off to Murrayfield to cheer on the England rugby team against the Scots. No ambivalence about the importance of my Englishness there ! In sport to be English means two things. Support for England and also support for Britain (eg in the Olympics). But what about away from the sporting arena? Do I feel a distinctive "Englishness" which is distinct from my "Britishness". If I was Scottish or Welsh (Northern Ireland is more complicated!) there would be no problem. Scots are Scottish first and foremost and then British (or 55% of them anyway!). For the English it's different.

How is "Englishness" distinct from "Britishness" ? Only by exception, I would argue. Obviously "Englishness" excludes the Celts. But that's about it. Take a sample of English people and ask them to define what being "English" means. And take a matched sample of English people and ask them to define what being "British" means. The results would be identical except that the latter group might emphasise that being British means having the Celts as our compatriots. But as far as values are concerned I doubt that you would find any difference. Does the "British" bit of me have different values from the "English" bit ? Of course not.

Obviously English history prior to the Union was not British history. It couldn't be, Britain as a Nation did not exist. Similarly Shakespeare was not British, except in retrospect. He is as English as Robbie Burns is Scots. Actually Burns is an interesting case. He died in 1796 a few years before the Act of Union. He is no more British than Shakespeare was. And roll forward to, say, Edward Elgar. Was he distinctly an English rather than a British composer? You could argue that either way I guess and it doesn't really matter. Like me he was both English and British.

Our cultural heritage for the last 215 years is British and the way we are as a United Kingdom has evolved over that time. It was the "British Empire", it is the "British Broadcasting Corporation" - we talk about "British values" and "British Food" and "British weather" and so on. It was the "British Spirit" which won us the war. We have "British institutions" , and, of course, a "British Parliament". The Pound is "British" , as is the weather!

If the Scots break away from us formally Britain will start to disappear and gradually we English will revert to being the country of "Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Harry Potter and David Beckham's right foot" as Hugh Grant's Prime Minister put it in "Love Actually" - though we'd have to drop Sean Connery. Mind you he's dropped us hasn't he ? 


At 7:16 am , Blogger Ewen said...

Er, the act of union between Scotland and England was in 1707, Paddy. The Act with Ireland was 1800. The monarchy was referring to Britain from 1603.
Unfortunately Britain has really meant England to too many people and institutions.


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