My Big England series ended in the autumn without any contribution from me. I’m making it now because questions about national values and identity are riding high in public consciousness again. Much debate centres on a perceived need among politicians to redefine and assert an idea of “Britishness” embracing British citizens in all their diversity; a particularly big task given a recent survey showing that the numbers in Britain who see themselves as British before everything else is in decline.
I am part of that decline in that I, like many others, think of myself as English more than as British and have done so increasingly in recent years. Why is this? There are a few reasons and I’ve a feeling they are different from those of most who flew the flag of St George during last year’s World Cup. Much conspicuous English nationalism seems to be a defensive response to the impulses that drove Welsh and Scottish devolution. By contrast, my recent, conscious readiness to embrace Englishness is partly a reaction against the associations Britishness still has in my mind with crude chauvinism, Thatcherism and racist nationalism. This is not to say that some people’s “new” Englishness isn’t about those things too – it undoubtedly is. Yet, as one strand of World Cup fever showed, Englishness has also become newly available to ethnic minority groups and that makes it more attractive to me too.
Other reasons for my comfort with Englishness derive from my ongoing reconciliation with my past. Many would describe my background as quintessentially English: son of a self-employed skilled manual worker and a full-time housewife, born and respectably raised in a small rural town that owed its existence to coal mining. But by age eighteen I was glad to escape this variety of English culture, finding it parochial, narrow-minded and suffocating. That said, time and distance lend perspective. Where my elderly parents are concerned I’ve come to greatly admire their doughty self-reliance and if that is an element of Englishness I’d like to think I have inherited.
That said, the bulk of the Englishness I fancy I personify remains sharply at odds with the version of it I grew up with. I’ll never return to that England, emotionally or geographically. My Englishness arises from the strands of English culture that are impure, dissident, even delinquent: urban youth cultures that absorbed fashion sense and music from America and the Caribbean; humour that flows from self-deprecation, a disdain for snobbery, a keen sense of the absurd; that scepticism business; the whole irony thing.
The same spirit nourishes my most recent developments in my English identity. Living in a part of London where most of my neighbours don’t think of themselves as English or even British, my Englishness has become something that is ascribed to me as well as something that I ascribe to myself. The Turkish people in the chip shop tease me about being “English” because my kids don’t like chillies on their kebabs and so on. By “English” is meant, I think, “white British” or maybe just “white”. That isn’t quite the way I see it, but never mind. It’s the way that they see me that I enjoy – hopefully as broad-minded, friendly, interested in them and free from any inherent sense of greater entitlement or assumption of superiority deriving from my nationality. How right they are! And how English does that make me?
P.S. More by me on "Britishness" at Comment Is Free.