The negotiations over Britain’s relations with Europe, the controversy surrounding the border in Ireland and the continuing power of Scottish national sentiment are obliging the English to think harder than usual about who they are and what they want.
For the past three centuries (since the Acts of Union in 1707) their national identity has been so folded into their role as the senior power in the British federation that they are unaccustomed to self-examination. At times condescending, at times complacent, they have rarely needed to question their place in the world. Thanks to Brexit this is changing, and quickly.
National identities are not usually fluid. As the accumulated residue of long histories, they evolve at a stately pace, like coral: They can hardly be cast aside on a mere whim of fashion. But the past 18 months have cast sharp doubt on such assumptions. England’s national identity is undergoing a fast and furious overhaul.
A country that was once a byword for steady, imperturbable (sometimes maddening) stodginess has suddenly revealed itself to be fractious, impulsive and jittery. A land of fair play and cautious pragmatism (don’t rock the boat, no need to frighten the horses, steady as she goes) has become moody and quarrelsome. The idea that we are in any way “strong and stable” has lost all credibility.
There has long been an ambiguous quality to Englishness. Today’s England feels like a country that has fallen out of love with itself — mistrusting its elites, scornful of its media, and famously impatient with experts. Self-deprecation is one thing: this is something stronger. Deprived of its reputation for reliability, England can only be a shadow of its former self.
“What in the world has happened to this country?” asked one Swiss paper, while a German radio station called Brexit the “biggest political nonsense since the Roman emperor Caligula decided to appoint his horse Incitatus as consul”. Britain has appeared in a Polish journal as “an offended, spoiled child”, in a Japanese paper as “an outcast”, and in India as guilty of “utter folly”. Pakistan described the British lion as possessing “more of a moan than a roar”, while an Austrian cartoon showed a deluded Brit leaping from a plane clutching not a parachute but a union flag. The Suddeutsche Zeitung, a serious paper, has driven the point home by calling Britain “the laughing stock of the world”.
When Dean Acheson characterised Britain in 1962 as a country that had lost an empire and not yet found a role, he could not have imagined that this new role was to be ... a joke. Nor can the English pretend that such barbs are aimed at Britain as a whole. To the foreign onlooker the distinction is blurred — as it often is to the English themselves.
We have the BBC but speak English; we fly British Airways but expect a full English breakfast; we cherish English literature ... in the British Library. We know, however, that Brexit was primarily an English emotion, fuelled by English votes. In all honesty we should not speak of Brexit. What happened in the referendum was “Exit”.
It would be wrong to conclude from this that England is by nature more pull-up-the-drawbridge than the other British nations. It is by some distance Britain’s most cosmopolitan region. According to a 2017 survey by the Migration Observatory, London alone has almost five times the foreign-born population of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. There are more foreign-born in Manchester than in Scotland.
It is often asserted that Englishness, like Britishness, must be a matter of ideas and values — liberty, democracy, equality, tolerance and so on. But it is hard to see these as distinctively native: they are standard-issue social ideals shared or claimed by almost everyone from Australia to Zimbabwe.
The only unique things about England, the qualities that are irrevocably its own, concern its landscape and history. These are the fields we should explore in order to find what we have been fighting for.
In 1941, George Orwell argued, in The Lion and the Unicorn, that even if England were to be conquered and overrun it would somehow remain England, an expression of its green hills and valleys, fields and hedgerows, squalls and rainbows. “The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal.”
No one knows whether this is true — not everything lasts. It is possible that England will remain the driving force of a new golden age for a new global Britain, but it is equally possible (to put the bleaker case) that England will awake from the Brexit fever, gape in amazement, and wonder how such folly came to pass.
In the meantime we should note that England is by no means one thing. Ullswater is not at all like Brixton; Widnes would look out of place in Dorset; there are easy-to-spot differences between Constable country and Wolverhampton. The chasm that divides a Canary Wharf money trader from a zero-hours road haulier in Sunderland is deep indeed.
As has often been said, modern England is a land of cricket matches and cathedral choirs; but it is also a land of pub darts, Indian saris and Islamic minarets.
Whether a national identity can cohere around the theme of variousness is another question. We had better hope so, because one thing is certain: Variety may soon be all we have.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Robert Winder is the author of The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness.