‘And what should they know of England who only England know?’ (The English Flag, Rudyard Kipling)
On a recent holiday in Australia I was forcibly struck by the fact that I saw more Union flags in three weeks than in the past year at home (which includes a visit to Northern Ireland). The reason for this was not, of course, a sudden outburst of anti-republicanism in Australia, but simply that the Union flag occupies the top left-hand corner of the Australian flag – and the latter is everywhere, most notably flying huge and proud from the top of Sydney Harbour bridge. This plethora of flags, however, is simply one aspect of Australian patriotism – a patriotism which consists not of an assumed superiority over others but rather a massive pride in and love for Australia and things Australian.
What a terrible contrast this made with my homecoming. Apart from the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, for example, when was the last time you saw a Union flag that wasn’t wrapped around a football hooligan or a National Front supporter? But it’s worse than this – there really is an information booklet showing a map which names Scotland and Wales but where England is simply demarcated as ‘The Midlands’, ‘The South West’, etc. The Scots and the Welsh have their Assemblies, flags and anthems. The English have – well, guilt.
England, it seems, is vanishing in a paroxysm of self-loathing and cynicism. Like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, we’ve come to believe our own refrain: ‘We’re no good, we’re no good, we’re no earthly good.’ Of course, there are many who have gone out of their way to encourage this idea. The eighties pop-star Billy Bragg spoke for many in his song ‘The Few’, about football hooligans: ‘And to prove to the world that England / Is just as rotten as she looks / They repeat the lies that caught their eyes / At school in history books’.
The behaviour of which Bragg writes is, of course, saddening. I say saddening rather than sickening, because it derives from a fallen ideal. As Bragg says, the British Nationalists ‘salute the foes their fathers fought’ – an irony which seems to escape them. But the symbolism to which they appeal has a venerable history and thus their antics are redolent of a senile former-ballet dancer going through the motions which once displayed beauty and power. It is saddening, moreover, because it reinforces the dreariest prognoses of those such as Jack Straw whose denunciation of the English as ‘potentially very aggressive, very violent’, instead of being greeted, as it deserved, with howls of outrage, produced a flabbily resigned acceptance which, though it belied the truth of Mr Straw’s statement, underlined the depths to which the English psyche has fallen: ‘We’re no good, we’re no good’.
Yet does it matter? Surely with nationalist hatreds stretching from the Balkans to the Basques, a bit of self-deprecation can’t do any harm? The difficulty, however, is that this response overlooks how human beings and human societies work. As Margaret Thatcher’s enemies are still fond of pointing out (whilst overlooking what she meant by saying there isn’t), there is such a thing as ‘society’. But society doesn’t come in the pure form. It comes packaged as homes, streets, villages, towns, cities and – yes – nations. National identity impacts on every individual in the society of which that nation consists. And if the national mood is essentially cynical or violent then we should not be surprised to find ours lives afflicted by various manifestations of cynicism and violence.
There is, however, a difficulty because nationalism cannot be claimed as a Christian virtue. The Apostle Peter addressed Christians throughout the Roman Empire as ‘exiles of the diaspora’. The Christian should be the internationalist par excellence. Yet the Bible is not ignorant of the issues of living as exiles. Significantly, in the great exile God urges his people, ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jeremiah 29.7). Seeking the welfare of one’s own nation, in spite of it not being a ‘Christian’ society, is as much an example of enlightened self-interest as seeking harmony within one’s own family in spite of being married to an unbeliever. Indeed, Anglicans, as those whose very name is a national identity, should of all Christians recognize the rightness of this outlook. Our branch of the Church Universal is the Church of England, and if the spirit of England should wither and die then so, to a degree will that of our denomination.
In any case, our problem at the present is not so much a lack of an English identity as an almost entirely negative identity, the effects of which are anything but trivial. Bragg, and the other purveyors of popular culture, complain that England is ‘rotten’. What wonder, then, if the English behave in a rotten way. And what blindness to suppose that you can constantly tell a nation, any more than a child, that it is worthless and then expect it to develop a sense of self-worth displayed in worthy living.
Sadly, the suggestion that England might be encouraged to develop a positive national identity evokes fears of racism in both politician and churchman alike. But this fear betrays further evidence of our lack of positive self-awareness. When Daniel Defoe wrote his ironic ‘The True Born Englishman’ in 1701 he was not the first to notice we are descendants of an ‘amphibious ill-born mob’. I myself am an eighth Welsh – and that is the only bit I am sure of! Part of the joy of Englishness is that it is an ‘invitation ball’ – anyone can join in the dance who is willing. Nor is a positive attitude to Englishness an attack on other nationalities. The difference between patriotism and nationalism is surely that the patriot can love his own country without despising others. Certainly, the English have divided the world into themselves and ‘Johnny Foreigner’, but the well-informed have always recognized the self-mocking counterpoint to this. Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘He is an Englishman’ or Flanders and Swann’s ‘The English are best’ were funny because we knew they were both true (we do sometimes think like this) and not true (it really isn’t true) at the same time. Being English never has been about distinguishing the racially pure from the impure, which is why we found Hitler’s ideology so easy to resist.
Englishness, like every other national identity, rested rather on a sense of history, an adherence to certain symbols and an expectation of certain behaviours. And so if a positive Englishness is to be recaptured, it must entail a repossession of all three elements.
First and foremost must come history. Contrary to Bragg’s suggestion, the behaviour of English football hooligans is not caused by ‘lies … in history books’. (The image of skinheads poring over history books is itself somewhat implausible.) The cause is, rather, a lack of history. Whilst in Australia I visited Ayer’s Rock, also known as Uluru, which boasts a wonderful information centre where one learns the significance of Aboriginal traditions. Yet I came away wondering not so much about the Aboriginals as the English. For what happens to any nation which is denied its traditions? The answer is that it invents myths – such as the ‘Braveheart’ myth that Scotland was a land of poet warriors who only wanted to live in peace but who were constantly the victims (according to Jack Straw again) of English violence. And because history is absorbed by cultural ‘osmosis’, much more than it is through teachers or textbooks, it matters that our leaders and commentators seem to have a mistaken and negative perception of English history.
Second come cultural symbols. What the terrorists who attacked America achieved was more significant than mass murder, striking as they did the symbols of American power. The gap on the Manhattan skyline is a heartbreaking demonstration of the damage done to the entire American way of life. By contrast, what image spoke more strongly of London’s successful resistance to Hitler than the picture of St Paul’s standing unscathed in the ruins of the Blitz? Cultural symbols are not symbols of cultural identity – as if the ‘culture’ could be found elsewhere. Rather, they are the means by which that identity is embodied. Churchill’s ‘victory’ salute, the changing of the guard, Big Ben, thatched cottages, John Bull – these things proclaim ‘England’, and the Englishman who is ashamed of them has lost the ability to live with himself.
Consequently, such a person will be unable to respond positively to the third element of cultural identity, namely behavioural expectations. There are those who reject the notion of cultural stereotyping, but they defy experience. Any Englishman in Finland will know what it is like to be an American in England – suddenly you are the loud one! Of course, individual Finns vary widely, but there is a typical Finn, just as there is a typical Australian. And responding to one’s own culture with guilt or shame will not eradicate the typical Englishman. It will simply mean that the Englishman is typically cynical and unhappy with himself and the world in general, or boorish and xenophobic.
Our current negativism is undergirded by and nurtures a sense of guilt which in an individual would have us sending them to the psychiatrist or the priest. And here the gospel has a unique part to play. The deconstruction of English identity means we can no longer ignore the faults and failures of the past. But how are we to live with that knowledge? We are unable to reinvent ourselves as an innocent ‘underdog nation’. Surely, the right attitude to adopt is the gospel approach of simul justus et peccator? Personally, I do not need to pretend that everything English is good or that everything England did was right. Instead, I can acknowledge both the good and the bad and accept that, yes, this is me.
My old school song was doubtless terrible doggerel, but it laid down cultural ‘markers’, told me it was good to be English and showed me my responsibilities to present and future: ‘Here’s to old John Roan, who lived and worked and died, in the mighty days of Cromwell, of Milton and of Blake … Here’s to those that come hereafter, the lads we shall not see, the men of generations who will have new foes to fight’ (that from memory alone). Pathetic? Laughable? No more so, surely than the stories of Kuniya the python woman, or Itjaritjari the marsupial mole which mean so much to the Anangu Aboriginals. Singing this song every year (and writing it out three times in detention) did not turn me into a raving skinhead, or even (on its own) the person writing this article. It simply formed part of the substrate in which I learned to be English and in which I learned for a while to be less than comfortable with that. But, as Bob Dylan sang whilst going in a somewhat different direction, ‘The times they are a’changing.’
John Richardson who works in the wilds of Essex.