Some years back, I was driving through northern England with a friend. On a Cumbrian A-road west of Kendal, we passed a layby in which was situated a typical British roadside snack bar: a white caravan, a couple of plastic garden chairs, pink and yellow DayGlo cardboard stars advertising chips and fried breakfasts and tea. The full English.
On top of the caravan was an aerial, and attached to the aerial, blowing in the wind that was coming off Morecambe Bay, was a St George’s cross, the English national flag; a common sight now across the nation, though I’m sure it never used to be when I was young.
“What do you think that’s about?” my friend asked. “Why do you think you see so many of them in places like this now?”
I said I hadn’t thought about it. But it seemed my friend had. He told me it reminded him of a road trip he had taken when he was younger across the southern states of the US: the former Confederacy. There, he said, you would often see the old Confederate flag flying in similar places: unofficial, at once underground and open, an act of defiance.
“It’s not the same,” he said, “but it’s sort of similar, isn’t it? It’s like the sign of a people that lost. But they’re saying ’We’re still here’.”
We’re still here. I think of this now when I see Ukip heading for third place in the general election, or when I read that levels of both immigration and objections to immigration are at record highs, or that trust in the political system continues to collapse, or that the euro is on the brink again, or that 45% of Scottish voters want to break away from the UK. I think of this and I wonder about England. I wonder about the future of this great national elephant, shifting its bulk in the peeling glamour of the British imperial room. I wonder what England is, and where it is going and what its people want to be. I wonder if it will survive as a nation, and whether it matters, and I wonder what will happen next.
Seven years ago, I published a book called Real England. It was both a personal state-of-the-nation report and a record of my own anxieties. For years I’d sensed an ongoing, hard-‘to-pin-down loss of many of the things I felt made my country distinctive. I’d watched local pubs being turned into theme bars or pricey flats. The old town-centre breweries were going with them, and the collapse of independent shops was transforming high streets into identical colonnades of brand names. In the countryside, what little that remained of a particularly English rural culture was being emptied out, as villages became commuter dormitories or dead collectives of second homes for the wealthy. In the cities, independent shops and pubs and markets and clubs were being gentrified out of existence, and more sinister things were happening, too: public streets and open spaces were being privatised, enclosed and policed by private security guards. The small and the local, the traditional and the distinctive were being stamped out by the powerful, the placeless and the very, very profitable.
This was not a phenomenon confined to England. Around the world, an increasingly deregulated consumer capitalism was, and is, elbowing aside local cultures and national identities and, in many cases, democracy as well. Everyone in politics and the media seemed to agree on how wonderful this all was, and all the official figures from the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the ranks of chief economists and chancellors proved that we were all better off. It was to be Tiger Economies and the Global Race and Economic Growth for ever. The world was now a giant airport lounge through which happy consumers could wander at will, picking baubles off the shelf, unmoored from history, place and meaning. Concerns about any of this were usually dismissed as “nostalgia”: a harmless but irrelevant longing for a “rose-tinted past”.
I must have spent about nine months wandering England researching that book, talking to lock keepers and farmers and canal boaters, cafe owners and MPs and market traders, landlords and apple growers and campaigners against second homes. Above and beyond all of their specific grievances, I sensed a strange unease. It wasn’t about particular local problems, and though it was sometimes voiced, more often it was unspoken. I hadn’t expected it, but it was definitely there. Many people seemed to feel unacknowledged, unlistened to, ignored, looked down on: not just as individuals, but as a people, as a nation. As the English.
The United Kingdom is, depending on your politics, either a state made up of four nations or a state made up of three and a half. Either way, England is by far the biggest, with around 85% of the British population, and its size has traditionally made it the dominant voice in the relationship. The British empire was not an exclusively English project (whatever Celtic nationalists might like to suggest) but it certainly caused a specific register of Englishness &emdash; southern, bourgeois, mercantile, expansionist &emdash; to become associated with Britain as a whole, and the Victorian establishment’s worldview was imbued with a strong sense of a manifest Anglo-Saxon destiny.
The collapse of this brand of imperial Englishness marched in step with the collapse of the empire that had created it. Then, as part of the reaction to that empire, an academic and intellectual effort began in the second half of the 20th century to “deconstruct” the English national identity, and with it the very concept of nations. Waves of immigration from the former empire after the second world war began to change the nature of the English population, forcing a reconsideration of what identity meant and who belonged where.
By the beginning of this century, it seemed that Englishness was an identity in official retreat. The contrast with attitudes a century earlier was revealing. The political and cultural establishments no longer talked about an Anglo-Saxon destiny. Rather, they talked about a “multicultural Britain” in which the English were just one culture among many. In this narrative, the English were a nation of “mongrels”, who had been “multicultural” right from the start. The word “English” should rightly appear in inverted commas, in fact, to emphasise its “problematic” nature. Even the English flag was recast as a symbol of racism and bigotry, despite the fact that most of the tiny far right groupings in Britain were actually waving the same flag as all the mainstream political parties: the union jack.
Constitutionally, the United Kingdom was reconstructed in the late 1990s: Scotland was given its parliament, Wales its assembly and Northern Ireland its peace process. England remained the only UK nation to which power was not devolved, and whose people were not consulted about their governance. English governance, in fact, was a mess, but nobody wanted to talk about it. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs were voting on laws that applied only to England, while English MPs were left out of decisions being made about other UK nations. Those other nations were receiving more money per head from the UK Treasury, despite the fact that many of the poorest parts of Britain were in England.
Meanwhile, the political establishment at Westminster, increasingly desperate to keep the kingdom united, began playing up the notion of “Britishness” as a unitary identity. The Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 were notorious for their refusal to acknowledge the English polity. Scottish prime minister Gordon Brown even became the focus of an online campaign called “Say England”, demanding that he spoke the name of the nation he was governing, something he seemed reluctant to do unless the football World Cup was on. Brown preferred to refer instead, as his protege Ed Miliband still does, to “the nations and regions of Britain”: the nations being Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the regions being the administrative chunks into which Labour had divided England in 1998. England, it seemed, was no longer even a nation in the eyes of its own government.
Then, of course, there was immigration. Since the late 1990s, migration into the UK had risen to historically unprecedented levels. In the last recorded year, ending June 2014, more than 580,000 new people arrived in Britain – 10 times as many as had arrived in 1985 – and the great majority had settled in England, where more than 90% of Britain’s ethnic minority population lives. The 2011 census revealed the scale of change. Thirteen per cent of England’s population was now foreign-born, and in four English cities, including the capital, English people had become an ethnic minority. The population had risen by four million in a decade, with two thirds of this growth caused by immigration, and the rate of movement showed no sign of slowing down.
England was changing fast, and growing numbers of its people were beginning to feel unmoored and unspoken-for. What England was and would become, what it meant to be English in the 21st century, and who decided, were increasingly anxious questions, but nobody would acknowledge them through the official channels. Meanwhile, the pressure on schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure caused by the rapid population increase were having a real-world impact, especially on working-class and lower-middle-class English people, who were bearing the brunt of the pressure created by the influx of newcomers.
This was the state of England in the early 21st century. From a position of global dominance and cultural complacency a century before, it was now a nation in the midst of an identity crisis. So what did Englishness mean? And how could that question be explored in an intellectual environment in which English identity was caricatured as either nostalgic or nasty?
Today, these questions seem easier to ask. That sense of unhappiness that I noticed nearly a decade ago is finding a voice. Politically, the combination of a coalition government, a rolling economic crisis, the Scottish referendum and the rise of Ukip is making a continued denial of Englishness and a promotion of a unitary Britishness increasingly untenable. Culturally, too, something seems to be changing. Opinion polls show increasing numbers of people, from all backgrounds and ethnicities, identifying themselves as “English” rather than “British”. From folk music to food, fiction to TV drama, there is a tentative sense of a renewed cultural Englishness beginning to creep into the light.
We’re still here, say the flags. There are more of them every year, and they appear to be the most visible aspect of that coalescing English voice, one that hasn’t been heard for a long time, but which is growing in volume. What that voice will end up saying is now the big question.
A nation is a story that a people chooses to tell about itself, and at its heart is a stumbling but deep-felt need for those people to be connected to the place where they live and to each other. Humans in all times and places have needed ancestors, history, a place to be and a sense of who they are as a collective, and modernity and rationalism have not abolished these needs. They are needs that stimulate great passions, which in turn can do great harm, as history has shown time and again, but they are unlikely ever to go away.
A nation, in other words, is about belonging &emdash; to a specific place that is not quite like another place, and to a collective of people you share things with. This kind of belonging can be stifling or liberating, and sometimes both at once, but at its best it gives us a mooring in space and time, without which we are liable to be washed away. If we want to see what a world without belonging would look like, we only have to look around. If an identity is an alliance between people and places, then airport lounge modernity means taking the places out of the picture. All that is left is people who could be anywhere: citizens of nowhere, consumers of objects and experiences, connected by their little screens, the same white light shining into their faces from Doncaster to Dubai.
In this context, when I think about why I call myself “English” rather than “British” – and I always do, from habit and instinct more than from any need to make a statement – it is the places I think about. The small places, especially. I think about osiers by the upper Thames, windbent thorns on Dartmoor, black granite outcrops in Calderdale. I think about the lanes and the stone rows and the lock cottages and the pub signs. I think about the names: the harrows and hams and tons, the becks and rills and brooks. Wayland’s Smithy, Grimsditch, Offa’s Dyke, Long Meg. I have always associated England with small, secret things, and Britain with big, bombastic ones. Britain to me is empire and royalty, satanic mills and the white man’s burden. England is the still pool under the willows where nobody will find you all day, and the only sound is the fish jumping in the dappled light. It’s a romantic vision, I know, but then nations are, like people, at least partly romantic things.
Romance will only get you so far, however. Today, the real England sometimes feels like 50 million people driving around a motorway forever. The march of the shopping malls, green-belt housing estates and pointy glass skyscrapers continues apace, and the future offers an epic round of building: hundreds of thousands of new houses every year, new airports, new motorways and roads and high-speed rail lines ad infinitum. The population is expected to exceed 70 million within 15 years, all in the name of growth and with no end in sight. Global capitalism is eating the soul of the nation. What will be left after it has digested its meal?
It is in this context that the current immigration debate can perhaps best be seen. Large-scale immigration is not, as some of its more foaming opponents believe, a conspiracy by metropolitan liberals to destroy English identity. It is a simple commercial calculation. It may cause overcrowding and cultural tension, it may be economically traumatic for some people, and it may drain poorer countries of their own talent, but it is undoubtedly good for growth, which is why business leaders consistently call for more of it. Immigrants are easier to exploit and underpay, and often prepared to work harder and accept fewer rights. If you believe, as our politicians apparently do, that what’s good for business is good for everyone, and that a nation is little more than a machine for competing in a “global race”, then mass immigration is an entirely sensible proposition.
The problems that proposition causes are real, and those who support it can no longer get away with shouting “racist” at the majority who don’t. The people of any nation will always want the right to control their own borders and decide on the direction of their culture, and England is no exception. But that majority has its own questions to answer, too. In a nation whose population is ageing, and whose people consistently demand more and cheaper stuff, who is going to do the heavy lifting? If you want a cheap nanny and your cut-price supermarket vegetables picked in all weathers for the minimum wage, then someone has to do it. There is no doubt that large-scale immigration changes the shape, texture and potentially the identity of a nation, but so do out-of-town retail parks, coffee chains, theme pubs, second homes, gentrified cities and privatised streets. If you don’t want the population movement, you don’t get the cheap, easy consumer lifestyle it facilitates. Which will you choose?
Sometimes, when I look at history, I think that identity is the root of all evil. Sometimes, when I look at the present, I think that we will be lost without it. Perhaps both are true, but it doesn’t look like the need for it is going away any time soon. It seems to be a foundation of what it means to be human: a deep, old need. And I keep coming back to England, though I never quite know why.
The word “England” derives from the Old English “Engla Lond”: land of the Angles. The Angles, along with the Saxons and the Jutes, were a Germanic tribe said to have arrived on the shores of post-Roman Britannia in the sixth century, and who would later become known, to distinguish them from the old Saxons of Germania, as the Anglo-Saxons.
In keeping with the contemporary trend for deconstructing all things English, the Anglo-Saxons have been out of fashion in recent decades, but Engla Lond, or Angland, is the foundation stone on which contemporary England is built. Today, a millennium away from the world of the Anglo-Saxons, we still speak a language derived mostly from the Old English they spoke, and many features of contemporary England, from the monarchy, the church and the county boundaries right down to field patterns, place names and routes of major roads, have their origins in the age of Bede and Beowulf.
Today, when English history is taught in schools, it often starts in 1066, the only date from school history lessons that most of us can reliably remember. Yet the conquest of England in that year by Viking descendants from Normandy, under the leadership of the brutal Guillaume le Batard – William the Bastard, who unsurprisingly preferred to be known as William the Conqueror – resulted in mass dispossession, forced marriage, wide-scale land theft, military rule and the slaughter of those who resisted. Within a few short years, the English elite had been almost entirely replaced by cronies of the new Norman king, and England found itself ruled by a foreign aristocracy who often evinced contempt for Anglo-Saxon culture. It would be another 300 years before the kings of England again spoke English as their first language.
In other words, the date at which English history is often said to begin is actually the date at which England was colonised. The history of England, seen through the eyes of the ordinary English woman or man, is often a history of dispossession. A case could be made, in fact, that the English were the first victims of the British empire: without their conquest, that empire could not have been built. The country that invented capitalism and the first modern empire did so on the backs of most of its population. A nation is a story, but there are many different ways to tell it.
If you want to hear that population speak, you only have to listen to an English folk song. Listen to enough of them, and you begin to realise how many are laments. Laments for sons or lovers taken away by the press-gang or forced to take the King’s shilling. The laments of women waiting seven years for their lovers to return from the sea. The laments of the landless poor. The laments of those hanged or transported for stealing a sheep or a loaf of bread. The laments of those forced into the factories, working for a pittance with no chance of escape. The laments of the bridge builders and the sappers and the miners.
England’s tragedy was that its identity became so closely entwined with the commercial and imperial adventures of its elite that it became hard to tell them apart. The smallness of England was replaced with the bombast of Britain, and when Britain’s empire collapsed, so did England’s sense of itself. Now, as the nation is bought up by a global plutocracy and sold back to its people, questions offer themselves up: can we remember that other history? Does it still matter? In an age in which imperial adventures have been rebranded as “global competition”, can England make itself small again?
Britain’s forthcoming general election will be a curious affair. It will be fought between three big political parties, all of whom will be loudly committed to the United Kingdom but whose political writ, should they win, will run mainly in England alone. The insurgent populist party, which even has “UK” in its name, will bang the drum for the union with equal bombast, while focusing on an issue – immigration – that mainly affects England. One potential outcome of the election is a coalition made up of a Labour party that barely acknowledges England’s existence and a Scottish National party that can’t be held accountable by any English voters. Despite all this, the future of England as a nation is unlikely to be mentioned at all on the campaign trail.
At times like these, a nation needs its radicals. Unfortunately, the English left is uncomfortable with the idea of nations in general and the English nation in particular. For a long time now, it has been common in leftish circles to argue that nations are dangerous things, that connection to place and history foreshadows the twin bogeymen of fascism and racism, and that the future lies with a kind of internationalist humanitarianism, in which such “parochial” concerns are left behind. The failure of this bloodlessly intellectual vision to capture the human imagination for more than a century has still not killed it off.
The English left famously exhibits a strange national self-loathing that doesn’t seem mirrored in any comparable European country. Radicals in France, Spain or Greece seem to have no problem couching their challenges to existing authority in language that grasps the meaning of nationhood, and even exhibits pride in it. But in England it is standard for people who consider themselves in some way “anti-establishment” to sneer at their national identity. This is not a new phenomenon. “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality,” wrote George Orwell in his 1941 pamphlet “The Lion and the Unicorn”. “In leftwing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.”
Whatever the origins of this pathology, the English left should understand that if you’re going to take a people’s story away from them, you need a better one to replace it with. Attacking that story as the “parochial” offerings of a “Little Englander” is not going to help your cause. Quite the opposite: this tendency to dismiss or condemn feelings of attachment to place, nation and identity simply means that those things become associated instead with the political right, and when people feel those things are threatened, it will be the right they turn to. This goes a long way to explaining the rise of Ukip. The left’s response to that rise – to mock its supporters or call them fascists, or both – shows that at least some of Orwell’s England is still with us.
Sometimes, the best way of telling new stories is to reclaim old words. The word “parochial” might be a good place to start. “All great civilisations are built on parochialism,” wrote the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh in 1952. “Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.” Parochialism is universal: it sounds like a contradiction, but only if you don’t fully grasp its meaning. “Parochial” literally means “of the parish”. It denotes the small and the particular and the specific. It means knowing where you are. It can also mean insular and narrow-minded, but it doesn’t have to, any more than “cosmopolitan” has to mean snobbish and rootless.
This negative meaning has attached itself to the word because contemporary globalised culture is resolutely anti-parochial. It sets out to destroy local particularity and our attachment to it, because if we remain attached to it we may not buy into the placeless nowhere civilisation that is being built around the globe in the name of money. At its best, a radical parochialism may be the most effective means of resisting this global machine. As Kavanagh implied, without a parochial culture, there can be no culture at all.
The same is true of the phrase “Little Englander”, originally a 19th-century term of abuse directed at those who resisted the expansion of empire. A “Little Englander” was someone who wanted England’s influence to stop at its own borders, rather than the nation throwing its weight around in the world. In that sense, a little England sounds pretty good to me. An England that pays attention to its places rather than wiping them out in the name of growth; an England that doesn’t have imperial designs; an England that doesn’t want to follow America into idiotic wars for the sake of prestige. An England that stops trying to “punch above its weight”, and instead asks why it is punching at all.
If nations are stories, England has a good one to tell: a long and fascinating one, with a balance of darkness and light. It is a story that everyone becomes part of simply by being in England. The Scottish independence campaign last year did a good job of building a civic Scottish identity that people could feel part of whether or not they were ethnically Scottish. In England, which is far more ethnically diverse, it may appear harder to do this, yet the way to do it seems straightforward: just tell the story of England. Tell it from the beginning to the present day, and you will find that everyone in the country has been included in it, wherever they came from and whatever their background.
Is it possible to be a nation without the worst of nationalism? To be comfortable with your identity and history without withdrawing into them? To welcome outsiders without forgetting what you are welcoming them to? Englishness, whatever it means, is ever-changing: England today would be largely unrecognisable to someone from 1066, or even 1866. A nation is a process not a fixed thing, but it has continuities nonetheless. It may be a story, but it is not fiction.
When I think about these questions, I always find myself coming back to the place itself: the woods, the fields, the streets, the towns, the beaches. We live in an age of climate change and mass extinction, burgeoning cities, deepening immersion in technologies of distraction, the spreading ideology of mass consumption. The antidote to this global distancing of humanity from the rest of nature is the slow, messy business of getting to know a landscape. If a nation is a relationship between people and place, then a cultural identity that comes from a careful relationship with that place might be a new story worth telling.
Is there a future, I wonder, in a kind of ecological Englishness &emdash; an identity that sees everyone in England as part of its landscapes and thus its history, and that has us all paying closer attention to them: nurturing them instead of concreting them over in the name of the future, or driving past on the way to somewhere else? Could this help build an identity to compete with, and perhaps replace, both the tired pomp of establishment Britain and the deconstructed coldness of the internationalist left? Could that old, smaller England come out from behind the shadow of Britain once more?
It’s probably another romantic dream. But nations, like people, need to dream sometimes.