Monday, June 06, 2022

The search for modern England

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about England, not the recent disasters of the cricket team, or the resurgence of the football team under Gareth Southgate, but the country of England. The largest, most dominant, and most significant part of the United Kingdom, and what it stands for. Even though we’ve emerged from the four-day celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (I bet you all lost track of what day it was), our country feels a little more divided and a not very United Kingdom.

Scottish identity is once again surging and self-confident. Welshness is rooted in language and culture, and like the Scots, fuelled by grievance.

The Irish question seemed to have been solved by the single market for trade with Europe and a careful tolerance of individual identity embedded in the Good Friday Agreement. That looks under grave threat. A united Ireland may soon have to accommodate a belligerent unionist minority in its northeastern corner.

But should all of that happen, what of the England they would leave behind? Unlike the devolved nations it has no parliament of its own, all of the institutions of England are just the same as the British state, but with bits lopped off.

What is English music? What is English food? An English temperament, or character? But before you answer those questions, what is different from how you would describe British things?

At the height of the Euros last year one of my Mum’s neighbours displayed a massive England flag outside his house and defiantly asked her - “does it offend you?” I found that fascinating. Public displays of Englishness as a rebellion against nice people. Or a yearning for better yesterdays.

The so-called comedian Stewart Lee has a whole routine built around the outrage of a taxi driver who claims he couldn’t claim English nationality on his passport application form: “These days you get arrested and thrown in jail just for saying you’re English” (look it up).

But they are grotesque caricatures and oddities, which bring us no closer to what is different about being English, as opposed to British. 

Journalist Jason Cowley has written a very thoughtful book Who Are We Now? Stories of Moden England that tries to capture who the English are through a series of encounters with people who made the news in the last two decades. Often times these are unlikely heroes or ordinary people thrown into the public spotlight in dramatic, often tragic circumstances. They include a Chinese-born man who survived the drownings in Morecambe Bay, the Rochdale pensioner who schooled Gordon Brown on the facts of life in a northern town and was dismissed as ‘some bigoted woman’, and the London bodybuilder who scraped a racist man off the pavement and saved him from a kicking at the hands of a Black Lives Matter protest.

Cowley pulls together a compelling set of stories about what their experience speaks of England today.

But I kept thinking that slipping in an encounter in Wrexham or Stranraer might seamlessly add to the tapestry and say something about what it is to be British instead, but I think we’re way past that point, and no clearer about what England represents. 

The closest Cowley comes to a clear definition is what he calls Southgateism - embodied by the proud and patriotic England football manager - who also pulls a diverse team together to take the knee against racism. But I think there are dangers in reducing a national identity to the roars of support for sport.

I think too of the hedonistic supporters before the Euro 2020 final at Wembley fuelled by booze, drugs and belligerence, one of whom mounted a distress flare from his naked backside. You don’t see other nationalities doing this and I’m sure he’s got a story to tell about what being English means to him. And I think if he asked my Mum if that offended her, she’d say yes, it does.

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