England, Which England?

By Hayes, David | New Statesman (1996), August 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

England, Which England?


Hayes, David, New Statesman (1996)


England is the dark shadow of the constitutional debate. A changing Britain finds England slumbering, a neglected infant or (perhaps) a fearful giant best left undisturbed. As a political subject England barely registers; no such country appears, for example, in Vernon Bogdanor's lucid book Power and the People.

Yet as Scotland and Wales stumble towards limited self-government, the sense of disadvantage - financial, political, even cultural - has grown. If there is a specifically English interest in the face of events (and why shouldn't there be?), what kind of identity would underlie it?

The argument that devolutionist demands will provoke an English reassertion is a staple of Conservative journalism. Simon Heifer, Brace Anderson, William Rees-Mogg and Matthew Parris have all recently played variations on this theme. The shared fear, or threat, is that the putative English nationalism will be dangerous; better then to stick with a union where base emotions are contained by stable institutions embodying a higher focus of loyalty.

The welcome feature of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's article ("Bring England in from the cold", 11 July) is that the English alternative becomes more than a weapon of last resort to frighten the devolutionist children.

Alibhai-Brown seeks the "deconstruction and reconstruction" of an identity which could counterbalance the claims of Celtic neighbours or ethnic subgroups. The mainstream English majority also need to be comfortable in their own skins.

It is an appealing vision, proceeding from perceived inequity and imagining a settlement of inclusion and mutual respect. Moreover, it anticipates actual developments: since change unavoidably touches England, a positive attempt should be made to shape a harmonious future.

The move from affirming English interests to exploring identity takes the debate forward. After all England, in Richard Hoggart's words "that extraordinarily slow-moving organism", cannot - as the above writers imply - be conveniently summoned to trump the pesky Scots. Like any historic nation, England has a life, combining historical experience, collective memory, shared values, beyond the reach of state or media.

When, as in England, a nation is moulded by a history involving bitter conflicts, its identity remains a contested site into the present. The debate can be healthy, even cathartic, but it presupposes doubt over the official version. The sources of pride listed by Alibhai-Brown (Shakespeare, Dickens, philanthropy) have a fustily conformist flavour for a country seeking to remake itself. Heritage nationalism offers false comfort, and ultimately escapism, in a transformed political landscape.

A truly reimagined England would expand the range of thought and feeling about itself in unexpected ways. Susan Sontag's words are for nations also: "An event that makes new feelings conscious is always the most important experience a person can have."

The historical moment may indeed generate new ways of being English that go far beyond just another media virus.

Geopolitical and globalising convulsions are inside the British system. Regional initiatives express both these and the system's institutional failings. A consciously English voice cannot merely recycle an ideology whose traditional ramparts are eroding. John Steinbeck once said that Scotland is "not a lost cause, but a cause unwon". The phrase today is more apposite to England. Whatever England is - after empire, after Thatcherism, after devolution - is also to be discovered.

"Encouraging the English to be English" would be an adventure. It involves seeing the country whole (and thus conceiving its diminishment); viewing it in an international context (rejecting the strain of contempt that dynamised 1980s political culture); and engaging with its immediate neighbours (if only to see the mirror of its own discontents). This imaginative work is not easy for a people who don't possess their nation, but rather are encompassed by it. …

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