The English Question

By Marquand, David | New Statesman (1996), April 8, 2016 | Go to article overview

The English Question


Marquand, David, New Statesman (1996)


The political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. But something is stirring among Chesterton's secret people

From the late 18th century to the early 20th, Britain's political class wrestled with an Irish Question: how could the British state govern "John Bull's Other Island" in a way that kept the native Irish quiescent, without jeopardising its own security? When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 the question disappeared from the British political agenda--only to reappear in another guise during the Troubles in Northern Ireland half a century later. It was not laid to rest until the Belfast Agreement of 1998. More recently, politicians and commentators on both sides of the border have had to come to terms with an increasingly intractable Scottish Question: how should the ancient and once independent Scottish nation relate to the other nations of the United Kingdom and to the Westminster parliament? As the convoluted debate provoked by the coming EU referendum shows, a more nebulous English Question now looms in the wings.

Like the Irish and Scottish Questions, it is the child of a complex history. England became a united kingdom in Anglo-Saxon times. It faced external enemies, notably invading Danes, but its kings ruled their own territory with an iron hand. The Norman Conquest substituted francophone rulers and a francophone nobility for these Anglo-Saxon kings; the new elite spoke French, sent their sons to France to be educated and polished and, in many cases, owned territory in France. Simon de Montfort, once credited with founding the English parliament, was a French nobleman as well as an English one. But the kingdom remained united. The Celtic people who had once inhabited what is now England were driven out by the Anglo-Saxons; Lloegr, the Welsh word for England, means "the lost land". It stayed lost after the Conquest; and indeed, the Norman rulers of England pushed further into Wales than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done.

United did not mean peaceful or stable. Henry II, William the Conqueror's great-grandson, ruled a vast Continental empire stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees, as well as England. Inept kings, uppity barons, an aggressive church, restive peasants, a century-long war with France and bitter dynastic rivalries undermined his achievement. But there was no English equivalent to the powerful, de facto independent duchies of Burgundy or Aquitaine in what is now France, or to the medley of principalities, city states and bishoprics that divided Germans and Italians from each other until well into the 19th century. That was still true after the Welshman Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and seized the English crown as Henry VII. His son (who became Henry VIII) was not content with keeping England united. Having broken with the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to annul his first marriage, he made himself head of the Church in England and proclaimed that the realm of England was an "empire", free from all external authority.

From the upheavals of Henry's reign and the subtle compromises of his daughter Elizabeth's emerged the Church of England --an institutional and theological third way between the Catholicism of Rome, on the one hand, and the Protestantism of John Calvin's Geneva and Martin Luther's Germany on the other. The Church of England has spoken to and for the English people ever since. Sometimes it has spoken feebly and complacently, as in the 18th century. At other times it has been outspoken and brave, as in the Second World War, when William Temple was the archbishop of Canterbury, and during the 1980s, when a Church of England commission excoriated the Thatcher era's "crude exaltation" of "individual self-interest". Despite (or perhaps because of) the subtle compromises embodied in it, the Anglican Church has been prone to schism. "High Church" Anglicans have stressed its Catholic inheritance; followers of the "low" Church have insisted on its Protestantism. …

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