21 December 2011

National Conversation: England

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For Stanley Baldwin, Conservative prime minister of the 1920s and 1930s, Englishness was a sensibility, writes Anthony Painter.

Its essence was a series of sights and sounds:

“the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been in England since England was a land … the one eternal sight of England.”

It is a beautifully constructed political speech. Unfortunately, it describes an England that no longer exists: there is no longer a tinkle of the hammer on the anvil; we don’t hear the scythe on the whetstone; the corncrake is on the RSPB’s red alert list, occasionally glimpsed only in western Scotland and Ireland; and the plough team is now mechanised – not so eternal after all (and already a very partial view of England in Baldwin’s day). As evocative as Baldwin’s speech was, it describes an England that we can only now access through the words and art of the past.

When Englishness assumes a monocultural form, when it is idealised and amplified, tightly defined and dissected, it quickly slips from grasp. Soon after, there is little option but to pursue an elegiac course and inevitably declare its death.

Thus Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has declared England dead – what else is there to do? His England includes parlour songs, the Saturday-night dance, the bandstand, and so on. And yes, those cultural forms and institutions have almost entirely gone. Sir Roy Strong, in an iconographic account of England, locates Englishness – as an ideal – in rural traditions exemplified by landscape and social order. With breath-taking and unjustified boldness, he argues that this is the England we went to wars for: ‘They [soldiers] did not fight for Manchester or Birmingham but for the likes of Chipping Camden and Lavenham’.

England currently faces threats to its economic, cultural, and constitutional order both within and beyond its borders. Scottish nationalism is ascendant and independence cannot be ruled out. British nationhood is being distorted by constitutional change in the EU. Aggressive and violent forms of English nationalism are asserting themselves to a troubling degree. It’s hardly surprising that while Britishness has assumed pluralistic and inclusive form, Englishness has become a toxic dumping site for chauvinism and exclusivity.

The degree to which it is able to confront these threats will depend on a new political settlement and a more honest and inclusive national dialogue. There isn’t a single view of England. It will be a many-faceted thing: different in Yorkshire to Great Yarmouth, Camden to Chipping Camden, Leicester to Lavenham. And yet, Englishness does have meaning beyond just birthplace and waving a flag, supporting a sports team, and the bulldog icon. There are predominant traits. There is shared history and culture. An English political community does exist even if it doesn’t have its own formal institutions. It has an overlap with Britishness but many of the positive British associations have been denied to English cultural, political, and civic form.

We can continue to cultivate a Britishness that avoids an English dialogue. We can pretend that Scottish nationalism is just froth or that the eurozone is not creating a new political and economic bloc that will surround us. We can continue to express Englishness in a dishonest Baldwin-esque idealism or leave to those who peddle hate and threaten violence. Then we will reap what we sow – deservedly – and people will suffer through marginalisation and fear.

There is another way. We can acknowledge that Englishness is real. We can express its many cultural, civic, and political forms in all their range and diversity. Institutions such as the monarchy, the army, and the National Trust have an English as well as British feel. We can have a serious dialogue about new institutions we will need post-Scottish ‘devo-max’ or independence – including the role of local and English national parliamentary forms – and the probable completion of a new closely bound eurozone bloc. It’s clear which is preferable. We have less time than we think.

A longer version of this piece is available in Soundings Issue 49 (http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/current.html ) and a pdf is available here http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/articles/02%20s49%20painter.pdf.


By Anthony Painter

Anthony Painter is a writer and journalist.

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