Wednesday 23 April 2008

What Does it Mean, This England?

Today, they say, is St George's day.

St George.
Slayer of Dragons.

St George.
Whoever he was.

But to many, he is the spirit of England, England, the brave little knight that stands up to Dragons, the Boudicca spirit, the Alfred the Great spirit, the Queen Elizabeth spirit, the Churchill spirit.
Be the dragons Napoleon, Hitler, or the EU.

A lot of English bloggers are 'flying the flag' today.
But whose flag is it?
What is English nationalism?
Who are the English?
What is nationalism?

It's not an easy question. England has a funny history. England was a born as a nation, long before any others, so we take it for granted. Other countries have evolved towards their nationhood. National identity, the way the English see it, has been more recent, an invention of the age of enlightenment, when people demanded that they, not kings, rule themselves. The feudal monarchies of the middle ages became the national monarchies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They in turn, become the monolingual democratic republics of modern Europe. The nation-state. A people united by common language, common history, common government. A social construct. The French had to cut the head off their king to discover that they, not he, was France. Up till then they had been Bretons, Normans, Poitevins, Provencals.

And the radical politicians of the nineteenth century created the model state to serve the dynamics of capitalism. It did not serve the brave new world of the railway age for so many small states to survive. So, the ultimate unit of government, should be the highest unit possible; people who understood eachother's language.

But where is the line crossed? Because nationalism had another side to it. And in it's early days, the boundaries were- as they still are- blurred.
One people. One race. One state.

This is our land, this is our people. We, the speakers of the native tongue are bonded to this soil till the end of time. You, the interloper, are not.
But it's not that easy, as European history showed. What of the isolated Saxon communities who had lived for ever in Rumania, or Russia? What of Sorbs and other Slavic peoples lingering on as isolated communities in parts of Germany? Where was their homeland? Were they to be ever foreigners in the land they had always lived in?

And what of the Ashkenazi Jews, a European people by any definition (they have lived in Europe longer than say, the Turks)? No land for them to call home.

The fact is, there isn't really any line. The logic of racism, ultimately, is the logic of nationalism. Racism, is nationalism put in simple terms, it is the gauntlet with the velvet glove removed.

The fact remains, nationalism cannot be anything other than an exclusive concept. It says 'This is MY country, you only live here by OUR sufferance. We judge you not on your contribution, but on your blood.'

And Englishness is exactly that. Because Englishness remains an ethnicity.

I'm British. Of course I am. I possess a British passport. But I can't claim to be English. I have English blood in me, but it is a tiny part of my make up. Go back a few generations, and a good number of European nations are laying claim to a piece of me. But I define my ethnicity as being Irish, because that's the community I identify with.
I can never be truly English. You can't be naturalised as an Englishman. You can be black British or Asian British, you can't be Black English, or Asian English.

Yes, I wear an England shirt to support the England team. It is the team that represents the land I happen to live in, but the team doesn't represent Englishness. It includes Black players, it represents a geographical region people happened to be born in, and that, yes, I can identify with that, I was born here too, I've always lived here. Who else would be my national team?

And yes, I'd never live anywhere else. But not because of any of the reasons championed by the Little Englanders. I love it for all the reasons they despise.
I love it, because in England, most of us have grown beyond caring what colour someone's skin is, or whether the dish we're eating was first invented on this island, or a far away subcontinent. If it's good, we embrace it, if it's bad, we don't.
Just take a look at France to see how NOT to do the whole different people living together thing.

I used to be quite Anti-Europe. In some ways, I still am, but my perspective has changed. Europe is bad for Britain, yes. But not because the idea is wrong, the idea is sound. In today's world, little insular nations just aren't viable. We DO need to co-operate, and in the present situation, a federal government for each geo-political unity makes sense. One for the Americas, one for sub-Saharan Africa, one for the Arab world, and yes, one for Europe.

What is wrong with the EU, is that it is dominated by Napoleonic ideas of government. It uses the government gives rights to the people model, not the people give rights to the government model, the best of all the concepts the English people gave to the world.

I daresay the West Saxons and The Mercians mourned the loss of their identity in the new Englishness that was formed in the resistance to the Danes.
But hey, we all understand eachothers languages now in this continent- or most of us speak English, anyway.

We build our houses the same, our roads the same, the differences are disappearing. How French are even the French any more?

England, like Wessex, like Tuscany, like Prussia, like Aquitaine, it's part of history. A historical state that evolved to become the British Empire, before changing the whole world. And now, it's gone. If we're honest. As has Germany, as has Sweden, really, it's the nation state that is now the artificial concept, a concept used to divide, a concept used to promote the rights of one lot of people over another. 'More of my dead ancestors lived here than yours'.

Nations, they were never real. They were groups of people speaking similar dialects owing obedience to a common ruler, the next stage up from a tribal system.

To be honest, I'd like flag waving become something we just do at sporting events. If nationalism can be reduced to simple team sentiment, all well and good.

But it's time we started having our primary loyalty being to the DNA that all our species hold in common, rather than some nineteenth century mumbo jumbo about a mystical bond between land and ethnicity.

This is the space age, not the steam age.


Anonymous said...

I don't believe in Nationalism... but I do believe people have the right to be proud (or otherwise) of their country of birth.

Anonymous said...

I can agree with quite a bit of this in principle. But it’s wider than ethnicity. On a purely personal level I don’t have (so far as one can tell over the several generations of which I am aware) any English blood in me whatsoever. It’s all from ‘our’ side of the Irish sea or from just over the channel so as far as I am concerned. And yet I would still consider myself to be English because this is where I live and is to where I owe my loyalty. Taking my 7 year old around ‘ceremonial’ London was a joy. Seeing the penny drop that this was his history too. Can’t beat that.

I agree, we do need to co-operate but as this is isn’t the steam age it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of ‘insular’ nations to be able to do so. And I would rather be a co-operative English subject than an unwilling citizen of a huge geopolitical entity from which I am distant and disconnected. The space age surely allows me to do this.

But for a bit of fun if you want to hypothesize about potential international /geopolitical groupings I have always thought that you could do a lot worse that a more formal confederation of Commonwealth Countries. The same language and distinct similarities in the constitutional and legal systems I would suspect make an easier conjoining.

The point about nationalism and team sentiment is interesting as by definition isn’t that always what it was? It’s just the ‘Sport’ that differs. Again on a personal level I have no real interest in the English National Football team. Too many Chelsea and Manchester United players. Which within the terms of the debate you set probably proves the point that I’m just an atavist. But I’m happy here. I’m not hurting anyone else so what the hey!

Anonymous said...

"... we build our houses the same..."

I still think some Dutch and German houses look like dolls' houses though!

The one unit or nodule, module whatever I did in university history had some stuff to do with the invention of nationhood and tradition; I was totally taken in at the time. Then a Tory friend of mine said he DID think there was such a thing as a "nation". Now I've come to a middle view of the nation as vastly extended family and all nations are mongrelized these days most especially the English

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's easier for Australians because the whole land mass is Australia as opposed to someone living near the Welsh or Scottish border who are English by but a few miles. For patriotic Australians are, undoubtedly.

I feel very patriotic still about Australia even though I haven't lived there for more than 48 years. Now I feel that way too about Canada even though I'm so close to the border with the USA and in some ways we have more in common with Seattle than Toronto.

You do make a lot of good points and I can't help thinking about Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, so-called nations which were blown apart by ethnicity, or even Cyprus periodically.

Anonymous said...

the more I study and learn about the world I live in - the more the term 'social construct' gets used. all of it is based on human constructs to fit in, place parameters and define good or bad.

Anonymous said...

I like England. But more properly it's an England of my imagination, of XTC and irony.

I'm not quite sure I agree that Englishness is just an ethnicity, I guess the way things are run that is true: but it doesn't have to be. It's as valid a nation as any other in Europe. It's just been subsumed into Britain for so long and has so dominated it (in some ways) that it has become wholly identified with it. That's changing. England could exist as a nation again: I'm not entirely sure that will happen soon though.

On the poster you show: I think Harold would have had no time for the BNP at all. Firstly he would not have understood the political concept, secondly he was as Norman-French influenced as the greater part of the Edward-reign of English nobles were at the time: he was just pissed off with William the C and keen on the crown, as would most people be in his position, agreement or no. I don't think he was a narrow minded bigot.
I hope the BNP are wholly unsuccessful in this latest, supremely cynical attempt to hijack history.

Anonymous said...

Cherrypie- Proud, yes, in the same way I love the Blues. It's when people start to think that their nationality (or race), is in itself a virtue- or more importantly, that each country is a world unto itself.
As in who cares why people want to come here, who cares the hell their countries are to live in, don't ask questions, just keep them out.

That's what I don't like. The cricket and warm beer ethos.

Grendel- Don't get me wrong, I think this a great country to live in. We've done a good job, and really, we're still doing so. This still has to be pretty much the best place in the world to live, it's such a vibrant culture, an extrovert culture.

It's what levels of infrastructure maker sense. As time and technology develop, the tendancy is to move towards larger units. Look at what's happening in local government. We are moving to a new two tier systyem, but with much larger authorities in each tier. Same as true of states.
I do think we need an overall global system of administration. I think Europe and other federations will become the new states, whilst the UN, will gradlally become what the EU now is. At least, I hope so.

Chelsea? They're all Italian anyway!
It's rare a Blues player gets chosen for England. Upson is about as far as it got!

Gledwood- Wuith the English you can argue that. Less so with Romance peoples. In 1600, over Western Europe, a number ogf Romance dialects graduated in to eachother. Everyone could understand their neighbours, but at extreme ends of the area, language was different. Much the same way as if you lined up all your ancestors in a line, they'd all look pretty similar, they'd graduate into eachother. You wouldn't just jump from human to ape. Tuscan (the dialect selected as 'pure' Italian, was diffeent to Parisian French, but dialects geographically in between, were much closer to eachother.

Likewise, Low German was orginally much closer to English, than High German.

jmb- The Wesh border is an interesting case. Old hatreds live on there. There is a group called the English Border Front which exists primarily, I think, keep up the spitit of the middle ages in Herefordshire and Shropshire.

With Australia, I think there is something shiny and new about it's patriotism. It was born in the wars, I think and I think Australians are still defining what being an inhabitant of the subcontinent means. I think it's only since the last war, really, that the 'Dominions' have seen their Canadian or Australian, or NZ identity as being their primary loyalty, rather than enclosed in a wider British identity.

I just think, it means less now as a whole than it once did. Once it was a force to drive us forward, to unite us and make society better, now it divides us and holds us back.

Kate- Largely, yes. I often wonder about which of our constructs will radically alter over the next hundred or so. Many will, I think. I have my own ideas as to which those are, but I could be wrong of course.

TD- But what is a nation? We're all belending together now, in a few hundred years, we'll all be a lovely coffe colour.

No, I don't think he would have done, either. But these sentiments are misused by this particular lobby. Because in those days, monarchies were the most viable methods of governing, and it helped if the society was as homogenous as it could be. They didn't have our technology. They couldn't just press 'translate'.

But it was a thousand years ago! Harold was a hero in 1066. Likewise, Elizabeth I might have ben a heroine for seeing off the Armada, but would we really want to live in her Police state England?

Anonymous said...

CBI, I don't think that nationality is to do with colour or with one's antecdents, beyond a point (the point not involving colour). My parents are both of Irish parentage, so my royal blue blood Englishness is 4.2% or whatever: I was born here, live here, pay taxes here, love it here (er...). I am English.

I couldn't give a pair of foetid dingo's kidneys for colour, mine or yours, now or at any time in the future. I am what I claim to be.

Harold was not a hero. He lost. Heroes don't lose (apart from this one guy I once read about...).His girlfriend identified his body by a mark on his knackers or knob, or so the story goes. My point was merely that he was as European as northern Europeans came in 1066 and as global as any of us ever are. He was also English, wanted to rule England, and spoke "Englisc" (pron "English") a language not all that similar to modern English but nonetheless its immediate grammatical and syntactical antecedent (it was already dropping its case endings - the Anglo Saxons just could not be bothered with them - true Englishmen). Er... where was I...

I don't mean he was _right_ - I've no idea; just that he was what there was, then he lost, then it was some other bugger. You say that monarchies were suitable for homogeneous societies: well, dictatorships were pretty good at managing transnational federations, for a while, but I don't support those bastaads either. That isn't a criticism of Harold himself. Or of governance in 1066, or of any kind of society, homogeneous or otherwise.

And - we _did_ live through Elizabeth's police state, didn't we? Which was somewhat against us left footers. Or am I missing your point? (I haven't had a drink for days) Then it wasn't her police state, then it was someone else's, then none at all. Change. I - er...hang oh bugger it, I need a drink.