The organisers of the Festival of Britain in 1951 knew what to celebrate. At the start of the opening ceremony – a service in St Paul’s – the King praised the nation’s courage in the world wars; the official handbook declared categorically that ‘Britain is a Christian Community’; brightly coloured pavilions on the South Bank paid tribute to picturesque countryside, seaside holidays and an unparalleled tradition of Parliamentary government. To entice foreign visitors, four London buses made a promotional tour of the Continent. The lead bus, which sported a giant Union Jack, broadcast a continuous recording of ‘God Save the King’ and other patriotic anthems. ‘Not surprisingly’, Richard Weight remarks in Patriots, the convoy ‘got a muted reception when it parked in the ruins of Berlin’. In France, the bus crews were treated to mayoral banquets, only for their leader to complain about the ‘strange dishes’ which weren’t ‘up to English standards’. Frank Forsdick and his men asked for ‘a bit of old English roast beef or a plate of fish and chips’ and beer instead of wine.
It didn’t require the commercial vapidities of the Greenwich Dome – a Festival of Britain manqué – to reveal that such self-confidence has dissolved. Our ‘crisis’ of national identity has become an old friend. It’s 25 years since Tom Nairn first willed the ‘Break-Up of Britain’, and ten since Linda Colley influentially explained that Britons were the product of particular historical conditions – conditions which have now disappeared. We have had the woe-is-England vapourings of Simon Heffer and the rushed observations of Andrew Marr. An academic industry has flourished. Now both Weight and Robert Colls have written requiems for the old Britishness which are also ruminations on a new, more democratic England. Britannia, for so long a proud Amazon, armoured and helmeted, repulsing European foes and civilising barbarians is, these days, according to Weight, ‘pox-ridden and toothless’. Colls holds that Britain’s ‘deepest structures of identity’ are fast decaying. And Nairn, master anatomist of our decrepit multinational state, is back with another lyrical castigation of Britishness as a royal-conservative, know-your-place national identity imposed on the people from the top down. None of the three has any time for Telegraph platitudes about the incomparable virtues of the Crown-in-Parliament. Their arguments often overlap, and they are all, in different ways, hostile to Britain’s elites; all are recognisably on the Left. (Weight is sort of Blairite, Colls sophisticated Old Labour, Nairn a veteran of the 1960s New Left Review, who thinks the British labour movement has only ever been part of the problem.)
Is Britain still an imagined community, and if it is, how does this sense of nation relate to the individual identities of England, Wales and Scotland? To what extent has Britishness always applied more to institutions than the people? As Colley argued, British national identity took on an increasingly strong definition during the 18th century when what mattered was winning wars against France and building an empire. The state created by the Act of Union of 1707 was a conscious attempt to superimpose a set of ideas (Industry, Prosperity, Providence, Empire, Liberty) and institutions (Parliament, Crown) onto much older alignments and loyalties. England predominated, but many Scots wanted a stake in the enterprise. The island was thriving, virtuous and Protestant, set apart from and defined against a dissipated, tyrannical, unstable, priest-ridden Continent.
Notwithstanding the Irish Question, and the fact that in 1921 Irish nationalism ruptured the unitary state, the Britishness of Crown, Christianity, Empire and Parliament remained robust until well into the 20th century. With the Second World War, it became stronger than ever, not least because old prejudices about the Continental ‘Other’ were reconfirmed. Two hundred years after ‘Rule Britannia’ was first performed before the Prince of Wales, Britain once again, in the summer of 1940, proved itself the patron of liberty. New Whig histories (Churchill, Trevelyan) which upheld the myth of Britain’s distinctive tradition of freedom and equipoise sold by the hundred thousand. Orwell, in The English People, condemned the ‘ruthless ideologies’ of the Continent: England, he said, was ‘the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less decent manner’. At the heart of this revitalised Britishness (although Orwell didn’t write much about ‘Britain’) was a centuries-old sense of national superiority based on a particular idea of constitutional liberty – what might be called the cult of island freedom.
After the war, however, the traditional pillars began to crumble. The recent soul-searching occasioned by devolution and the prospect of European integration has the familiar backstory of the UK’s relative decline as a world power. Is the devolved British state now doomed? No wars against Continental enemies are in prospect; even geography – white cliffs, island fortress – means a lot less than it did. In the absence of any unitary racial or religious self-definition, old loyalties and alignments – Scottishness, Welshness – have emerged from under the ragged counterpane of British identity.
That leaves the perfidious English, who, because of their ascendancy within the Union, have for centuries regarded English and British institutions as synonymous (think of all those Union Jacks draped around Wembley in 1966). A complex of cultural ideas of Englishness, whether admirable or ridiculous, has existed independently of the state. But unlike the Scots and Welsh, the English have developed no separate political identity, and have no mythic enemy. They are, according to Weight, dazed and confused. On the other hand, this summer’s rash of red crosses on white inspires its own clutch of vexations. Is there anything to political Englishness beyond arrogance or apologetics?
In Britons Colley explained the successful fashioning of British nationalism; Weight examines its disintegration. It is with some relish that he declares that Britishness has ‘now virtually disappeared’. It was always, he insists, an ideology ‘founded on greed, religious and racial bigotry, fear and contempt’: beneath the mythology of a godly and tolerant people lay the realities of elitism, xenophobia and imperial aggression. In particular, the history of Britain has always been characterised by an arrogant English refusal to recognise the Scots, Welsh and Irish as ‘equal partners’. Things are much healthier now that people have rediscovered what he calls their ‘core national identities’. Patriots doesn’t lament national regression, being more interested in the shedding of old prejudices about ‘class, race, gender and religion’ and the unsteady rise of individual nationalisms, but Weight makes a point of showing how slow and problematic this progress has been – running through his account is an indictment of the political and cultural elites which failed to provide an alternative to an England-dominated, war-obsessed, Eurosceptical and racist British identity. So much for dear old Blighty.
Patriots is in this sense a narrative of redemption rather than decline. Indeed, Weight is something of an Anglo-enthusiast, eager for England’s ‘unique nationality’ to be ‘respected’. Orwell in wartime mode is a particular hero, and Weight puts an Orwellian curse on generations of British intellectuals who have thought themselves above expressing national pride. A young academic (in his mid-thirties), he belongs to a generation which has become alert to the political importance of patriotism and which takes Britain’s European future pretty much for granted. His enjoyable tour through the past sixty years stops at the predictable sites: Dunkirk, the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, Suez, the Beatles, the various debates about joining Europe, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’, the Falklands War, devolution in 1998. He takes a special interest, however, in those moments when the nation seemed to be resurgent and forward-looking, and when Britishness was encouraged to become something more inclusive and popular – when it seemed, in his distinctly non-elegiac terms, to have a future.
In common with other left-wing historians of national identity, Weight celebrates the Second World War as a period when radicals – for the first time since Wilkes, or perhaps the Chartists – managed to reclaim the language of patriotism. The conflict was instantly mythologised as a ‘People’s War’, imbued with an unprecedented egalitarian spirit, when a highpoint of homogeneity became a moment of social change. Evelyn Waugh, he claims, was demobbed because of fears he would be shot by the men under his command. And when Churchill, visiting down-at-heel Camberwell during the Blitz, made a speech that concluded with the words ‘We can take it,’ a heroic voice shouted back: ‘What do you mean “we”, you fat bastard?’
Patriotism became associated with social reform as well as military victory: Labour’s 1945 election manifesto described its policies as ‘the practical expression’ of ‘the spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz’. (Weight misses Michael Foot’s 1949 pamphlet on domestic reform entitled Who Are the Patriots Now?) A different kind of identity came to fruition during the Attlee Administration: new institutions were called ‘National’ or ‘British’ instead of ‘Royal’ – the NHS, the British Transport Commission, the National Coal Board, British European Airways.
But Britishness was only partially transformed. Weight is caustic about the pervasive influence of the Finest Hour and offers a reminder that ‘older, darker’ ties of racial unity also bound Scots, English and Welsh together. Contrary to folk wisdom, the Attlee Government discouraged and resisted black immigration (though it didn’t suggest, as Harold Macmillan had during the war, that black Britons should be issued with Union Jack badges). After 1945 most recruitment drives were directed at Europeans; ministers even briefly considered moving the Windrush passengers on to East Kenya, to work on the Groundnuts Scheme. As the number of immigrants increased, and the familiar idea of resisting ‘invasion’ became central to the rhetoric of racism, Attlee himself wanted to find out more about the ‘ringleaders’ of the ‘incursion’.
At the same time the country was presented by its elite as politically more advanced than the Continent and culturally more sophisticated than the US. The belief that the States was commercial, vulgar and shallow was held across the political divide. Weight is especially sensitive to condescension towards the US and the Government’s attempt to halt Americanisation: ‘Death to Hollywood’ was the battlecry with which Keynes concluded his broadcast launching the Arts Council, and in 1947 quotas were set on the number of American films which could be shown. The middle-class BBC, so important an instrument in the shaping of British identity, constantly vetted its radio programmes for American content. Similar prejudices reappeared a few years later in the widespread disapproval of the introduction of commercial TV. (‘In that subtle way that is unique to this Island,’ the Economist commented, ‘it is . . . self-evident that only cads would want to have advertising on the air.’)
The last glimmer of a national identity transfigured by the People’s War disappeared amid the reverential gloom of Westminster Abbey on Coronation Day in 1953. The Queen, Arthur Bryant rhapsodised, was the foundation of British society; Churchill, in office once again, had greeted her father’s death the previous year with the words: ‘We stand erect both as an island people and as the centre of a worldwide Commonwealth and Empire.’ Weight has to hang on until the 1960s for the next significant attempt to fashion a more open and democratic national identity. The Wilson Administration’s liberalising legislation on race relations, gender equality and homosexuality takes pride of place in his account, alongside the Open University and the new wave of BBC comedy and drama (Dad’s Army, Monty Python, Dennis Potter).
This was part of a cultural revival. Union Jacks began to appear in the oddest places: on Mary Quant miniskirts and draped round the shoulders of Pete Townshend (Patriots is always keen to assert the world-beating quality of British pop). Weight seizes on this, arguing that such ‘promiscuous use’ of the national flag was ‘the most visible sign that the British were reclaiming patriotism from its traditional loci in monarchy, Church, Parliament and the Armed Forces’. Michael Caine is singled out for praise as ‘dismissive of establishments wherever he found them’ – Harry Palmer ‘came to epitomise the decline of deference’. (Peter Hitchens, in contrast, uses the framework of national identity in The Abolition of Britain, published in 1999, to issue a diatribe against the ‘social revolution’ – the disappearance of restraint, family values and ‘much-mended leather shoes’.)
But this new 1960s Britishness, too, ran into old difficulties. The elite failed the people again. Wilson’s social democratic project was dragged down by the traditional great-power imperatives of protecting sterling and maintaining a presence East of Suez. Hostility to the Common Market, not least within the Labour Party, was pronounced. Furthermore, the multinational state was undermined by economic inequality, caused in part by a lack of investment in the heavy industries of Wales and Scotland, as a result of which Plaid Cymru and the SNP gained popularity and a few Parliamentary seats. Patriots takes us through the long history of campaigns for devolution and independence – the theft by students of the Stone of Destiny, the setting alight of postboxes – but it is not until the late 1960s, when the disparity in living standards between the South-East and the periphery became ‘glaring’, that any significant support existed for devolution.
Weight seems to be rather spellbound by Margaret Thatcher, who was responsible for the next attempt to regenerate national pride. The early omens weren’t good. Weight picks up John O’Farrell’s story about her election as Conservative Party leader in 1976, when she appeared in front of the cameras and gave a ‘V’ for victory sign the wrong way round. ‘She was smiling and telling the British people to fuck off at the same time.’ Yet she had already begun her crusade to satisfy the baser instincts of the English tribe by cultivating enemies, without and within.
On race matters she sounded an aggressive note. The late 1970s had already seen a dramatic increase in support for the National Front and in the number of attacks on ethnic minorities. The ‘darker ties of racial unity’ were still binding. Remarkably, the villagers of Shilton in Oxfordshire celebrated the Silver Jubilee by gathering at their church under ‘two huge, flaming crosses’ (they then said prayers for the nation, before trooping down to the village pond to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’). Thatcher, a couple of years later, talked of the country being ‘swamped by people of a different culture’ – an echo of Powellism, recently heard again from our current Home Secretary. The Brixton riots of 1981 – which, together with the Miners’ Strike and the poll tax riots, were probably the most significant civil disturbances of the postwar era – set the tone for a decade characterised by conflict as much as confidence.
But then Britannia made a comeback. On the day of the general election in 1983, under the headline ‘Vote for Maggie’, Thatcher appeared in a line drawing on the front page of the Sun, with trident, Union Jack shield and lion, helmeted and breastplated, wearing stilettos and a broad grin – the defender of the Falklands. The accompanying article exhorted readers to vote for her as Churchill’s successor. Weight believes that the street-level patriotism of the Falklands War offered a reminder both of Britain’s former international prestige and of the political and social unity of the 1940s. In full Orwellian flow, he accuses those on the Left (the ‘boiled rabbits’) who opposed sending the taskforce of failing to understand the princ-iples of international law at stake or the ‘spiritual power’ of patriotism. At the same time, he recognises the split in public opinion over the war and admits that the jingoism on display had little to do with a progressive national identity. A partial solution to this problem, he thinks, is to differentiate between a modern national and a nostalgic imperial pride.
Thatcher failed to make such a distinction. Those who feared that ‘Britain was no longer the nation that had built an empire and ruled a quarter of the world’ had, she said, been proved wrong. She was also the most Eurosceptic Prime Minister since Eden; her aversion to the Euro superstate was a further expression of the cult of island freedom. Many of her supporters were happy to play on the kinds of fear which had shaped national loyalty centuries earlier: in 1990, shortly after monetary union, the Sun carried a cut-out picture of Jacques Delors’s face on its front page, suggesting that readers stick it onto their Guy Fawkes effigies before burning them on Bonfire Night.
Thatcher seemed to invigorate Britishness as she took it apart. The patterns of industry and employment, which had done so much for political unity, were abandoned; nationalised industries and utilities were sold off. Most pointedly, the Conservatives, a minority party in Scotland, were widely perceived as anti-Scottish – the early introduction there of the hated poll tax was regarded as proof of Thatcher’s contempt. ‘I am what I am,’ she insisted: ‘I have no intention of wearing tartan camouflage. If the Party sometimes seems English to some Scots that is because the Union is inevitably dominated by England by reason of its greater population.’ Economic difficulties were resented all the more in Scotland as the Government frittered away North Sea oil revenues; gradually, the EU came to be seen as a possible counterweight to England’s hegemony in the Union.
Weight expresses some sympathy for Tony Blair’s efforts to rebrand Britain and kickstart a progressive patriotism (he neglects to mention the memorably awful appearance of Fritz the bulldog in one of Labour’s 1997 election broadcasts). ‘Cool Britannia’ was crass, he says, but well meant – a notable advance on John Major’s old maids on bikes. And the constitutional reforms of 1998 have been New Labour’s ‘greatest and most radical achievement’. Yet he is critical of Blair for his unwillingness to let go of conventional Britishness, mentioning, as an example, his ‘toe-curling speech’ at the ‘People’s Banquet’ in 1997 when he ‘looked a clearly embarrassed sovereign in the eye and promised to be her Disraeli’ (a sycophancy seen again in his support for the Queen over the Burrell insalubrity). New Labour is failing ‘properly to address the English Question’; Blair is a member of the ‘self-serving political elite’, who in league with the ‘myopic intellectual elite’ has failed to ‘weave England’s many-splendoured features into a coherent, progressive picture around which the country could unite’. As it is, Weight says, the most important focal points of modern Englishness are cultural. The national football team – multiracial, managed by a Swede, and enjoying passionate, cross-class support – is the most notable instance. But, he implies, now that Britishness has ‘virtually disappeared’, there should be more to English identity than the Owen, Beckham and Rio Ferdinand show.
Tom Nairn remains, as ever, exasperated: surely Britain ought to have broken up by now? Although much of the prose in Pariah shows Nairn at his allusive, splenetic best, even he seems weary of denouncing our archaic constitution (‘some sense of déjà vu will be inevitable,’ he says at one point, and readers of his previous books couldn’t fail to agree). Once again, he rehearses his view that the politics of British identity – the refusal of the political elite to see beyond nostalgia for once-Great Britain and to rework the state into a group of democratic independent republics – determine and explain what happens in Downing St, Wapping, the City and beyond.
Several sections of Pariah were written during and immediately after June 2001, the month in which, as Nairn puts it, Labour was ‘re-elected by an overwhelming quarter of the UK electorate’. Because of the foot and mouth epidemic, voters in some areas had to disinfect themselves before entering polling stations. Britain was getting a roasting in the foreign press as the ‘Leper of Europe’ and the ‘Epidemic Island’; nobody wanted to come here. The former imperial superpower had become an untouchable. Concerned about foreign opinion and, more particularly, about securing his second term, Blair ‘paid a prodigiously publicised and overall-clad Churchillian assault upon the virus. His subjects were told to fight on, in the stockyards, in the fields, upon the funeral pyres.’ This is typical, for Nairn, of life in ‘parody Britain’. The UK has, he insists, expired, but remains unburied. It has ‘joined the undead on Charon’s ferry across the Styx, those unable quite to reach the realm of Hades’.
Two themes dominate: Blairism and British exceptionalism. Like After Britain, published two years ago, Pariah is an occasion for Nairn to exorcise the enthusiasm he dared to feel for the New Labour ‘Project’ in the 1990s. For a while, it had seemed as if Blair and Brown were contemplating a Charter 88-style programme of constitutional reform, incorporating PR and an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, as well as radical measures of Lords reform and devolved government. As it has turned out, however, Blairism is ‘Hormone Replacement Therapy, not revolution’, a ‘genteel form of putrefaction’.
The principle behind the devolutionary reforms was, he believes, hopelessly flawed: they were designed essentially to preserve the UK as a unitary state. Real power remains in London. PR has been abandoned (or all but abandoned) and with it all hope for an end to ‘elective autocracy’, what he feverishly calls ‘the present tightening straitjacket of alternating dictatorships’. As for the Lords, the second chamber has ‘ended up rather like the Crown: “modernised” and brought more securely into the ambit of committee-land, vote-purchase and moral assassination’. Gordon Brown’s handing over of more control to the Bank of England was the ‘final capitulation’ of Parliament ‘to the commercial and financial interests of the City’. And the metropolitan media, ‘crazily centralised and coarsened, roughly in tempo with the old state’s downfall’, support the whole process. In foreign policy, Britain clings on to a world role: Blair can’t resist being the US’s ‘First Lieutenant of Freedom’.
Behind all this, Pariah argues, is the tenacious ideology of Britain as privileged and unique. A new Little England would be ‘bereft of all past vectors of significance and direction’. Keeping the British state as it is – imperial-style monarchy, Mother of Parliaments, aloofness from Europe and all – helps ‘preserve the heartland itself from fatal shrinkage’. Nairn believes that there is a new country, or new countries, forming beneath the mouldy constitutional crust of ‘Ukania’ and that the ‘deepening gulf between society and state’ should be bridged. Fears about a ‘great unleashing’ of rabid, ethnic Englishness constitute a poor reason for the conservation of an ‘ambiguous and faltering hegemony’. Responding to the argument that the dual identities of Britishness have provided a comfortable shelter for blacks and Asians living in England, he insists that only a properly renewed English identity could ever ‘disable the racist wolves’. He continues to insist (as Weight does in his wake) that, with all its failings, Europe is the answer: it ‘remains the best example of nationalities combining to escape their past – and enshrining their new formula in written-constitutional terms’.
However strongly Weight and Nairn might desire it, Britishness isn’t dead yet. Scotland hasn’t the economic confidence to push through independence and, regrettably, England has a shortage of constitutional radicals. Eventually, Britain will no doubt wear even thinner north of the border, Westminster will shed its responsibility for Northern Ireland and there will be a further gathering of doubts in England about the point of sustaining our laughable royal family. But it will take a long time. Weight, in the end, faces up to this uncomfortable fact. Although adamant about the ‘virtual disappearance’ of Britishness, he rather surprisingly suggests in the final pages of Patriots that ‘the United Kingdom will survive for a long time to come’ – it may even last another century. This involves writing off a lot of British history – and British self-imagining of whatever kind – as a postscript.
Both Weight and Nairn take it for granted that only the stubbornness of the ruling class is holding the state together, but it seems to me that a fair degree of popular adherence to it still exists. They are too hung up on the monarchical and imperial model of British identity and the artificiality of its Hanoverian creation. While Britishness may have been principally a statist, strategic or institutional concept, it has also become associated with family ties, class consciousness and constant migration and miscegenation (things that don’t make newspaper headlines). Nairn’s obsession with top-down Britishness is especially claustrophobic: there is little appreciation in Pariah of how life on the ground, including popular conceptions of nationhood, has changed in modern Britain. His continuity thesis is more cosh than scalpel: the current Government’s foreign policy, for instance, does not exactly replicate Thatcher’s obsession with reversing Britain’s decline. Pariah cannot resist identifying every scandal or downturn in Labour’s popularity, every bead of sweat on Blair’s brow, with the ever present structural faults of the political system. By the same token, no measure of devolution or increase in sympathy towards Europe can dent Nairn’s contempt.
Robert Colls is more forgiving than either Weight or Nairn and seeks in part to explain the prolonged stability of the multinational state. Although his title refers to England, he understands well how Britishness and Englishness have long been entangled. His book considers two different types of Englishness: the imperial, political codes of identity which, because the elite read ‘Britain’ as ‘England’, have become part of Britishness; and a series of less official, more popular conceptions. It is less brash and less programmatic than Patriots, and it sinks deeper shafts into national history. Colls does, however, share the view that many commonplaces of national identity were formulated and imposed by the dominant class: ‘there was always far more to being English than those at the top could know.’ And he agrees with Weight, too, that the English no longer know who they are. Both political and cultural forms of Englishness have been challenged: the old ways of talking about the nation – ‘island races . . . industrial landscapes . . . native peoples, northern grit, southern charm, rural redemption, Rule Britannia’ – have become inappropriate. Identity of England is, above all, a diagnosis of national (and personal) disorientation.
Colls provides a historical account of how the relationship between the English state (originally the Crown) and the ‘nation’ or ‘society’ or ‘people’ has been mediated, investigating, among other things, how an aristocratic system of government came to be accepted by the whole population. Bagehot assumed that, as Colls puts it, the working classes ‘would look on, gawp and defer’. As a strategy for rule this was ‘almost colonial’ (and, in simple terms, mirrored the way the state approached blacks, Asians, the Irish). The rumbustious patriotism of the freeborn Englishman, with its lack of respect for royal power, gradually changed during the 19th century into something more unquestioning, orderly and hierarchical.
Englishness was hijacked by the governing classes and more popular forms of national identity were effaced. The amateur-gentleman, in the Lords and at Lords, become a stereotype. In 1931, G.J. Renier, a Dutch academic living in London, published the bestselling The English: Are They Human? The national character, he observed, was all to do with convention and reserve, and owed a lot to public schools, running an empire and keeping control of ‘the masses’. Gentlemen were not only gentle but manly (Colls quotes Rupert Brooke: ‘Not a bad place and time to die, Belgium, 1915? . . . Better than coughing out a civilian soul amid bedclothes and disinfectant and gulping nieces in 1950’). No attention was paid to ‘old street games, usually kept alive by girls’; cricket was, in contrast, ‘the identity of England in flannels’. The ‘modern English style’ of dancing, formulated at a meeting in 1920 of two hundred dance teachers, suppressed anarchic, jazz-inspired ‘free form’ in favour of parallel feet, straight hips and regular steps. The nation was reduced to Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter.
The decline of the gentlemanly ideal transformed the political nation during the second half of the 20th century. The ‘secret rules of upper classness’ ceased to apply, and poshness became less fashionable. This was just one of many breaks with the past. Colls argues at length that attempts to project a coherent English identity today face not only the challenges of Europe, devolution and a new version of global capitalism, but the task of incorporating a post-imperial nation bursting with different ethnic and religious influences in which the old structures of class, gender and race have been radically reconfigured.
The second half of his book deals with a more personal, emotional idea of Englishness – to do with climate, land, work and region. For centuries, he believes, the English retained a ‘human vision of themselves’, more in touch with their landscape than with the central authority of the state. They have regarded themselves as a temperate and gentle people – tendencies encouraged by a climate and topograpy without extremes, and by insularity, which meant that society remained unmilitarised and wars were always fought ‘over there’. As he points out, the England of our imagination has often been rural – the ‘Deep England’ of fields, villages and market towns – despite, or perhaps in response to, the Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanisation. From the 19th century, the countryside, along with language, gardening and craft, was increasingly assimilated as part of a timeless England – ‘a great collective memory rolling subliminally beneath the state’.
This has always been something of a collective fantasy: cultural Englishness is so often wrapped up in a misplaced sense of loss. As Colls says, for quite a while more people have been drinking ‘in large, architect-designed, brick-built pubs in Birmingham than in thatched village locals’. In agricultural areas, for much of the 20th century, ‘summer months brought infant sickness and diarrhoea, not dancing on the village green.’ He feels strongly, nevertheless, that something is threatened by the industrial spoliation of the countryside that has intensified over the past twenty years: the cut-down woods, pesticides, battery cages and slurry tanks, ‘not to mention the wasting away of the village community’, means that ‘it is by no means clear what “rural” means anymore.’
Colls, a specialist in the culture of the industrial North-East, is also sensitive to a less conspicuous version of Englishness which evokes the ‘North’ of Gaskell’s North and South and the nation represented in L.S. Lowry and Kes; it is a companion to the myths and clichés of Victorian London. The workers Orwell encountered in Wigan were, he says, ‘never less than folk in coal-dust’. Inescapably, however, ‘wide industrial townscapes’ have ‘declared what the North stood for’, until recently at any rate: ‘when the staple Northern industries began to splutter from the 1970s, very deep meanings choked with them.’ Colls is unsettled by the consequences of regions losing their identifying industries, or becoming manufacturing theme parks. He describes Wigan, long troubled by Orwell’s criticisms, paying a consultancy firm in the 1980s for the advice that ‘the name Wigan Pier is an estimably valuable marketing asset.’ A museum was built soon afterwards. The destruction of ‘elegant mill chimneys, dramatic colliery headgear, sun-bright shipyard cranes’ has meant the disappearance of ‘a whole visual culture’. Methodist chapels, the ‘emotional heartlands of the Industrial Revolution’, have been turned into carpet stores. ‘The demise of what is industrial and the industrialisation of what is rural,’ he concludes, ‘has thrown one great national relationship into confusion.’
The relation between regions and the centralised state is at the heart of this often elliptical book. During the 1980s, Colls writes, ‘the language of privatisation and the market’ replaced that of geographical region, and there ‘wasn’t much effort’ to ‘defend living communities as they came under attack’. He is much more sceptical than Weight that England is becoming not only a more inclusive nation, but a more democratic one; he has no taste for a self-preservation society of globalised consumers. Yet hopeful signs of what he calls ‘authenticity’ can be seen on football terraces, or at clubs or ‘live poetry slams’. The people, he says, have ‘a more enduring presence than the institutions which ruled them’. If there is to be a new English identity, it will be created from the bottom up.
The celebration of a people formed by, and in touch with, landscape and cityscape also runs through Peter Ackroyd’s compendium of cultural Englishness. His survey of the native imagination, from Bede and Beowulf to Dickens and Dan Leno, emphasises what he calls the ‘territorial imperative’, by means of which ‘a local area can influence or guide all those who inhabit it.’ Albion recapitulates his characteristic practice of historico-mystical psychogeography: there is no escaping what has gone on in a particular place in years past; living in England inevitably suggests certain patterns of thought. The mood is celebratory, congratulatory, flag-waving.
Ackroyd is preoccupied with origins, more specifically with how the different facets of an identifiable English imagination emerged in Anglo-Saxon times. Albion proceeds in a loosely chronological fashion, through a succession of echoes, adaptations, anticipations and cycles of influence. Some of the national characteristics he identifies are familiar to the point of cliché, others not. They include: a dislike of abstract thought and theory; a tendency to combine tragedy and comedy; a predilection for fantasy, horror, dreams and ghosts (98 per cent of ghost stories are written in English). Another is melancholia (damp climate, the diet), which Ackroyd sees as infusing Old English poems and which emerges again in Robert Burton, Tennyson and the ‘eternal note of sadness’ that Matthew Arnold heard on Dover Beach. Albion is itself expressive of ‘one of the most significant and salient aspects of the English imagination’ – its reverence for the past.
There is no hint of identity crisis here; no sign of the bewilderment afflicting Colls. Unless, that is, the priority Ackroyd accords to landscape, soil, Anglo-Saxon beginnings and unchallengeable literary achievements is understood as a conservative strategy for coping with the cultural jumble of modern England. Why be so worried about origins now? In fact, the book has at least the makings of a more forward-looking argument. Partly because the English population has always been a hotchpotch, he says, it has an almost infinite power to assimilate aspects of different cultures, and to transform what is borrowed into something distinctive. The heterogeneity which is the ‘form and type of art’ in England reflects ‘both a mixed language comprised of many different elements and a mixed culture comprised of very different races’. Englishness depends on constant immigration; placism matters more than racism, and the very strength of the English ‘style’ springs from its ‘mixed and mongrel’ nature.
Ackroyd argues that the strong imprint of a united Catholic Europe lingered for centuries – part of what Hippolyte Taine, whose history of English literature might be a model for this one, called the ‘old imagination’. English art and literature searched constantly for stimulation from the Continent; the debt to the classics and to the Italian Renaissance was profound. And there is no need to be nervous about a close identification with Europe, because English culture has always magicked Continental influences into something more down-to-earth, liberated and empirical. This native quality is ‘led forward by the pressures and contours of the language itself’.
Vaughan Williams, the subject of Albion’s final chapter, embodies many of the book’s themes. His passion for folk music began when, taking tea with a vicar in Brentwood, he heard one of the villagers who had been invited along sing a local song call-ed ‘Bushes and Briars’. The composer was enraptured: such songs were ‘as old as time itself’. He wove them into his Pastoral Symphony, a piece of music expressive of the melancholic ‘national mood’. Vaughan Williams wasn’t a ‘narrow nationalist’ in music or politics, however: he had been influenced by Debussy and Sibelius and was an advocate of a united Europe. Most pleasing for Ackroyd, he was a dedicated fan of Blake and ‘the tradition of visionary writing in English’ encompassing Bunyan, Herbert and Shelley, as well as the King James Bible. His England is Ackroyd’s, too.
Just as announcements of the deliquescence of Britain seem premature, so talk of a more specific English identity ‘crisis’ is surely hyperbolic. And such talk is all around, to left and right. Simon Heffer has complained that instead of learning old English folk-songs, children in our schools ‘are now more likely to learn to sing African National Congress protest songs and to study the religions of the far-flung parts of the Asiatic’. Roger Scruton’s elegy for a nation takes in the death of the hedgerow, the fading relevance of the Church and the demise of the English gentleman. More significantly, any number of Conrad Black/Rupert Murdoch op-eds predict the loss of the native essence within a Euro superstate.
There’s nonetheless every likelihood that England will persist for centuries as a political community, while national cultural differences are still so obvious as to be forgotten amid the talk of globalisation, Europeanisation and multiculturalism. The majority of English people will remain, well . . . very English, even after the monarchy has been abolished, MEPs are household names and Britain has had a black Prime Minister. Cultural Englishness is secure, even as it takes altered forms – think of The Royle Family, or the Eden Project, or Massive Attack. There’s still plenty of Colls’s ‘authenticity’ around, despite all the heritage sites, yuppie country pubs and supermarkets. And national distinctiveness is everywhere: in shop-fronts, houses, accents, parks, seaside cafés, newspapers, footpaths and stiles. These things don’t deserve to be celebrated, but they certainly exist.
For centuries, the English regarded themselves as the ‘elect nation’ – Albion chases this idea from Bede to Milton to Blake to Handel, and it became a constituent of imperial Britishness. These days, however – and here perhaps is the pivotal change in national identity over the past half century – neither the British nor the English regard themselves as specially favoured. The cult of island freedom has fewer and fewer followers; there has been a thorough, if frustrated, realisation of decline (even the dominant class hasn’t been immune, whatever Nairn may say). Complacency about our place in the world has gradually receded. In fact, the British recognise that their country can’t match up, in terms of quality of life, average wealth and infrastructure, to other rich nations. They are reconciled to the loss of Empire, are less sure than ever that their constitutional arrangements are uniquely valuable, and understand that their nation is not too grand to be contained within Europe. They finally seem to have realised that God may not, after all, be an Englishman.