For me, the Union Jack is a source of pride, representative of all our small island has achieved. But the flag of St. George is a different story. I associate it with the English cricket, rugby and football teams, all of whom I support. Yet once I step from the field of play, I discover uneasiness with the concept of ‘Englishness.’
Since 1707, the English have dominated the United Kingdom politically and socially. Any definition of Englishness was swept into a wider sense of Britishness. At the same time, the English, along with the other peoples of the British Isles, were encouraged to think of themselves as British.
Today, we are witnessing the possible breakup of the UK, coupled with the looming spectre of a ‘United States of Europe.’ All of this raises anxious questions about the meaning of Englishness. A collective national identity is essential if a country is to prosper, both socially and economically. Though we may not wish for a fracturing of the UK, England must prepare for that eventuality.
But a search for Englishness is more problematic than any search for Scottishness or Welshness. These Celtic nations have a rich tapestry of preserved cultural heritage, whereas English identity became moulded with British identity. Consequently, the English do not know who they are. They’re partly the powerful nation of yesterday, and partly dispossessed.
Anxiety over what it means to be English is nothing new. Daniel Defoe’s 1701 satire, The True-Born Englishman, celebrated the ‘mongrel’ nation. There was deep fear among Defoe’s countrymen that their Englishness was being diluted by immigrants. Similar fears can be found across England today.
St. George, England’s patron saint, is often considered the embodiment of Englishness. Although narratives play an important role in identity, St. George is a symbol about whom we know almost nothing and whose own narrative represents little. He was, most likely, a Palestinian Christian solider, and certainly not English. St. George has little to do with being English in the 21st century.
A state of mind
Being English is not a matter of race: it is a state of mind. Historically, the key to Englishness was individualism, expressed through an obsession with privacy and owning property. Other aspects included a suspicion of all things foreign, and scepticism about government. The English were also marked by an ability to be self-deprecating, a flexible approach to religion, and a strong attachment to the rights of the individual. Most English people will recognise these traits today, but are unlikely to describe them as purely English characteristics. They have been co-opted into an overarching British sense of self, wrapped up in a giant Union Jack.
Any attempt to define an English identity risks privileging some characteristics above others and marginalising groups who do not display such traits. This is particularly true in the increasingly diverse and multicultural society that we live in today. England’s ethnic minority communities tend to designate themselves as ‘British’ on the grounds that it is pluralistic and inclusive. Englishness, on the other hand, is seen as being more narrowly drafted or, at worst, illusive.
The old Imperial values of chivalry and the ‘stiff upper lip’ have been replaced by an England of many guises, owing, as Jeremy Paxman writes in The English, ‘everything and nothing to the past.’
Searching for the essence of Englishness is surely a fool’s errand. Attempting to pin one’s identity down to a single, convenient label is bound to fail. Indeed, trying to limit oneself to a single identity is merely a sign of insecurity. Englishness is simply a catch-all term for those peoples who live within England’s borders. Those peoples have a range of identities, interests and histories. It seems that nothing is truly ‘forever England.’
A fresh opportunity
However, all hope is not lost. Indeed, this lack of a defined English identity may prove to be rather positive. It has provided the flexibility for the absorption of new cultures and influences. It allows a ‘blank canvas’ for the creation of a new identity, specifically tailored for our time. Though the Imperial, public schoolboy sense of Englishness may no longer be relevant, the core traits of individualism, pragmatism, and wit can form the foundation of contemporary English identity.
In a mixed up sort of way, I have found that Englishness allows me the flexibility to craft an individual identity, taking as much or as little from traditional values as I please. With this in mind, there need be no sense of uneasiness, even amongst those Englishmen who associate most strongly with the Union Jack. As Lord Palmerston once said, ‘If I were not English, I would wish to be English.’