07 September 2014

Scottish referendum raises
searching questions
about English identity

The Palace of Westminster and the London Eye on opposite banks of the Thames … what symbolises England as a nation today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Scottish referendum later this month is going to change the identity of Scotland – no matter how the people of Scotland vote. A ‘Yes’ vote means Scotland must find a new way of relating socially, politically and economically to Ireland, to England and to the European Union. A ‘No’ vote, on the other hand, does not mean that things can go back to where they were for the past three centuries: all sides in the ‘No’ campaign have conceded that a post-referendum Scotland will be a very different country indeed.

But the campaign over the summer months also raised questions about national identity south of the border in England.

The war memorial at Saint Mary’s Church in Calne, Wiltshire ... are English regiments and heroes in World War I as celebrated as those from Ireland, Scotland or Wales? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For many people in England, for generations and centuries, English identity has been subsumed in British identity. British identity found proud expression in the commemorations marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. But – while Scottish, Welsh and Irish regiments and war dead were singled out for honours – there was little acknowledgement of the many unique English contributions.

Wounded pride

The flag of Saint George was reduced to a commercial banner outside pubs during this year’s World Cup (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When English identity is boosted, it is quickly deflated. This summer saw short-lived pride in the English football team, and when the team returned home from Brazil they were ridiculed for depriving England of its pride. Yet England only ever won the World Cup once, in 1966, and failed to even qualify in 1974, 1978 or in 1994. So, despite wounded pride, this was not the worst English World Cup performance in 60 years, as some commentators portrayed it.

Saint George’s Day is often an excuse for cheaper drinking but seldom celebrated as the national saint’s day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For many English football fans, their club is far more significant than the national team, although top-spending and top-earning clubs seldom ever have local players in their squads. As the new season opens, advertising is claiming the Premier League is the world’s top competition. But a Premier League team has won the top European competition only four times in the 21 years since the League was formed.

Cricket at Grantchester ... a fairer image of England than football? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ahead of the new football season, it seemed easier and more comfortable to take pride in the reversal of England’s fortunes on the cricket field. Despite its failings, there are no plans to reform the structures of football in England. Last season, only 25% of the players in the Premier League were qualified to play for England.

Many of the star players on Premier sides are foreign-born players who have come to English clubs at a high price and many have their earnings paid into offshore accounts so they pay little tax, while investment in football facilities at local and schools level continues to diminish and successes in women’s football go unfeted.

Flags and anthems

The Queen’s Official Birthday is marked by the Trooping of the Colour at Parade ... but is the monarchy part and parcel of English identity? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When English identity is expressed, it is often hijacked by far-right groups like Ukip and extremist groups like the English Defence League and the BNP.

While it is acceptable to fly the white flag with the red cross of Saint George from pubs, bedroom windows and car aerials during international football tournaments like the World Cup, to fly it on Saint George’s Day is seen as a type eccentric religious nationalism, and to fly it on other occasions is seen as veering to political extremes.

At times, royalty serves as a focus for efforts to create an English identity. Certainly, the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation some years ago saw many streets and villages being spruced up for open-air parties. But the monarchy is shared with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in recent months historians have pointed out that this year also marks the 300th anniversary of the succession of a minor German princeling to the throne after the death of Queen Anne – because ruling Whig politicians favoured an obscure German-speaking Hanoverian who was a Protestant to a long line of 50 or more claimants to the throne who were all Roman Catholics.

William Blake feared the growth of cities would destroy English country life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nor do English people have their own national anthem. God Save the Queen is a hymn praising the monarchy, but says nothing that is specific to England. Ironically, the alternative that is often offered as an English anthem, Jerusalem, is derived from a short poem, ‘And did those feet in ancient time,’ written by William Blake ca 1804-1808, and only set to music at the height of World War I by Sir Hubert Parry for a rally in the Queen’s Hall in London in 1916.

The hymn, which has become a popular anthem for the Labour Party, the Women’s Institute and others, uses phrases that have passed into popular English culture, including “Chariots of Fire,” “Green and Pleasant Land,” and “dark satanic mills.” Sir Edward Elgar re-scored the work in 1922 for the Leeds Festival, and this version is usually used on the Last Night of the Proms.

But the England of Blake’s hymn is no rural idyll. His Jerusalem is the new city established by Christ at the Second Coming (see Revelation 3: 12 and 21: 2), and its beauty stands in sharp contrast to the “dark satanic mills” of English cities during the Industrial Revolution, which Blake believed was ushering in the destruction of nature and human relationships and the enslavement of millions.

Westminster Abbey … Tom Wright suggests William Blake was referring to the great cathedrals and churches of England in ‘Jerusalem’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When he was Bishop of Durham, the theologian Tom Wright, a former Dean of Lichfield, even suggested Blake’s “dark satanic mills” may have referred to the great churches or cathedrals of the Church of England.

Although there has been an interesting rise in attendance at traditional English cathedral liturgies, the Church of England no longer claims the loyalty or even the affection of the majority of people in England and contributes little to shaping present English identities.

The mills at Quemerford in Wiltshire ... hardly the “dark satanic mills” that Blake wrote about (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nation of shopkeepers?

Big Ben … an attraction for tourists and ‘John Bull’ protesters alike (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There is no distinctive English national costume, and the English language is so international that it fails to shape national identity in the way language functions in neighbouring Wales, or further afield in Greece, Italy, Iceland or Poland. On the other hand, the same could be said about Spanish, French and perhaps Portuguese, and many European countries, such as Belgium, Switzerland or Austria, have no national language.

So, if sport, a flag, royalty, an anthem or the Church of England no longer help to shape English identity, how is English identity going to be defined, no matter what result the Scottish vote produces?

Time for Pimm’s ... a summer treat in Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Is it to be reduced to Morris dancers, cider, scrumpy, Pimm’s – or a “nice of tea – or to the red-faced rotund, Daily Mail-reading men who dress in silly “John Bull” costumes and protest beneath Big Ben against the latest perceived European threat, whether it is the abolition of the Pound or imperial measure or the imposition of straight cucumbers in their local greengrocers?

Napoleon was unfairly dismissive of the English character and business acumen when he said: “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers” (“England is a nation of small shopkeepers”).

Napoleon denied he was being disparaging and claimed he was only stating the obvious. Whatever his intentions, Napoleon was merely citing the economist Adam Smith, who wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776): “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

Small shops in Saffron Walden in Essex ... Napoleon dismissed the English as “a nation of small shopkeepers” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Interestingly, Smith was not English, but was born in Scotland and died in Edinburgh. He may have borrowed this idea from the Welsh-born Dean of Gloucester, Josiah Tucker, who said ten years earlier: “And what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shop-keeping nation.” Tucker in turn owed his preferment in the Church of England to Robert Nugent from Westmeath, who was MP for Bristol before becoming Earl Nugent, and who was once described disparagingly as “a jovial and voluptuous Irishman who had left popery for the Protestant religion, money and widows.”

Today, England’s finances are so secure that the debate in the Scottish campaign eventually turned to the currency union, and despite Britain remaining outside the Eurozone, the City of London is a major player in the financial and economic life of the European Union.

Nation state nationalism

Regional identity is strong in East Anglia ... but the chocolate box thatched cottage and flower garden is far from the real living conditions of most English people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Perhaps it is unfair to expect England to have developed a coherent national identity. English identity became subsumed, if not sacrificed, in 1707 with the efforts to forge a new British identity after the Act of Union united England and Scotland. England had rescued Scotland from financial collapse after a disastrous Scottish venture in the late 1690s to establish a colony called Caledonia in Panama.

In the preceding centuries, English language and English cultural identity were being shaped, perhaps, by writers like Shakespeare, the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer and the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible. But in those centuries, England was ruled first by a Welsh dynasty, the Tudors from 1485, and then a Scottish dynasty, the Stuarts from 1603, followed from 1714 by the Hanoverians and a succession of German dynastic families.

There was little room to develop a distinctive English cultural and political identity while ethnic nation states were emerging in Europe, including post-Habsburg Spain (1700), post-Bourbon France (1789), the modern Greek state (1830), a unified Italy (1861) and modern Germany (1871).

The towers of the power station at Rugeley dominate the Staffordshire countryside for miles ... has industry destroyed rural England? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Regional identities are often more important in places such as Yorkshire, the West Country, East Anglia and the Midlands. Indeed, many English people presume Irish identity is of a similar nature. It is an English blessing that national identity was never shaped through the violence of civil wars and ethnic cleansing that created many modern European states. The identities of the majority of old European states are new constructions, and so it is unfair to expect England to have a mature, developed, national and cultural identity.

Yet in those 300 years, apart from generals and statesmen, England also produced its great architects (Wyatt, Pugin, Street), composers (Parry, Elgar, Vaughan Williams), poets (Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth), painters (Reynolds, Constable, the pre-Raphaelites), philosophers (Darwin, Bertrand Russell) and industrialists (Wedgwood).

The majority of people in England today live not in the countryside but in tightly packed cities, suburbs and towns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rummaging on a second-hand bookstall during the summer, I came across some back issues of the Countryman, and apart from the sentimental memories they brought back, they reminded me that for many English people the ideal England is that “Green and Pleasant Land,” romanticised not since Blake penned those words but since Jerusalem was popularised at the height of World War I.

Bright yellow rapeseed reflected in blue rain pools in the brown soil of the English countryside near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I enjoy my regular walks in the English countryside. Indeed, the ideal England for many is a romanticised countryside, depicted in thatched cottages on chocolate box covers, with the flowers of country gardens. But the majority of English people live in cities, and this month’s referendum is not merely a question about the future of Scottish identity but one about forging a realistic future English identity.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in September 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Church Review (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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