Thursday, April 06, 2006


The Identity Crisis of 'Greater England'

England's identity is not what it was. In his Between Europe and America Andrew Gamble argues that to the three spheres identified by Churchill- 'Empire', 'America' and 'Europe', should be added another, that of the 'British Union' as factors influencing our sense of whom we are and what we are for. The Empire is clearly a historical infuence only, though Gamble sees the sphere overlapping strongly as recently as the eighties when to rightwing Conservatives, the Falklands had more than merely an imperial echo. Thatcher also applied such harsh economic medicine that the Celtic fringe, emphatically non Thatcherite, became even more determined to loosen or sunder the links which made such political anomalies possible. So England found itself in the new century with only a few stale crumbs of empire and with Scotland and Wales inhabiting new more autonomous identities.

As it was English expansion at the heart of the nation which became the centre of an empire covering a quarter of the world and containing an equal fraction of the world's population, this dual loss really hurt the rightwing English sensibilities of the likes of Simon Heffer, Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton- as their journalism at the time displayed. Indeed Great Britain would have been better dubbed 'Greater England' as it was English values and vices which characterized the empire. Immigration has also affected our sense of who we are, with our cities turned into rainbow like multicultural societies and not without some friction.

Then there is the key dilemma facing our nation: towards which sphere should we cleave: Europe's or America's? We have always been reluctant Europeans, whatever Churchill and Bevin orated after the war. We stood aloof until the bus had left and then the driver chucked us off even when we caught up and tried to get on. And it's not just our leaders, it's the lot of us who are basically Eurosceptic. America seems more accessible- not really 'foreign' to us at all, what with the language and all that shared telly- and we all remember how important the alliance was during the fights against Hitler and communism. We might compain about the Yanks but most British people still see them as 'cousins' or something close.

On top of that we have Tony Blair's contribution. He tries to persuade Europe they too share the same interests as the the UK and the US and that he can be a 'bridge' across the Atlantic. The problem is that they don't agree with the Blairite perceptions of shared interests and suspect, rightly, that the bridge offers only one way traffic: it can help Europe become more like America but won't make America more like Europe. No, England has been winkled out of its 'Greater'incarnation and is stranded somewhere still out in the mid Atlantic. National identities take a long time to evolve, to decline and then reform- in our case our new identity is currently under construction.

I've just been reading a chapter in your book 'Debates in British Politics Today': Local Government, could mayors make a difference to be precise. I stopped for a break from my reading and accidentally stumbled across your blog. What a bizarre coincidence.
Kind of spooky Mike. Hope you find th book useful; lecturers use it quite a bit as it helps provoke thought, apparently.
An interesting topic, Skipper - this whole 'Englishness' thing. Talking to my A Level group while we studied Nationalism, they certainly feel English more than, say, British (one wag said he felt 'peckish'). They referred to feelings of emotional attachment to the national football and rugby teams, but not much beyond that. I think your 'identity under construction' rings true: as an Englishman, I get uncomfortable when I see English flags on houses and cars. It's nothing to do with any perceived association between the flag and the extreme right. It just doesn't seem, well, 'English' to assert your natonal identity in such an 'in your face' fashion. And as for the preference for the States over Europe, I'm not sure. Is there not an English tendency to look down on the Americans (their spelling, their shallow and short histry) whereas we look up in a grudgingly admiring way to Europe (eg: French cuisine, German efficiency, Italian 'love of life' and a host of other stereotypes)?
Yes, we have contradictory feelings about the Yanks, Mark, but I think we at heart prefer them over the Europeans. If you had to rely on any country to help you in a crisis it would probably be them- this is what the polls show I believe. Problem is with generalisations about other countries is that they tend to blot out the very many exceptions e.g. 'Swedes have no sense of humour'; I know many very witty Swedes (mind you, overall I'd say Swedes have not got especially good senses of humour.)
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