The Daily Telegraph
Why Englishness is nothing to feel embarrassed about
Our refusal to admit pride in our Englishness, as a new BBC survey has found, is the most English thing we could do, says
Imagine the glee when the BBC bigwigs got back the results of their new project, The English Question. The aim was to answer the question – “What is the nation’s identity?” – and to find out how English we really feel. The results are being investigated and reported on this week’s TV and radio news programmes.
I spent four years studying England and Englishness, and I could have told the BBC the answer, without it bothering to survey 20,081 people. It turns out – surprise, surprise – that the young are less likely to feel proud to be English than older generations. Overall, 80per cent of people in England identify strongly as English, but 72per cent of over-65s are proud to be English, compared with 45 per cent of 18-24 year-olds.
There’s also a strong regional difference. Lincolnshire and the Midlands identify strongly as English, with more than 90 per cent of respondents saying they felt very strongly or fairly strongly English. Meanwhile, in metropolitan London, and student-rich Oxford and Cambridge, between 32 and 45 per cent of respondents said they didn’t identify strongly as English.
These results also chime neatly with the BBC’S world-view – that old people, and old-fashioned people, stuck out in the provinces, are all unpleasantly Brexity and nationalistic; while the young, metropolitan and educated are progressive types, too sophisticated to be restricted by, let alone proud of, national characteristics.
In fact, the real picture is far more nuanced and complicated than that. Funnily enough, the refusal to identify as English is, in itself, a very English thing to do. Upper-class, imperialist Englishmen have, for decades, looked down on jingoistic patriotism. It smacks too much of showing off.
Before Welsh and Scottish devolution 20 years ago, you barely saw a St George’s flag. While the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish displayed an admirable national pride in their flags, their languages and their songs, it was a peculiarly English trait to display self-deprecation about patriotic display. It was a classic example of the pride that apes humility: if you know you’re top dog, you don’t need to crow about it. You do precisely the opposite. You laugh at the things that are wrong with the old nation you belong to – while secretly, in your heart, being very happy and secure in being English.
Englishness is an extremely complicated condition. It is far too thickly disguised by our deepest characteristics – sarcasm, irony, over-statement, under-statement and humour – to be reduced to the clichés produced in this latest BBC survey.
Fish and chips, drinking tea, getting drunk on the Costa del Sol – these were some of the answers given by the BBC respondents when asked what defined Englishness. And how some parts of the media revel when the clichés come true. If there are fights among drunken English football supporters in the World Cup in Russia this month, some no doubt will rub their hands in glee.
When these and another well-worn tropes – of English nationalists draped in their English flags on St George’s Day – are endlessly rolled out, you can understand why some people may feel shy about declaring pride about their Englishness. And yet these are just a tiny proportion of our myriad characteristics. By ignoring the quiet pride we have in our gentleness, self-effacement and shyness and eclipsing them with less subtle national stereotypes, we do ourselves a disservice. And yet some are still obsessed with doggedly presenting our own reductive clichés about ourselves to the world.
Football hooliganism – at domestic matches anyway – has almost entirely disappeared since stadiums became all-seater, after the 1990 Taylor Report. The young are drinking much less than their parents. The English diet may not have been revolutionised; the young are getting fatter than their parents, but they are doing so in spite of a far greater range of produce and restaurants on offer than 30 years ago.
So what does Englishness and feeling English really mean? I’m not sure I know the definitive answer – there I am, being madly English and self-deprecating. However, I did come up with a few answers and was able to identify that the crucial details that define us are to do with our geography and weather. We are on an island in the far north of the northern hemisphere. The English Channel explains how we feel marginally different from people in Continental Europe. If you wanted to put a precise figure on that margin, you might say it’s four per cent; the difference between the 52per cent and the 48per cent who voted in different directions in the European referendum.
We live on an extremely packed island – which, like that other extremely packed island, Japan, produces an obsession with divisions and hierarchies between different groups. An island rich in coal, fish and fertile land – with not much infertile land and few impenetrable mountain ranges – was naturally suited to producing great wealth, and gave us easy access to the rest of the world.
Like other northern European people, such as those in Scandinavia, we drink heavily to fend off the misery of our long winters. We live, too, in a cereal-growing, largely non-vine-growing climate – and have traditionally preferred beer to wine.
As we are a packed island, we set up walls between each other – some literal, in the shape of garden walls (gardens, too, proliferate in a climate that is never too hot or too cold, thanks to the Gulf Stream); others metaphorical, in the shape of our shyness and awkwardness in social situations. As Evelyn Waugh said, the English use manners to keep other people away; the Americans to get closer to each other.
These conditions have created lots of national traits. There’s an obsession with walking – as James Bond says in Dr No, when he’s in Jamaica, England is “the only country where you can take a walk every day of the year”. That temperate climate has made us the world leaders at inventing, if not playing, sport: tennis, football, cricket… all created by the English.
Good manners, fair play, solid houses, safe roads, a love and care for the countryside – we don’t always live up to these ideals but the point is that they are English ideals, admirable ideals, and ideals that even the most anti-english Englishman can’t take against.
It is our unwillingness to show off that prevents us shouting to the rafters what so many of us secretly think: that we’re diffidently, awkwardly, terribly proud to be English, even when, whisper it, we don’t tell the BBC pollsters about it.
How England Made the English by Harry Mount is published by Penguin Books Ltd (rrp £9.99). To order your copy for £8.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
By ignoring selfeffacement and shyness we do ourselves a disservice