England’s Identity… Crisis?

Gary Younge’s Guardian article of yesterday, ‘England’s identity crisis’ has already provoked a good deal of analysis, debate and particularly return comment (over 250 on the Guardian’s site alone). Whilst many points in the article are accurate, there are also some that an English nationalist would consider ludicrous anathema.

For instance, Younge rightly notes that:

…when England’s national team ceases to exist as a viable entity – as it did at the weekend – the nation and, to some extent, its national identity goes with it. Most of the flags that have been brandished these last few weeks will now disappear. When the final whistle blew in Bloemfontein, the ref called time on a 90-minute nation. The flag of St George that was flying over Downing Street on Sunday was replaced by a union flag on Monday morning.

While he is correct in saying this, his qualifying statement ‘to some extent’ must be heeded. He immediately confuses himself: he is ultimately referring to England not as a nation in itself, but to England’s football-fuelled, fleeting place in civil dialogue, in civil society and most importantly, at the forefront of public consciousness. This makes his point a nonsense: even in nations in with fierce national pride and all the facets of a truly national culture, it is unfeasible to suggest that a sustained level of such feverish nationalism can be maintained. I know of no patriotic citizen of any nation that wakes in the morning and paints his face with his national flag before driving to work, and this is the kind of shallow ‘national identity’ to which Mr Younge refers. Football limits the ideas of what a nation actually constitutes: this is the problem that the author has. I can say with absolute certainty that long-held red cross tattoos will not disappear, nor will Shakespeare stop being taught in English schools, and nor will English Heritage nor the Church of England close their doors and cease to be just because the populist Prime Minister has taken his neatly-folded ‘special occasion’ flag down.

Next, Mr Younge takes an embarrassingly typical diversion into quoting the oft-paraphrased Marxist ‘historian’ Eric Hobsbawm…

“The imagined community of millions,” wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm, “seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” But England is more imaginary than most, and only becomes real as a team of 11 people.

No fewer than three other articles had included this hackneyed and banal quotation in their World Cup analysis, whether that is legitimising fledgling post-colonial African nationalism, as in this FT article, or multi-culturalism in mid-80s England teams, as on this Fabian blog, but most interestingly in one of Younge’s other articles from little over two weeks ago, in which he uses the phrase to legitimise his own perception of ‘real England’ in a New Statesman article. If the cap fits and all that…

I digress. How on earth does Mr Younge presume to qualify what constitutes ‘England’ when he patently has such a narrow view of what it actually is? He goes on…

“The problem with this is that English identity is a very fragile thing. The re-emergence of the St George’s cross as a popular symbol is relatively recent and completely contested. Some have an ambivalent relationship to it. The journey from rightwing totem to national emblem is by no means complete. Whether it signifies a grievance at the absence of nationhood, or a desire for racial and ethnic exclusion, depends on who is waving it and the experience of those who see it.”

This seems to be a painfully ironic rebuke of the clearly working-class revival of an ancient truly English symbol of cohesive nationhood. Besides, it was only a combination of Socialist hand-wringing and Imperialist arrogance that shut the Cross of St George out of public life. Mr Younge makes the tired and unfounded lefty assertion that the English flag is ‘a right wing totem’, as previously espoused in the ludicrous Socialist Worker article that I featured in my previous entry. I assume he is alluding to the grim days of the National Front marches of the 1970s. Let’s have a look at some images from that time, shall we?

March 1978

March 1979

I can see a solitary Cross of St George in these images. The others are Northern Irish flags. While I am willing to be proven wrong, I just don’t think this tired point stands up.

So, after a brief dissection of England’s sustained sporting underachievement, Mr Younge tacks another Socialist anecdote into his argument…

“Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-consciousness,” argues Ernest Gellner in Thought and Change. “It invents nations where they did not exist.”

Aside from the stupidity of any effort to attempt to awkwardly shoehorn this notion into a history of England, or the English people which Mr Younge purports to know so much about, I disagree entirely with this concept of what a nation is. I consider the following a much more astute summary of what patriotic nationalism is:

“… a picture not only of the community to which he belongs and of his place in it, but also the place and destiny of that community in the outside world.”

A question of a nation existing or not is roundly irrelevant: a nation is the connection of the individual to his community and, most importantly, what that community represents in a meaningful way to the outside world. I strongly believe that an overwhelming majority of foreigners would be able to give an inquisitive Englishman an astute, frank and insightful appraisal of the most important contributions of England to the outside world. Including, significantly, football: the sport over which so much nervous panic seems to have broken out.

I can only implore Mr Younge to cease the endless, and fruitless self-questioning of what constitutes ‘Englishness’, to cease his denial of the nationhood of England, and to celebrate the achievements of the nation through time. A crisis? Hardly. If he laments the lack of an English national identity, perhaps he should support the causes an English nationalist holds closest to his heart in 2010: a campaign for a national anthem, a public holiday, and political representation.

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About Byrnsweord

I am an Englishman. Constantly striving for the truth and to conserve what is good about England. You can find my on flickr at http://www.flickr.com/people/byrnsweord/ my blog over at byrnsweord.wordpress.com/ and my Twitter account at twitter.com/byrnsweord Byrnsweord is min nama.
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7 Responses to England’s Identity… Crisis?

  1. Junius says:

    Well said – I find these people rather lacking in education about the history of England;they seem think we merely appeared around 1958 with the beginning of the deconstruction of the Empire!

    All this self-indulgent hand wringing, the self-flagellation and the pathetic attempt to persuade us that we don’t exist is beginning to annoy quite a few people. Perhaps, after all, it is all coming unstuck for them? What would happen, do you think, if the English really got mad at this constant attack on who they are, where they come from (all over the place) and what we stand for (just about anything)?

    We live in interesting times.

  2. tally says:

    I watched the film, this is England recently. It took me a little while to twig that as it was set in the mid 80’s the English Flag would not have been seen around much if at all. This movie has set out to associate the English flag with the National Front.

  3. Wyrdtimes says:

    I replied to Younge’s article mentioning him associating the wrong flag. Got quite a few recommendations. The thing with CiF is that if you see a subject near the beginning you have to just bang in a comment no time for much editing before you hit send. If you want anyone to read what you want to say. Most folk just look at the top few comments I’m sure.

    I should have edited out my “mostly bang on” because with longer analysis it was mostly wrong. Good post, thanks. And good job on getting those pics.

    Good point about This England Tally.

  4. Bobby Boyce says:

    It’s interesting that these journalists concentrate on English nationalism as if it’s a bad thing. They use the World Cup to demonstrate that the English should not be nationalistic and completely miss the point that the World Cup is a celebration of Nations. It’s OK to celebrate your nationality as long as you are not English. If you do we will dig through history and find many reasons to deter you. We will forgive the Germans, French, Russians and any other nation, but if you are English we will gang up on you and do our utmost to destroy you. They are continuing what the Romans, Norsemen, Viking, Normans etc etc ad nauseam, have been doing for the past 2000 years.
    I think what sets the English apart is that generally people are happy to just get on with their lives. From a personal point of view I have always felt English, my parents, grandparents and so on were mostly English. In fact I can trace my English ancestry back, so far, to the English Civil wars, but I do recall that when I was young in the 1950’s I was encouraged (not by my parents I am pleased to say) to call myself British, in fact looking back it was tantamount to brainwashing by officialdom. The consequences are that I now describe myself as English and entirely reject the “British” label. In fact I am in danger of becoming a bore on the subject.
    British is not a nationality, full stop. It is a union of countries and it appears to me that the English have generally accepted this but are now waking up to the fact that England is the last remaining part of the British Empire. We are the only country entirely ruled by Britain.
    I have sadly come to the conclusion that England is being sacrificed to this idea of Britishness that simply no longer exists. The sooner our politicians accept this fact the sooner we can address issues that affect England without the interference of unelected MP’s in England. Only that way will we move forward and may stand a chance of getting things right. We can and we will achieve the restoration of our parliament. The English Interregnum imposed upon us for the past 300 years is coming to an end, it is now unstoppable.

    • Byrnsweord says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments, and can empathise entirely on the matter of becoming a bore on the subject! I am very grateful for your insight :)

  5. Doktorb says:

    There are some very good points here, although I think we overlook the extent to which “England” is itself a Union of nations.

    It cannot be right that the historic peoples and regions of England – people who live within Cumbria/Cumberland will consider themsleves different to those who live in Middlesex, for one example – are expected to accept an “England” which is a single construct only for the purposes of being ‘better’ than the United Kingdom.

    English nationalism needs to also accept and promote regionalism within England, for from those peoples in the regions comes the traditions of the nation they support.

    • Byrnsweord says:

      An entirely valid point- though I would posit that Middlesex has effectively ceased to exist ;) I have always maintained that England was hugely diverse in and of itself prior to the great homogenising movement in the years between the Great War and the Second World War. To an extent, even with the flattened accents and the faceless shopping malls, it still is, and there is certainly a case to be made about the effects of new regionalisation on a modern English diversity.

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