Since the SNP’s various victories in the elections on 5th May of this year, the topic has never really been out of the news. In one way or the other – whether falsified ‘statistics’ or exaggerated hyperbole – the notion of a Scotland desperate to break free of the United Kingdom has stalked the mainstream media. Alex Salmond has at times appeared to emulate the bogeyman role previously held by Nick Griffin – a ‘dangerous’ cloak-and-dagger type, revelling in his role as non-specific aggressor against a way of life so routine and banal that most people barely notice it.
To keep the topic in the news at a time when YouGov report that the economy, immigration, health, pensions and tax are the most important issues of the day, this week, the BBC ran a Newsnight special on Scottish independence.
A good deal of it was stereotypical blathering – vaguely Scottish, vaguely Conservative MP Rory Stewart fumbling his romantic metaphors being a cringe-inducing highlight – though Peter Davies raised some good points about why the Labour Party undertook its moronic hack-job of devolution.
Any kind of programme of this sort is going to have its drawbacks – for a start, greater emphasis was placed on people’s opinions of facts rather than constitutional expertise, such is the BBC’s populism. But there were so many elephants in the room that I was surprised that Mark Pritchard hasn’t yet lodged a complaint. The most notable was, predictably, English identity; equally predictable, no Englishman discussed it at length. The only serious attempt to discuss the matter was from Irishman Fergal Keane. His supposed ‘report’ was simply reductionist, revisionist nonsense – propaganda of the very worst sort.
Keane wasted no time in reeling out all the usual asinine cliches; an ‘imagined England’, tiresome pity for an un-named group only titled ‘the colonised’, ‘working-class values’, ‘right-wing extremism’. Stock footage of Windrush and the EDL were notable for their visual impact among other vacuous left-wing interpretations of our history. Keane’s report was nothing more than the typical socialist assertions, built on manifest falsehoods and nonsenses, that attempt to assert that Englishness has always been a pampered figment of the imagination of working-class labourers turned into thugs by a political and capitalist elite. In other words, arrant nonsense.
Keane’s report failed fundamentally because he failed to realise the fact that had been staring him in the face – Englishness is as complex as any other national identity. His report, astonishingly, entirely failed to recognise the significance of the aristocratic elite in English national identity. There was, for example, no mention of the people who built and lived in the castles Keane tried to assert were built to hide cowardly Englishmen from rampaging, valiant Scotsmen who were secure in their national identity. This contrast was re-written time and again, entirely omitting the knights, Lords and visionary clergymen who over time forged a rich, invaluable and distinctively English architecture that still defines every hackneyed image of ‘England’.
He mentioned Shakespeare only in an effort to assert that England had the luxury of never having been invaded or colonised by a foreign invader since it became what we now assert is ‘England’. Aside from the fact that this is baldly historically inaccurate, it also fundamentally undermines the valiant heroism of the men who died to make sure that this was the case – whether at sea in wars against European aggressors, on land against foreigners in distant lands or in the air against all comers in the late twentieth century.
No effort was made in the slightest to praise the thousands of Englishmen who had a hand in creating a Parliament so expressive, so articulate and so just that scores of other nations have had it at the fulcrum of their own success. No effort was made even in passing to praise the Englishmen and women whose likenesses are revered by grateful men and woman across the world for their pioneering work of incalculable value. Not even the merest nod was made to the creative geniuses who have populated this isle since time immemorial, bequeathing a wonderful language to the world – many of which, thousands of miles away, have it as their de facto or official language.
Including religion as a sop alone to the true complexity of the English identity, Keane’s questions only attempted to assert the supposed tangibility of the British identity and ‘value system’ over the alleged elusiveness of the English equivalent.
Quite why the BBC elected to couch a discussion over English identity in a wider narrative about the future of Scotland and Britain is unknown, but it is could be suggested that the BBC fear the very real certainty in England and Wales over the future of Scotland. Far from Keane’s assertion that Wales is part of some imagined Gaelic union of secure national identity, recent YouGov polls suggest that 40% of people in England and Wales believe those nations would be better off without Scotland in the Union, and that 54% believe Scotland benefits more than England & Wales in the Union. A fairly secure perspective, it seems.
Ultimately, Keane and the BBC have underestimated, or are ignorant of the fact that one of the hallmarks of Englishness is an unruffled pragmatism. The English do not fret about what someone else wishes to label them; they simply are who they are. They have no need for the superfluous and vacuous trappings of national identity – most of which are embarrassingly outdated – that some of their fellow Union members cling to. They have no desire to constantly re-evaluate themselves. They’re simply English.
During Keane’s piece, Zaiba Malik asserted her desire for an ‘easy Englishness’. There is a great allure about this kind of identity; uncluttered by fretting over ‘extremism’, unburdened by a prescriptive interpretation of very recent history and simple in its expression. In other words, an old-fashioned Englishness. After the piece, Don Letts spoke eloquently on his own struggle for national and racial identity, correctly noting that British minority communities have only discovered and been comfortable in their double-barrel identity label fairly recently. Perhaps in the context of this brave new Britain, the formulation of a more facile and simple English identity is something that will require a lengthy and concerted period of ‘claiming’ from historical revisionists, the ill-informed and the ignorant.
If Scotland elects to go its own way, England will soon find its own way of presenting itself to the world. There’s overwhelming historical evidence to assert that England has always forged its own path and known who it was. Was there hysteria over the trappings of nationhood after Henry VIII’s reformation? Far from it; the King took the opportunity to formalise a distinctive new Englishness of his own incentive. Free from Rome, he asserted that England was in itself an empire; then had this fact enshrined in law!
Perhaps freedom from the Union would be equally liberating for England. And perhaps that makes the British Broadcasting Corporation a little nervous…