Monday, 21 April 2008
What England Means To Me
The Battle of Hastings, October 13th 1066: A bad day at the office for England.
It's up there in its full glory in cyberspace at What England Means To Me.
Here's what I said:
I think of myself as an old-style English Radical in my politics, somewhere on the Left. I see the English people, whatever their origins, as having struggled for centuries to reverse the effects of the “Norman Yoke”. When I was about eight, living in a Labour-voting (or, more accurately, Tory-hating) household in the West Midlands, I remember learning at school about the Roman and Viking invasions of England and how they left eventually. Then when learning about the Normans, the obvious question to me was “when did the Normans leave?” I never got a decent answer at the time. As I got older the obvious answer was “never”, but l knew from the callous destruction of much of the West Midlands’ industrial base under the Thatcher regime that we were a nation of lions led by donkeys. When I was 19 I came across the Levellers in the English Civil Wars and their idea of the “Norman Yoke” which deprived the “free-born” Anglo-Saxons of their liberties after 1066. Ever since, I have basically held onto the idea that England is still under the thrall of a much-modified “Norman Yoke”. The faces and names may change (and if your ancestors came over in 1066 I don’t hold you personally responsible for anything!) but “the Thing”, to quote William Cobbett, has persisted for centuries. Its “golden thread”, to coin a phrase, runs from the “Harrying of the North”, Magna Carta (a baron’s carve-up), the Glorious Revolution (a banker’s coup d’etat) all the way up to New Labour’s paeans to “New Britishness”.
Why does anyone on the Left have hang-ups about the idea of being English? It sure beats the idea of Britishness. For about two decades I’ve thought the whole concept of Britishness (for which my spellchecker suggests “Brutishness”) as an idea whose time has gone. The only question is how we give the United Kingdom a decent burial. However, too many on the Left hold onto the idea of Britishness, fearing Englishness. However, how on Earth can holding onto the ideology of a big business dominated imperial state, which is in its death throes, be progressive? There is simply no “Britishness”, new or otherwise, that political progressives can subscribe to and be true to their ideals. It is a concept too weighed down by the gap between its democratic, enlightened rhetoric and the sordid reality that the British state has presided over for centuries.
Instead the Left should embrace English Radicalism, which inspired thinkers and movements such as the Levellers, Tom Paine, William Cobbett, the Chartists, the mutualist and co-operative movements, William Morris, the pre-1914 syndicalists and Guild Socialists such as GDH Cole. It was driven underground politically by the triumph of “top-down” socialism, in both its Fabian and Leninist forms, after 1918. Now that global “top-down” models of organising society, whether by states or corporations, are under attack from decentralising, democratic tendencies, it is time for the English Left to embrace a national identity that accords with the spirit of the age.
It also means we need a national identity that draws upon one of the most abused phrases in modern politics: “Little Englander”. The original “Little Englanders” were patriotic radicals who were opposed to the Empire building that underlay Britain’s participation in the 1899-1902 Boer War. Our nation can only be at ease with itself when we abandon imperial adventures, whether our own or on behalf of the USA or EU, and realise that our real gifts to the world are our language, our culture and our sense of humour, none of which the Normans gave us! (“Taking the piss” is something that William the Conqueror, Oliver Cromwell, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair would never appreciate!). We should become a country where, to quote Orwell, we “hate to see England either humiliated or humiliating anyone else.”
Biographical note: I was born in Walsall in the Black Country two weeks before the end of 1969. My mother was also born in the Black Country. My father was born in County Sligo. He came over in 1948 at the age of six after his dad served in the British Army during WW2 (and was to again in Korea in the early 1950s). However, I think of myself as English rather than British, and have done for 30 odd years.