Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

Reclaiming England

Embracing a new, radical patriotism could serve to unite us all

New Statesman, 15th November 2004

It was Gap that made me snap. I was passing my local outlet, when my eye was caught by a poster in the window. It said, in giant script: "FALL SALE. 50% OFF!"

It took a while to sink in. Fall sale. What? This isn't America, it's England! We don't have "a fall", we have an autumn! I found myself frothing in despair at this corporate colonisation of my language, my culture, my public space. I looked around. Nobody else seemed to mind.

Perhaps I was the only one who cared that the English today have no idea who they are. Their culture in retreat, much of their history forgotten, great swathes of their landscape being transformed into soulless non-places at breathtaking speed, they - we - are a lost people. We dress like Americans, sing like Americans, shop like Americans. We turn our pubs into chain bars, grub up our orchards and shutter our farms, transform our villages into commuter suburbs, crucify our towns with ring-road Wal-Marts.

If England ever was, in George Orwell's words, "a family with the wrong members in control", it now seems more like a broken home. The English are becoming a deculturised people. Sneered at by the left, hitched to dubious causes by the right, English culture has been treated for years as an embarrassment; some monster locked in the attic, which escapes occasionally in big boots and with shaven head to terrify the neighbours.

Who cares about England? Politically, it is the love that dare not speak its name among the liberal classes. On the right, that love, if love it is, is as strong as ever. For decades now, virtually the only people who have been prepared to stand up for England are those whom most New Statesman readers would cross the street to avoid: flag-waving Tories; reactionary old buffers writing to the Daily Telegraph letters page; and, lurking on the dark margins, the racist right, their skins throbbing lobster pink with fear and fury.

But what about the rest, the great mass of people who are neither politicised nor particularly given to cultural analysis? These are the people who fly the George Cross from vans and cars; those for whom England is a reality, but who have been instructed not to mention it, in case they fan flames that nobody wants to see. For them - for us - England is now a forbidden word.

The left has played an enormous part in the deculturisation of the English people. The postmodern, liberal 21st-century line on Englishness is that it is meaningless - and a good thing, too. The English, after all, have a dark history: colonialism abroad and the oppression of the Scots, Irish and Welsh at home. Any resurgence of discussions about their identity can only serve to raise ghosts. Today, we are simply a collection of people living on a "multicultural" island in the North Sea.

Fear of being hijacked by the racist right has led the English - or at least, the English intelligentsia - to deny the existence of their own culture. This has had two dangerous consequences.

One is that the far right has been able to colonise Englishness for itself, conflate it with whiteness and make us all even more nervous about discussing it. The far right has exploited this lack of discussion to play on fears of a "liberal elite" or "Brussels bureaucracy" conspiring to do down the English. The fear and anger that this spawns among a people anxious about their identity is then turned on the wrong targets - the current favourites being immigrants and asylum-seekers.

The other consequence is that the full-on assault on what remains of a distinctive English culture, primarily by the forces of American capitalism, has gone virtually unchallenged by a left that should have been shouting the loudest against it.

But what is England? The English folk legend Martin Carthy puts it well. "The English don't know who they are," he says. "They have given up their identity and sold an idea of 'Britain' - the Tower of London is England; Buckingham Palace is England; the Yeomen of the Guard is England. Ain't no culture there . . . I think what identifies English people is their music, their dance, their literature and their painting."

Carthy is on to something. Music and the arts help to define a people. So, too, do modes of dress, crafts, culinary tradition, language and connection to a landscape. Together, these things go to make up the core of a culture.

It is perhaps in the English landscape that "culture" can be most easily glimpsed. The pubs, the shops, the clubs, the places of worship, the farms, the high streets, the villages: the places that the English built, that only the English could have built. The places that could not be anywhere else.

These are increasingly in short supply. Take the local pub - a cultural cornerstone if ever there were one. "When you have lost your inns," declared the French-turned-English poet Hilaire Belloc in the 1930s, "drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England." It may be time to start running the bath, for the traditional pub is disappearing fast. Twenty of these go out of business every month. Half of those that remain are owned by giant pub chains, many financed by multinational banks. The number of true "family brewers" in Britain stands at just 38.

The same is true of our towns and cities. Virtually gone are the independent shops, the markets, the expressions of local identity. High streets become multinational malls, helping to turn urban areas into what the New Economics Foundation calls "clone towns". Its reports on this phenomenon merely put figures on what we can all see happening around us: between 1995 and 2000, the UK lost 20 per cent of its corner shops, grocers, high-street banks, post offices and pubs, amounting to a cumulative loss of more than 30,000 local economic outlets. Chain stores take their place.

The countryside fares no better. More than 100,000 farm jobs have been lost in the past decade alone. Family farms are disappearing. Our fisheries and their attendant fleets have been sucked dry. The once-famous orchards of England are being grubbed up in pursuit of EU subsidies; of the 6,000 varieties of our most famous native fruit, the apple, nine are readily sold in supermarkets. Faster and faster, England is becoming a one-stop shop on the road to a global market peopled by citizens of nowhere.

So what to do?

All of us need to look long and hard at the place in which we live, try to know and understand it, and ask ourselves why it matters. We need a new declaration of Englishness: one that takes our country back from the sneerers on the left and the bigots on the right. We should be able to talk about culture and place - two things which, by their presence or absence, define the lives of everyone on earth - without talking about skin colour.

This, then, is a call for a new, positive English nationalism - an anti-racist, forward-looking but rooted nationalism that all of us who think that place matters should be able to embrace.

Let us begin to define a new English culture based on place, not race - an Englishness based instead on a recognition that we all belong here, and that we must all make a shared contribution to what the English are becoming.

As part of this, let us embrace both controversy and necessity by confining the troublesome concept of multiculturalism to the historical dustbin. When even Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, takes up the call, we can be sure of a debate without being tarred by the racist brush.

Let us instead forge an Englishness based not on cultural, religious or racial ghettoisation - often the unwitting result of the "multicultural" ideal - but on a multiracial society living under an umbrella created by us all, from Anglo-Saxons to Afro-Saxons, in which the folk songs of Eliza Carthy and the rap of The Streets, the feet of Wayne Rooney and the fists of Amir Khan are all representations of what we are.

Is this a racist notion? Is it "exclusive" or "divisive"? No: it is the opposite. It is a deliberately inclusive vision of a country at ease with itself, welcoming all comers, but knowing to what it is welcoming them; knowing both what it stands for and what it won't. A culture at ease with itself is far more immune to internal racism, fear of "outsiders" and anxieties about its own extinction. A content culture drains the swamp of xenophobia more effectively than legislation ever could.

Let us all, then - nostalgic Tories, guilty liberals, religious extremists, postmodern academics - stop wanting to be something else, somewhere else, at some other time. Let's live here, together, and make something of it. Let's build an Englishness that ushers both liberal shame and conservative bigotry out of the back door and into the rain about which we all spend so much of our time complaining.

Some may say that this is all too late; that the England of today and the England of the past can never be brought together. They would be wrong, for continuity and change have always gone hand in hand. "What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840?" asked George Orwell, writing during the Second World War (England Your England). "But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person."