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
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
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
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
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
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."