Patriotism is a dirty word these days. For all the diverse bluster of our politicians and right-wing journalists, nationalism exists in only two, rather flawed modes: the bland, teary-eyed flag waving of Britishness; inclusive to all and tied more to narrow political values of citizenship and democracy than any broader cultural vision, and the backward, small-town, conservative xenophobia of Englishness. Denuded of its once imperial pretentions, Britishness has become something of a civic duty – a demonstration of a willingness to participate in public life – and little more. Englishness, in most cases, seems to be merely an ideological deployment of Stuff White People Like (British Chapter), combined with a nastier element; a performance of the fears some have about how that might change in a global world. What’s worse, is that the two are frequently confused, Britishness being used to refer to Englishness being used to refer to Britishness… to almost infinite regress.
Confusions aside, I have less beef with the new vision of Britishness. All states have their theatrics of belonging, and the government at Westminster is no different. At least it is an open, inclusive vision of citizenship – a hell of a lot better than the restrictive, crypto-Metropolitanism that Britishness used to be; under whose auspices Welsh, Irish, Scottish and regional cultures were almost stamped out. A more pressing concern for me is the state of Englishness. Regardless of whether it is the middle class vision lampooned by Jam and Jerusalem or the more working class mixture of football and fame; both have an unnerving tendency towards a fear of “others” – foreigners, outsiders or dissenters – that betrays an ignorance of history. After all, the Cross of St George is the symbol of a Middle-Eastern Saint, adopted after the Crusades. Tea is imported from India. Jam started off in France. Looking to Christianity, St George and football to give us our sense of Englishness always seemed odd to me – all these tropes are world-covering in scope, and yet are frequently paraded about by bigots who tout them as symbols of the essence of one specific nation.
Of course, all this goes to show a basic truth that anthropologists have understood for decades – that all nations are imagined communities. Created on the basis of common destinies cooked up by intellectuals, artists and others with a platform and an agenda, pretty much any human community of any size is intentionally forged by some historical figure or other. Englishness is the way it is not because of any natural facts of blood and soil, but because persons or persons unknown decreed it so.
Some nations, such as Norway, arose as concepts more or less directly from the Romantic movement. 19th century Norwegian intellectuals and artists such as Asbjørnsen, Lindemen and Grieg set about recording the folk practices of their newly-born country (it had been a Danish province for some 400 years), and forged from both these records and their own genius something of a collective soul for the Norwegian people. Of course, England also had its own Romantic movement, but it seems to not have had anything like the same kind of impact on the nationalism that eventually took shape here. England was very much eclipsed by Britain as a favoured concept early on, and so it was eventually Britannia, not Ing, who prevailed as the favoured Genius Populi. With modernity’s vicious destruction of folk culture in the early half of the 20th century, the only ethnic identity people could turn back to once Britishness shed its ethnic associations was what they remained passionate about – sport, Christianity and popular culture.
As a result, the nostalgia of present day wannabe nation-builders is invested in the 50s (when Britishness involved a rolling-out of English culture, before the race-riots of the 60s), not pre-Industrial times as with other nationalisms. And given the short period of time between then and now, this supposed “happier time” is only too easy to pick holes in. 1950s Britain was oppressive, inane in its disrespect for the past and faith in the future, racist, sexist, homophobic, and imperialistic. It had yet to challenge the many grotesqueries of capitalism. So a collective imaginary rooted in such an era is bound to be negatively contaminated with such attitudes.
But within this rather sorry state of affairs, there lies an opportunity. With the hideousness of nationalism so closely bound-up with an obviously false essentialism and an oppressive cultural outlook, we have the chance to do away with it, and replace it with something more in tune with contemporary values. The same ingredients the early romantics of Norway used to produce a sense of collective culture – folkways – have in England been left mercifully untainted by the bad old days of ethnocentric nationalism. What’s more, during the 60s and 90s especially, English people have drawn on these traditions to support the various protest movements and rebellions of the 20th century. I see it as no coincidence that the Battle of Beanfield occurred just when Richard Carpenter’s mystical Robin of Sherwood was being broadcast on British television – they are both manifestations of the deeply spiritual and profoundly rebellious spirit of the English people.
To me, English folk culture is the missing ingredient in creating the right kind of English ethnicity for a pluralist society. It is local, it is assertive, it is historically (and mythically) rooted, and yet it isn’t intolerant or oppressive. In fact, it can easily be interpreted as quite the opposite. Whether we think of Wat Tyler or Robin Hood, The Levellers or The Travellers, there is a long and proud tradition of ordinary English people fighting for freedom and equality – precisely the things that identity politics and now the Occupy movement are demanding. Folk culture has, and can provide a symbolic language to articulate this. This freedom-loving nature of course isn’t unique to the English, nor are the English “essentially” about freedom. The rise of Elgar-fuelled nationalist pomp is proof against that kind of naïveté. But given how all cultures are made, not born, surely we can re-make English culture out of these radical historical ingredients, and put it to work in leading the English to a better destiny? Perhaps now is the time we should see ourselves, as one of my favourite musicians Damh the Bard puts it, as the sons and daughters of Robin Hood.