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Oct 21, 2004 5:52 pm

On Englishness

England is the country that 'dare not speak its name' (registration required)

Dr David Starkey, the historian and broadcaster, is calling for a revival of English patriotism that recognises the country's unique role in shaping the modern world.

Dr Starkey, 59, believes that the reluctance of the English to champion their own homeland means that England"is now the country that dare not speak its name".

He also claims that English national identity is in danger of"going down the pan" because of a post-war obsession with the idea of being"British".

Dr Starkey's patriotic rallying cry coincides with his new 24-part television series on the nation's kings and queens, which begins on Channel 4 tomorrow night and will continue over four years. Monarchy will profile every English monarch from the year 400 to today at the rate of six a year.

The series is as much a defence of the English and Anglo-Saxon culture as a series of personality portraits."This series is about the history of England," said Dr Starkey."Yes, England - the country that dare not speak its name. In England we have this dreadful inhibition about talking about ourselves. England is a historic country which has shaped the world we are in. It is arguably the very origins of modernity. That is something we should celebrate, not be ashamed of."

Dr Starkey believes that the English need to celebrate their national identity in the same way that the Scots celebrate theirs. England, he argues, is much more important than Scotland, which is a"tiny" country that"does not much matter".

You can imagine what the Scots think of that last bit. (Has Starkey never heard of the Scottish Enlightenment?) Scotland is a tiny country whose impact on the wider world, both as a nation in itself and as part of a wider Britain, has been out of all proportion to its numbers or wealth. And it ought to be quite possible to champion England without stooping to insults against its neighbours.

Moreover, whatever Starkey thinks, it is Britain as a whole that has mattered in modern world history. England on its own was, frankly, a deeply insignificant political entity - and that's regardless of whether we consider the early middle ages before the Norman Conquest (after which for some centuries it was simply a minor element in a much larger European empire, don't forget) or the later middle ages before the process of conquests and unions within the Isles that created the modern British state. And so as those other parts of the British Isles have broken away and re-asserted their own identities and varying degrees of political independence, it's hardly surprising that English identity is left staring at a vacuum.

It is not a modern 'obsession' with being British that's causing the problem with Englishness - it's the English habit (for several centuries, and not dead yet) of conflating 'England' and 'Britain', while failing for generations to create of and for ourselves anything that was new. Now the (old) non-English Britons are taking back their own, refusing to accept English appropriation and condescension (and boy, how that upsets the English in itself). And we have large numbers of 'new' Britons whose origins lay far beyond these islands: do you hear anyone calling themselves 'Black English'? Alternatively, as indeed they have always done, English people turn to the regional identities that mean more, more intimately, to them. Londoners, Scousers, Geordies, Brummies, Cornish, Suffolkers (that's me, by the way)... there is a world of thriving English regional and local identities out there, far more variegated than the stereotypes of English national identity (white cliffs of Dover, anyone? What the hell is that supposed to mean to me?).

The trouble is not that England dare not speak its name. The problem is that we, the English, have no idea what to call ourselves that does not sound parochial, insular, conservative (not to say reactionary), dated and deadly dull.

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Nathanael D. Robinson - 10/22/2004

An interesting equivalent from American academia is the popular movement among conservatives to create "white/caucasian" studies departments as a response to minorities studies.

Sharon Howard - 10/22/2004

The Prussia/Germany parallel is fascinating, and doubtless there are others that could be added.

There are of course plenty of people ready to criticise England's role in the British Isles, sometimes immoderately and unfairly so (which I think tends to simply put the English on the defensive). English identity and culture is gradually coming under more rigorous scrutiny (rather as gender historians have begun to unpack masculinities...) - something to which the publications noted in these comments testify. Arguably, Englishness is at a crossroads; we either start to become more self-critical, shed some of our complacent nostalgia, and find new ways to be English; or Englishness becomes increasingly ridiculous, irrelevant, stuck in the past, and worse, prey to the racists and xenophobes of certain 'political' organisations.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 10/21/2004

England is not the only kingdom/region that nationalized itself into a hegemonic power. The Kingdom of Prussia was a Baltic state with a large territory in Eastern Europe that based itself on the domination of Slavic serfdom by a German aristocracy. In the 19th C it grew to include territories that were not Prussian in the traditional sense. It became a heterogeneous entity wherein the patterns of political, social and cultural development differed from territory to territory. Even more problematic, it was a Prussia power with two large Catholic populations. The unity of Prussia was forced at times--and probably tenuous. (I laugh whenever I have to deal with hybrid identities like East Prussians (Poles) and Rhine-Prussians.) Despite the inconsistencies Prussia equated itself with Germanness, the nationalizing power. The price of becoming the agent of nationalization was nationalizing themselves

Ironically, history and German culture have parted ways. Prussia, much to my consternation, is the standard for studying the German past (especially in American universities). As German identity has been unpacked into its constituent parts, there are few who want to associated with the militarism that Prussia has come to represent. Regional studies look to Berlin-Brandenburg as the area around Berlin, an earlier entity that might as well be equated with Prussia. Other regions have established their independence from Prussia.

The same degree of self-reflection and shame has not been brought on England as Prussia. Although the history of the former nation-region is not as terrible as the latter, England could still be criticized for the influence that it had in the British Islands. It might be easier to swallow identities that appear to be more pastoral. However, the tendency to look more locally is not out of character with a regional English identity. Indeed, regional identities are flexible and overlapping, aggregating together in unusual and surprising ways.

Danny Loss - 10/21/2004

You weren't kidding with the "newest book" bit, huh? According to Amazon, it just came out today.

I, for one, will be sure to check it out.

Hugo Schwyzer - 10/21/2004

... requires, Sharon, that I plug my brother's newest book: Literature, Nationalism and Memory in Early Modern England by Philip Schwyzer

Read the Amazon description...

Jonathan Dresner - 10/21/2004

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote A SONG OF PATRIOTIC PREDJUDISE almost a half-century ago now.

It seems to me that the success of English as a language is part of what drives this sort of rump nationalism; whether that justifies any sort of triumphalism is a very different question, since, as you note, it is really during the "British" phase that it spreads throughout the world.

Danny Loss - 10/21/2004

Peter Mandler's just finishing up (or just finished up) a monograph called "The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Burke to Blair." I'm not sure when it's scheduled to be published, but you might want to keep your eyes open.

Disclosure: Peter's currently my supervisor.