Thursday, 29 January 2009

Conversations about England

Gareth Young, who has been working for years to alert those in power to the biases in our current constitution, in which England is the only UK nation without a political voice, has just launched a campaign for an English 'national conversation' on the subject. Why? Because:

In Wales the ‘All Wales Convention’, a cross-party initiative, is looking at extending legislative competence to the Welsh Assembly. In Scotland the SNP Government is conducting a 'National Conversation' to enable the people of Scotland to ‘decide Scotland's constitutional future’, with the aim of bringing forward a referendum on independence or enhanced devolved powers. And alongside the Scottish Government’s initiative there is the ‘Calman Commission’, a unionist cross-party consultative body, tasked with reviewing the present constitutional arrangements to enable the Scottish Parliament to better serve the people of Scotland (within the union).

Not to be outdone by the peripheries the government at Westminster has launched a 'Governance of Britain' initiative to ‘help us define what it means to be British’, an initiative that may well result in a British Bill of Rights and various policies to strengthen our feeling of Britishness.

But what about England; what about our feeling of Englishness? Unlike the other nations of the United Kingdom we have been offered no national consultation, nor a referendum, on how we wish to be governed. None are planned, nor even proposed. Instead we watch as our partner nations in the Union are consulted again and again, with the indulgence of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, with a view to further referenda which may again alter the very nature, balance and working of the Union state.

So in light of devolution and the growth in English national feeling, how should England be governed?

It's a good question, and one that will be heard louder and louder, I think, in coming years. Its latest guise is on this website, with which Gareth is trying to reach the ears of our current masters in the Labour Party, notoriously unsympathetic though they are to English matters. I recommend that you sign up to support it. After the next election, we can then work on trying to make the Tories listen instead.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Or forever hold your peace

Andrew O'Hagan had a very interesting piece in Saturday's Guardian Review about the decline, if not the fall, of the English working class. The questions he poses could as well be asked of the English of all classes.

As a Scotsman, O'Hagan reflects on the absurdities of modern Scottish nationalism, which 'exploit[s] a ridiculous pretension: that their country is an occupied territory, occupied by a devilish England bent on colonisation.' But he goes on to observe that:
A good nationalism has to depend on a principle of the common people, on myths of a struggling commonality. It is strange that Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism and Welsh nationalism - for all their faults - are still seen by a great many as healthy, colourful movements, while English nationalism continues to make people think of football hooligans, Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and the BNP. Why?
It's a good question, and I wonder often about the answer myself. Are we still wallowing in post-Imperial guilt? Has 'political correctness', whatever that exactly is, made us afraid of talking about 'nationalism', and even the English nation itself? And who are 'we', anyway? As O'Hagan's piece points out, the 'common folk' of England are not especially reluctant in coming forward with their views about England: it's only the bourgeoisie who find it distasteful.

O'Hagan comes, in the end, to the same conclusion I came to while working on Real England (a conclusion I lay out in its wider historical context in the next issue of the Idler): the English are too passive, too respectful of authority, still too willing to tug the forelock. Our past is studded with episodes of glorious resistance and rebellion, but they remain episodes. World-straddling for so long, who did we have to push against?

I've been reading a lot recently about the creation of England, back in the 9th and 10th centuries, for a project I'm working on, and what becomes clear is how 'England' as both notion and nation was forged in adversity. If this island hadn't been ravaged by wave after wave of Viking armies, 'England' might never have come about. Identity is forged through resistance. The Scots and the Welsh define themselves at least partly by what they're not, by what they're supposedly against: England. Some of their mythology of resistance is demonstrably false, but they make it work, for now.

But the poor English: what do we stand against? Speed cameras? Immigration? Taxes? Where is our fire? Why we can't we be more ... well, French? My view is that if we don't start burning soon we will have precious little left to fight for: 'England', in any meaningful cultural sense, will come to an end this century. It will have had a good run - 1100 years is impressive by any nation's standards. But what will we be letting it slip away for? What will replace it? A global mall, featureless and cultureless, open all hours, primed for growth. Who will we be? What, in both senses, will we be for?

G. K. Chesterton's famous poem The Secret People tried, nearly a century ago, to define the English in the context of the sweep of their history. Like O'Hagan, and like me, Chesterton was both entranced and frustrated by our inability to speak out. He hoped that this would change:
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia's wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God's scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
Well, maybe. But how long do you wait for someone to speak before you conclude that they don't actually want to? How long before you conclude that it's fine to forget, that beer is indeed best, that Friday night outside All Bar One is all we really have to offer? O'Hagan seems to feel the same way:
One slant on the English would be to see their dim view of political upheaval as a good thing, a guarantee of the kind of individualism that makes for eccentrics and self-excluders; but silent obedience of the English working-class sort is more often antithetical to eccentricity. It usually comes out as a completely individual conviction that difference is suspect and resistance means trouble. The English don't say "what can be done?" - they say "what difference does it make?"
Indeed. And the answer is 'none, if you don't want it to.' This 'quiet, invisible business of the people being walked over, and saying nothing, and thinking that's just the way it is', O'Hagan calls it. Not all of us think that way. But I wouldn't bank on much changing any time soon, because, as ever, a lot of us do.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Shopping schmopping

Welcome to 2009. This is the year that Real England is published in paperback. There'll be more talks and events around the country to accompany this, of which more here.

In the meantime, some heartening news from the real Wales, where the response of some to the credit crunch and the ensuing demand that we all immediately go shopping is very cheering indeed. That's what I call direct action.