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.

20 comments:

britologywatch said...

There's a paradox in writing on class, though. One of the things that makes the working class is the existence of the class system. If you want the working class to rise up against globalisation and authoritarian government, this would also involve a rebellion against the class system itself (or at least, against social inequality and disempowerment), orientated towards the goal of creating a more class-less society.

This suggests that one of the reasons why the English working class is supposedly so deferent to the 'higher classes' is precisely because of their strong class identity, which creates a certain complaisance within class and in social differentiation by class. Conversely, the 'middle-class' drive to create a class-less society (i.e. a society in which everyone is middle-class / bourgeois) could be seen as having led to the creation of the present 'class-less working class' that is the under-class: the old working class that has been left behind by middle-class individualism and materialism at the same time as having nothing else to believe in.

Perhaps the key to revitalising the English working class then is to revalue manual, unskilled work and the class system itself - but allied to popular English irreverence and cynicism towards authority and those of 'superior' social status, which is the flipside of the deference you choose to emphasise.

Toque said...

Good post. I picked out the same bit about nationalism on my blog. Why indeed?

You can watch the speech from which that essay was taken here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I admire the work you are doing. I am someone from the left (well I used to be) who has always been concerned about England.

I think, however, that you and O' Hagan (or he pretends at least) severely underestimate the ideological war that is being waged against England by the establishment and media.

The 'common people' as you call them take their cues from the media. Instinctively they are very English and this sometimes comes out in ignorant ways that are then exploited by the anglophobic media.

The middle classes are simply asleep. They are complacent sheep who play down their Englishness and emphasise the fact that their grandfather once drank a pint of Guinness. Not everybody of course. But far too many. Why?

Post-imperial guilt for which the English have borne the entire burden aided and abetted by her enemies. Particularly the 'celtic' diaspora. Note here the oscar winning 'Braveheart'. An English director has been trying for years to make a movie about 1066. Will we ever see it? I very much doubt it. If we do it will be on an absurdly low budget so that it can be ridiculed.

There was an awkward moment recently when a black academic at Heriot Watt university rose to address his Scottish audience and informed them that 70% of the names in his Jamaican telephone directory are of Scottish origin.

The English people are guilty of nothing more than being, and sometimes willfully, blind. O' Hagan's anglophobic rhetoric is typical. Please do not give him any quarter.

Anonymous said...

Whilst the Tories have not exactly been smooching England or the English,I think it will be a lot easier to promote England,English People, culture and history once new labour have gone. In a way I think what has gone on over the last 11 years has been good for England and forced England to wake up.A bottom up revival is far better than a top down approach.

Ian Campbell said...

Your comment that it is the 'bourgeosie' that find English nationalism 'distasteful' is correct. You can add that the British ruling elite as whole shares this view. It is because they prefer to rule Britain through the guise of 'Britishness', defending a Union which, historically, is an English empire. They are Greater Englanders as opposed to the Little Englanders (categorised as 'sour' by Cameron). Little Englanders neither wish to rule over other people nor to be ruled over by them. Thus Scotland, Wales & N Ireland have, in the coded view of Unionist Greater Englanders, been allowed through devolution 'some independence from England' (I quote the Labour party. They fear that if England is allowed to exist politically the Scots and Welsh will become more separatist. It is a miscalulation because devolution has given nationalists in all three devolved countries a platform - and they are now in power or share power in all of them. Their appetite for more home rule is growing. Many on the left and right of politics are beginning to notice that the people of England, particularly the working class, will not put up with the suppression of Englishness indefinitely. Even the bourgeoisie is now beginng to resist the over-centralised, bureaucratic British administration that is doing its best to do away with what is left of English democracy. Fighting to revive England is in fact a battle for English democracy and one that we must win.

Paul said...

Thanks for these interesting responses. Britology - you make an intriguing point, which I hadn't considered. I certainly think you may be right about manual work (where is our 21st century William Morris?) but unless the global economy changes radically (oil shock, perhaps?) I can't see how that could happen.

What confuses me is how we manage to be cynical about authority and obedient to it all at the same time. This applies to the middle classes too.

Anon1:there is certainly an anti-Englishness exhibited by the current government, and by some parts of the media, buy the academy, local authorities, etc. It infuriates me too, but we need to understand the context. We are still recovering from the post-Imperial hangover.

The post-1998 period, of partial devolution, is the latest phase of this and it has, as Ian Campbell rightly points out, begun to awaken the English, who are now clearly an unrepresented and disadvantaged people within the UK. I think this will prove to be only a phase. I think Anon2 is right that getting rid of Labour might open up new possibilities (though the Tories are of course greater Englanders too; never underestimate how good the idea of 'Britain' is for the self-image of the ruling classes).

I think the genie can never be put back in the bottle. The English do now have a stronger sense of self than they did fifteen years ago. Some form of English devolution will have to come, and with it will have to come a serious discussion about who we are, which can only be a good thing. I think it's important not to relapse into paranoia or xenophobia, frustrating as the current situation is. Broon and his Scottish mafia are not long for this world, and though I don't relish the thought of the Old Etonians seizing the reins, I do think that after the next election we will be in a new era in which possibilites will open themselves up.

Our job, as people who want this to happen, is surely to keep the flag flying for a positive, outward-looking but rooted sense of Englishness, which refuses to be annihilated but has the courage to change with the world.

Anonymous said...

On Saturday January 10th, the Review Section of the Guardian newspaper published a whole two and a half page article written by Andrew O’Hagan ‘the Age of Indifference’ in which O’Hagan described the English working class with sustained virulence and hostility as ‘demoralised, quiescent, drunk, fearful of outsiders, docile, careless, drawn to fantasy and spite, lacking in purpose, the most conservative force in Britain, in some quarters fascistic, hopped up on vengeance, tabloids, alcopops, and sentiment, sociopathic, deracinated, with no vision of society beyond the acquisitive, with a football team famous not for achievements but for a culture of dislike, with a crude sense of nationalism tied to racism and xenophobia, nothing other than a people being walked over, with values based on spite or on a desperate free-floating anger masquerading as moral outrage’. His description was actually as bleak and nasty than that. It was endless. But that will do to be going on with.

In contrast the nationalism of his own Scottish working class and that of the Irish from which his family derives is ‘romantic despite its many failing, managing to capture the essence of the common people’. ‘Are they Protestants’ he asked his mother about an English family that came to stay with them in Glasgow in the summer of 1975 and spoke in ‘a big English accent’ and ‘jumped on the beds and smoked in the bathroom and did handstands against my mother’s woodchip and sang a rude song with the word ‘bastard’ in it’. ‘Aye, they are’ she replied, ‘and worse’.

From beginning to end, all two large broadsheet pages, it was bitter, full of prejudice, full of bile, nasty, unredeeming, reeking with hostility, even hatred. I don’t think I have ever come across a person with such a huge hang-up. He seems eaten up with it. And if he had submitted to your feature editors a script in which he dealt with Moslems, Jews, Irish, Scots, Pakistanis and whomever else one can think of, in the same way it would never have been published. Never in a million years. But we English are fair game, not just in the eyes of a small class of Irish- Scots like himself but also in those of ‘the deracinated intellectual elite’(Ian Campbell) who inhabit certain publishing houses, feature desks and tv studios of London. We English can be abused and taunted with impunity, even called ‘mongrels’ from the sides of London buses; and just imagine it if any other racial group had had that thrown at them in that way. If the O’Hagan article had been addressed in such imagery and language against any other racial group or nation, he –and the Guardian- would have been up before the courts for racism, the charge being made by the Equality Commission and suchlike with all the speed of a Formula1 champion going hell for leather for the finishing line.

The modern living English working class are not what he says they are. Some might be, but no more so that the working class of Scotland or Ireland or anywhere else. However, there is also something quite unique about the English working class. O’Hagan hasn’t seen it, doubtless because he doesn’t want to or can’t. The English working class has a unique history, a unique problem and a unique quality.

Michael Knowles

Paul said...

Michael - thanks for your comment. But I think you should read O'Hagan again. You seem to be approaching what he wrote through extremely defensive, even paranoid, spectacles. Did you miss the bit in which he dismissed much of the basis of modern Scottish nationalism? To me, this read as a sympathetic piece, which made some good points. I didn't agree with it all, but it made me think.

It is OK for a Scot to write about the English - and just because he is a Scot, doesn't mean he is hostile. I certainly didn't see any 'hate' for any 'racial group' in his piece. I think you are over-defensive here and you miss the point.

Anonymous said...

The Scots and the Welsh working? classes have a unifying hate of the English that is institutionaly supported.
The English however have been institutionally fed the 'Turn the other cheek', 'it is the game that matters' Love thy neighbour--even if he hate you.
The English need strong leadership to emerge that will tell them the truth and say it is ok to support your country becuse up to now we have been fed lies. There is a fighting spirit and it will emerge one we have awakened.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry Paul but to me Michael Knowles is spot on. I know you want to be all positive but can't you see what O'Hagan is doing? I assume he has no time for the SNP and to be frank I couldn't care less but the substance of his article is an extremely harsh criticism of the English people and a sentimental approach to his own. It is entirely typical. He is not wrong about a great number of English people but his analysis is hardly original and is also flawed because if you examine the 'common folk' of any nation you will find similar things. There are as many environmental and political factors behind the current state of the English working class as are inherent.

To recognise O'Hagan's antipathy is hardly paranoia. I agree that being a Scot should not preclude his opinion of the English but can you honestly say that a similar piece written by an Englishman about the Scots would have been published in the Guardian?
Anon1

Paul said...

If the Scottish and Welsh working classes, or any classes, are anti-English, it's because of history. It's because of what the English did to them, for a very long time, until recently. Unless English nationalists understand that, we won't get anywhere.

These people are not our enemies. Or not mine, anyway. I am interested in cultural and political justice for my nation, just as they are. We ought to be focusing together on the common enemy, which in my view is the British State.

Anon1 - you're welcome to your view, of course, but I don't share it. I don't hold any brief for O'Hagan, and have no time for any anti-English stuff, but this wasn't how I read it at all. I thought his points were valid, and backed up by my own experience. I don't think, actually, that they are universal: no-one would accuse the French working class of being quiescent.

I've no idea what the Guardian would or wouldn't publish, but it's hardly the point. I just thought it was a good piece, which made some key points very well.

Anonymous said...

Well you say 'because of history' but as even O' Hagan suggests a lot of this is fantasy especially in the case of Scotland. What EXACTLY did we do to them?

The French unions were not utterly destroyed by a crusading Tory government and then abandoned to the BNP by the party that was meant to look after their best interests.

I don't think anybody could describe the miners in 1984 as quiescent but they were destroyed.

Since then generations have grown up on an energy sapping benefits culture.

I'm sorry but vague characters like 'laziness', 'docility',
'acquisitive' etc ARE universal. What are you saying?

Decades ago people carelessly threw around such terms to describe people of other nations and cultures. I thought, except for the unreconstructed, we had left all that behind.
Anon1

Paul said...

Anon1 - what we did to the Scottish was invaded and colonised them. They only got their own parliament back a decade ago. A lot of the fabric of their nationalism is, of course, based on created or at least romanticised history. All nationalisms are. But the fact that they were colonised by England is not a matter of debate. You can hardly engage in a discussion about the current state of the UK without acknowledging this.

What I am interested in is why you feel so threatened by an outsider's view of the English. I am English, happily so, and it doesn't threaten me to read thoughtful, sympathetic - yes, sympathetic - but nonetheless critical views of what state we are currently in. As I said in my blog, my view on England is much the same, based on what I have seen and lived through. Are you going to accuse me of xenophobia too?

As for Thatcher: who was it who put her in office three times in a row? The English working class, amongst others. I quite agree with you about the so-called Labour Party. But they keep winning too; though not in Scotland any more.

I think the English, of all classes, ARE too docile, and I don't care whether it's a Scot or a Pole or an Essex boy who points it out. If we weren't, we would be better off today. My question is: what do we do about it?

wildgoose said...

Invaded and colonised Scotland? When?

Seriously Paul, this is an honest question. When did we last invade Scotland? You can't count Cromwell because he was facing Scottish Armies being raised against him in support of the King, so that was as much self defence as anything else.

Now I'll grant you that Edward I ("Hammer of the Scots") was pretty hot on invading Scotland, but that was 700 years ago. And he was Norman, not English, the clue being that he was Edward I and not Edward IV seeing as there were three Anglo-Saxon kings called Edward.

So in other words, the Normans who brutally invaded and colonised us also tried their hand in Scotland. And who gets the blame? Apparently that will be the English victims of the Normans. And how long do they suffer this blame? Well in Edward's case we are now over 700 years and counting.

Tell me, do you think the Germans and Austrians will still be being blamed for Hitler in 700 years time?

Of course, if we are going to be historically accurate we should actually be talking of the repeated Scottish invasions of England rather than the other way round.

But presumably that doesn't fit your thesis...

Toque said...

Paul's response to Mike is similar to my view. I thought that O'Hagan's piece was almost a call to arms, a lament for a people who have lost their voice (and need to find it again). We know this only too well, it's hardly a contentious statement.

However, whilst there might be a case for saying that the Welsh were colonised by England, the same cannot be said for Scotland. And even if you were going to build that flimsy argument, it was the English AND the Welsh under the 'Norman Yoke' rather than 'the English' who were to blame. The Scots, under their Scottish-Norman aristocracy were far from angels and were the aggressors on many occasions.

The Scots and Welsh have clung to historical grievances to embellish the modern case.

Paul said...

I think this discussion is getting rather futile. It's just this kind of historical nit-picking that leaves English nationalists up the creek.

Of course Scotland was invaded and subdued by the Kings of England. And yes, it was a ridiculously long time ago. And yes, those same kings were subduing the English (though the Edwards were not Norman, they were Anglo-French; by the time of Edward I there was English royal blood back in the line too. And the Anglo-Saxons were pretty hot on sticking it to the Scots, Welsh and Cornish; and vice-versa of course).

In more recent times, and notoriously under the Thatcher government, the Scots were royally pissed off about being governed from the English capital, and governed badly. And fair enough. The result has been the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction, as a Scottish Labour government was swept to power and commenced governing in a way which disadvantaged the English.

The point, surely, is that ALL the people, and all the peoples, of these islands have been shafted by the British establishment for a very long time. The Scottish have made a lot of mileage out of representing that establishment as 'the English' - a gross generalisation, but one not entirely without foundation. The Welsh have done the same, and now the Cornish are at it too.

How should we English respond? Well, we could spend the next ten years getting chippy about 'the Scots' enjoying unfair disadvantages, thus creating a mirror image of the previous situation, and ending up as a whingeing nationalist rump that no-one wants to listen to, as we bicker amongst ourselves about the conspiracy to do us down that we see around every corner.

Or, we could engage in a forward-looking, positive campaign for democracy and representation for all the peoples of the UK. The Scots, the Welsh, the Cornish and those who would rather call themselves 'British' than any of these, are doing these rather effectively already. The English ought to be able to join in.

Either the British establishment divides us all from each other, or we unite against it. Only one of these approaches stands any chance of working.

Toque said...

Robert the Bruce petitioned the Pope against Edward I on the grounds that Edward was a relation of William the Bastard, and citing also that Robert the Bruce himself could trace his lineage back to the House of Wessex.

Tim Lott has a go at O'Hagan in the letters pages of the Guardian.

Paul said...

Does this mean that the Scots have a better claim over England than vice versa? Oh dear.

As far as I'm concerned, we haven't had a properly English monarch since about 1016. I will be interested to see what the Scots do with Liz and her family if they ever do become independent. Sooner the better, I say.

Toque said...

It doesn't mean anything really, it was just a point of historical interest.

Did you see O'Hagan's comments about Scottish nationalism?

Chris said...

I do find your attitude puzzling, Paul - I don't regard England as being particularly good or bad in the history of this island's nations, but I don't think that England was the all-conquering invader.

The Union between England and Scotland was carried out by the political elites in both nations, but England did not take Scotland's parliament away - and surely Scotland had bankrupted itself after an experiment in colonialism?

Sorry, Paul, I hope you don't think I'm "paranoid" or "defensive" but I really don't share your view of the past English as evil doers to the innocent past Scots.

History, I am told, is never merely black or white - there are a million shades of grey.