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:
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: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.
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.