Books: Land of bards, balls and battles

`One Englishman, an idiot; two, a sporting event; three, an empire.' Felipe Fernndez-Armesto counts the cost of imperial habits
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The Independent Culture
Nor Shall My Sword: the reinvention of England

by Simon Heffer

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 12.99, 134pp

English Pasts

by Stefan Collini

Oxford University Press, pounds 13.99, 348pp

British Identities

Before Nationalism

by Colin Kidd

Cambridge University Press, pounds 35, 302pp

Nice past. Shame about the future. Superficially, Millennium England looks like a hopeless case. The empire is lost, the lips unstiffened. In doom-fraught imaginations, the next humiliations are already scheduled: secession by the rest of the UK, submersion in the European superstate, dismemberment by Blairite regionalism, and displacement to Germany for the 2006 World Cup. The flag of St George flutters on sporting terraces. But the Georgies have little to cheer: a Davis Cup Dunkirk, second place in the Five Nations' Championship, Ashes to ashes. Even speech-makers at Tory conferences have stopped mangling paeans to "this blessed plot", for Englishness is a dangerous identity in the multicultural society which depends for survival on the mutual tolerance of its communities.

As English history yields to "British Studies", realisation grows that the other peoples who share the British state have made a disproportionate contribution to its fortunes. The big new demand in British universities is for courses on Australian history: intellectual foam from television soap. Meanwhile, as the former European Community struggles to transform itself into a Union, the English are self-relegated to the edge. From being the centre of a world empire, they have become the periphery of a world region. The current re-evaluation reflects a characteristic English virtue: in any list of defining ingredients, self-deprecation would occupy an honoured place. The world has come to believe the English when they speak with affected modesty.

Yet is England really over? Backs -to-the-wall is a favourite posture. Dunkirk spirit turns disaster into myth. From other collapsed superstates, resurgent nationalisms have emerged. If the end of Yugoslavia enhances the pride of Serbs and Slovenes, why shouldn't the fall of Britain mean the rise of England?

Simon Heffer has issued a summons to "the reinvention of England". Most of his book, however, is about Scotland, which Heffer urges towards independence in frank anxiety to get rid of a lot of "instinctive socialists". When the author divulges his vision of England, the reader is repelled. The English are unrecommended except as "a simple and politically unsophisticated people", a "race" with whose way of life immigrants must integrate - though Heffer generously allows that "at home and in their communities and places of worship children from the minorities can of course speak their own languages".

Illustrating his own claim that optimism is an English characteristic, he looks forward to an England restored to "self-respect" by welfare cuts and enriched by the pounds 8bn governments squander annually in their futile effort to buy Scottish votes. His England will find a new use for Scotsmen as "Tartan Gurkhas".

Heffer's relish for this future seems insincere: his denunciations of the Union are like a lover's dispraise. He is making the best of a bad job and calls on the Tories to become the party of English nationalism, but the Union may survive - in which case, such a policy will be a disaster. Everything Heffer writes is enjoyable because of his vigour and candour, but this tract is the bark of a toothless bulldog.

Readers may feel Heffer leaves them patchily informed about the history of the Union. They will find some fascinating lessons in Colin Kidd's book on British identities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here again the focus is on Britishness, and centre and periphery seem inverted. The English become marginal to the other communities Kidd surveys - Scots, Irish and colonial Americans. Scottish identity, we learn, is not a recent invention and owes almost as much to William Wallace as to Mel Gibson; but for centuries it persisted in a world where Lowland Scots were glad that they had more in common with the English than with the Highlanders and Islanders.

Irishness was a fog in which the "Protestant Irish Nation" had myths every wisp as misty as those which sustained Catholic nationalism. The American revolution was a provincial movement of "free-born Englishmen". Most revealingly, Kidd shows how for most of his period "Celt" and "Saxon" were not thought of as contrasting terms, but shared a common framework of legend.

Kidd's book is really a collection of essays and this is explicitly the form of Stefan Collini's book of pieces d'occasion, largely re-written to be fresh and topical. At his best - and these essays show him at his best - Collini is one of the sharpest observers and most mordant critics in English academic life. He can be deftly destructive: John Carey, Noel Annan, Bertrand Russell, Raymond Williams and Isaiah Berlin are left bleeding. He is sometimes so faint in his praise - of Richard Hoggart, or Raphael Samuel - that when he confers approval (on John Stuart Mill, say) one feels daunted by the presence of presumed perfection.

His denunciations of the "business ethic" in universities are among the wisest writings on the subject. Most academics dig ever deeper and narrower furrows in ever drier subjects; Collini surveys the whole field. There is not much of a theme here but it is underpinned by admirable assumptions: to be English, you do not have to forsake cosmopolitanism, eschew pluralism or recoil from foreign examples. Simon Heffer emphatically denies he is a Little Englander, but his work does seem introspective by comparison.

A great past is no guarantee of a great future. The English, however, do have an indelibly great past. Except the Jews, no people have had an influence on world history so disproportionate to their numbers. You sense this in Singapore, on a cricket green in the shadow of an English cathedral; or in Chile at a passable simulacrum of an English prep school; or, at the other end of the hemisphere, with Copper Inuit who talk English and play soccer.

Some of the most inventive productions of Shakespeare are played in Japan and Germany. The language of Hansard is heard in Harare. Two Spanish suburbs that I know of are built in imitation of English housing estates; and some Frenchmen like rugby football, which seems to me the most astonishing cultural transmission of all.

Part of the greatness of this record of influence is that it was not all won by war. Soccer and Shakespeare, for example, are vectors of Englishness which spread across the world because people liked them. But it is hard to resist the feeling or fear that the English are a people of imperial vocation which may not be exhausted. "One Englishman, an idiot", says an old joke, "two Englishmen, a sporting event; three Englishmen, an empire."

The English acquired a continental dynastic empire in the 12th century, which they lost in the 13th, conquered another in the 14th, which they lost in the 15th, settled a third in the 17th, which they lost in the 18th, and created another still, with Scottish, Irish and Welsh help, in the 19th century, before losing it in the 20th. If they maintain their present rates of overseas investment in the new millennium, they may have a business empire to rival America's or Japan's. If they keep their nerve and preserve their identity, God knows what they will do then.

Felipe Fernndez-Armesto is the general editor of the Folio Society's `History of England'

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