Comment: Is there any more to Englishness than the Titfield Thunderbolt?

PERHAPS I was nine when I inscribed this on the front of my school exercise book. "David Aaronovitch, 19 Bromwich Avenue, Highgate, London, England, Great Britain, The United Kingdom, Europe (it was 1964 and the Empire was gone), the World, the Solar System, The Universe." Most readers of this column probably did the same. It was a celebration, I suppose, of all the possible identities that we could have had, ranging from what was utterly unique about us, to what was most universally shared.

Today my kids seem pleased to be half-Welsh, part-Jewish, entirely Londoners and (insofar as they think about constitutional nationality) interchangeably English or British. Their greatest fear is of asteroids.

But will their insouciance - or mine - survive the experience of a chain of events to be set in motion in a fortnight? When Scotland has its parliament and Wales its assembly; when - according to the pessimists - nationalist demagogues vie with one another to blame England for their woes and demand further separation; when the Tories of the shires react by donning crusaders' surcoats of red cross on white background; when Great Britain is no more - how shall we English identify ourselves then?

For a short while last autumn, what might be called the English Question seemed set to occupy an important place in millennial politics. Some senior Tories sniffed around it a bit, calculating that an exploded Labour Britain had, at its core, a more or less perpetually Conservative England. Should this born-again nation have its own parliament - elected by first- past-the post - the body would be dominated, in four elections out of five, by William Hague and his successors. With 50 million of Great Britain's 58 million inhabitants, England is not a bad second prize.

In the week before the last St George's Day of the millennium, however, such an outcome looks more remote. This is partly because the campaigns for the devolved parliaments have managed to be both hard-fought and restrained affairs.

Anti-English nationalism seems to have played little or no part in the political narrative now being told to the Scottish and Welsh people. Indeed, the war in Kosovo may have acted to remind voters of the limitations of small nationhood, unless you can easily imagine the dispatch from Cardiff of all 10 planes of the Welsh Air Force en route for the Balkans.

Nevertheless, you don't have to be a post-devolution catastrophist to believe that we must also have a conversation about England. Not least because vibrant, confident and self-assertive debates in Scotland and Wales will require some echoes in England if we are not to fall behind. It is interesting, for instance, how cleverly the government and people of the Irish Republic have managed Irishness, making it one of Europe's most attractive and lucrative identities.

In this context Englishness could well be a disaster. Most English people's conception of England seems to be a mishmash of postcard images, cardboard pageantry, rural yearning, vague notions of tolerance and a belief in "common sense". I don't think it would be at all hard for certain stories of what England is and the English are to be created and imposed upon us.

One of these stories is already well advanced in the telling. Successive books of travels in England have, over the last couple of years, cast us as a nation divided. According to these tales we consist of a complacent suburban class (unworthy itself of study), and an alienated stratum of child prostitutes, drug addicts, murderers, fascists, anarchists, male strippers and rough-sleepers. This miserabalism is deeply pessimistic and suggests that the predominant characteristics of the English are violence, hypocrisy and ignorance.

Now, hard on its heels, comes the second Englishness. Less documentary and more aspirational, this is England as taught at the best prep schools, and is represented to us in Simon Heffer's new book, Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England. Heffer's England, Hefferland, is the England of Ealing studios and, most particularly, the England of The Titfield Thunderbolt (the film where villagers press an antique locomotive into action so as to defeat the machinations of both Whitehall and a Murdochian bus company). It is inventive, parochial, anti-bureaucratic and keenly aware of its own history.

Heffer is not a racist. But he believes that England can only thrive if "English culture" prevails over "multiculturalism". "Fundamentally", he argues, "the English are a Christian people." True, Englishness has been strengthened by the results of immigration, but this has happened through "assimilation". So, for immigrants, "English law must be their law: their children must speak English at school and be taught about English customs in just the same way as the ethnic majority is". These customs include Easter, the royal family and Parliament.

To help out here, in an independent England, there should be a Department of Culture. And, among its other duties, this department should insist that the new English Broadcasting Corporation "be required (to ensure) that its musical output - popular as well as classical - gives weight to English artists and composers". English heroes would be brought back on to the syllabus. "More modern forms of expression, such as cinema, must be encouraged, too," argues Heffer, continuing, in a glorious moment of unconscious fogeyness: "Seldom has the nature of England and English life been expressed so vividly as in the English cinema of the 1940s."

I would take Heffer over the miserabalists any day, but neither will do. His great sin (a very English vice) is to confuse custom and culture. In truth, they have little to do with each other. English customs have changed and evolved, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly. If Hallowe'en is an English custom, then who does Trick or Treat (unknown when I was a boy, and now almost universally observed) belong to? How has it come about that English attitudes towards the monarchy have completely altered in just over a decade?

Even our emotions may not be as pre-programmed as we've been led to believe. Iain Pears, in the collection Myths of the English, notes that Erasmus made amazed reference to the emotional openness of the 16th century English and their habit of kissing everyone they met.

English culture, however, is much more resilient. For good and for ill. Take, for example, our empiricism and reliance on evidence as opposed to theory. This can result in a healthy scepticism, but its negative side is anti-intellectualism. Or how about the constant battle between our need to preserve the past and our great desire to be modern? It is these embedded characteristics, and neither the underclass nor the monarchy, that will define our future if we are to have a future as an English nation.

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