Television Review

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The Independent Culture
NOW THAT Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all getting a measure of self-determination, the question of what do to about England seems hard to avoid. Avoid it we must, though, at least if last night's Counterblast (BBC2) is anything to go by.

Alan Ford's main proposition was that English national identity has become a kind of taboo - that to assert pride in Englishness is to invite accusations of bigotry and racism: hence the title of this personal view, "The Race that Dare Not Speak Its Name". He cited a number of examples of the ways that things are weighted against the English these days: a pub that was refused a late-night extension to celebrate St George's Day, while a nearby Irish pub had no trouble getting one for St Patrick's Day; Gillingham FC received complaints when it played "Land of Hope and Glory" over the PA to rouse its supporters, while Wrexham got away with playing "Men of Harlech". There was also the case of Nancy Bennett of Leicester, who got into trouble with the police when Muslim neighbours complained about her display of model pigs.

It was hard to muster much indignation about any of these. The landlady who wanted to celebrate St George's Day also talked about celebrating VE Night by singing "There'll Always Be an England" - as though the Scots and the Welsh didn't have much to do with the Second World War. In any case, St George is not a recognised saint of the calendar, as St Patrick is; and the English, with their strong native Catholic and non-conformist traditions, don't have a common religious heritage in the way that the Irish do. The spokesman for Gillingham FC adduced as evidence of the club's non-racist attitudes the fact that they employed "coloured" players. Even Ms Bennett's case, which on first hearing sounds like a clear instance of what Ford referred to as "political correctness gone mad", began to look shaky when she explained that she had also displayed in her window, next to the pigs, a quotation from the Koran, in Arabic. Under the circumstances, I don't think it was necessarily a sign of paranoia when local Muslims took the pigs personally.

Still, in one sense, Ford was quite right - English people are embarrassed to shout about their Englishness. Perhaps that's partly because they have tended to see self-effacement as a virtue (though like most virtues, it gets talked about more than practised). But it's also because Englishness resists definition: it's bound up with a series of narrower identities based on class and region, as well as with notions of Britain and empire. Ford's version of Englishness was based on a series of petty resentments (why should the Welsh have an exclusive claim on the daffodil, "a very English flower, eulogised by one of the greatest English poets, Wordsworth"?) and one designed to suit white, middle-aged, working-class southerners. Just how narrow it was became plain at the end, when Ford described his dream of an English parliament that would ban "any further immigration from non-white countries" and would introduce "resettlement" for ethnic minorities. Vicious, simple-minded rubbish - my worry is, perhaps this really is what Englishness means.