Notebook: The sorry state of English nationalism

Click to follow
THE BBC did no service to English nationalism this week when it broadcast half an hour of propaganda for the cause. Perhaps this was intentional; liberal England (which must still include the BBC) has a nervous, half-ashamed attitude to Englishness, as though football, skinheads and bearskins are (and can be) its only viable expressions.

The programme was one in a series called Counterblasts and titled "The Race That Dare Not Speak Its Name", though I didn't know this at the time because I came across it when it was halfway through.

It was immediately compelling. A Leicester woman who collected little porcelain pigs had been visited by the police because the pigs, some of which were displayed on her window sill, had offended her Muslim neighbours. This, on the face of it, seemed absurd. The presenter and argufier, an unfamiliar silver-haired man called Alan Ford, engaging and "real" because he was clearly unpractised in television, moved on to other absurdities and unfairnesses. The Scottish and Welsh tourist boards were awash with cash, while the English tourist board had had its grant cut. Schools shied away from the teaching of traditional English history. It was all a bad business, the presenter said, and then proposed his liberating solutions.

England should follow Scotland and Wales and have its own parliament. English institutions - and not just football crowds - should be proud to fly the flag of St George. England should have "Jerusalem" as its official national anthem.

I sat nodding sympathetically, until Mr Ford began to outline the first measures an English parliament would take: the banning of "any further immigration from non-white countries" and "resettlement" offers to non-whites already here. Only then did I realise where Mr Ford was coming from: the white far-right and its poisonous conflation of race and national identity.

Does English nationalism have to be this way? I don't think so - in fact, I thought it was dull-witted and irresponsible of the BBC to promote that implication - though I'm no particular enthusiast for the cause.

As a Scottish/British individual who has lived in England for going on 30 years, I've come to appreciate what might be called the decadence of English/British nationalism, the porous uncertainties about its culture, the arguments over its past and future, which have allowed people from other places to be absorbed in the stream of national life (for contrasting examples, see countries that have prolonged more certain cultures, such as France and Germany).

But the "shame" of being English has always puzzled me. English people - perhaps I mean by this liberal and usually middle-class people - will go to the extremities of personal and genetic history to demonstrate their unEnglish credentials; grannies from Argyll or Love, six years in a dorm at Fettes, accidental birth in Carmarthen - any or all of them wheeled forward to support the statement, beautifully enunciated in r-p: "Of course, I'm not really English."

For such people, English culture and history seems to comprise bad food, child chimney sweeps, the Amritsar massacre, the Titanic's navigating officers, Bloody Sunday, the Heysel riot and the Stephen Lawrence case. Good to remember these; a point in liberal England's favour.

But when I hear grown men and women confessing that they would rather be known by some piddling local provenance with its eroding encrustation of difference -- to be thought of primarily, for example, as Geordies or Mancunians - what I want to shout is: "Cheer up and think big. Think of Shakespeare and Dickens, Darwin and Newton. Think of well-behaved traffic. Compare London as a multi-cultural city to Paris or Berlin. Think of gardens, or Orwell, or the fine traditions of English comedy, satire and dissent. Listen to Kathleen Ferrier or Lennon and McCartney. And if none of this works for you, think of English, the world's triumphant language in most things from the best-selling novel to the Internet."

Yesterday was St George's Day. As a day of popular celebration of England's patron saint it died with the Reformation. There is now a movement for its revival. I hope it doesn't happen; distant - in this case, mythical - history has a way of gathering the volk (see the 14-century battles of Bannockburn and Kosovo) and it would be right up Alan Ford's racially exclusive street.

But if it must be celebrated, then the best spirit might be some combination of the lists above, the achievements punctuated by the transgressions and failures (Kipling's enjoinder to humility: "Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet/Lest we forget - lest we forget").


THE EDITOR of The Independent has been regaling London society with a story that he thinks illustrates Englishness. It goes like this. Unknowingly, coincidentally, two men who write for the same newspaper take their wives and children for an Easter break on the Isle of Wight.

Unknowingly again, they stay at the same small hotel. At six o'clock they take their children for an early tea in the hotel bar.

The bar has no other customers, but the men enter at different times and sit with their backs to one another. The first man spots the second man, the second man spots the first, but each believes he has not been counter-spotted. They help their children finish off the turkey dinosaurs and then, eyes purposefully focused on the hotel's marine prints, slide gratefully from the bar to the safety of their bedrooms.

Somehow - only God knows how - they never bump into each other over the next two days on the beach, over dinner, in the lobby, on the street. They return to London. The Borgesian riddle is: how do they both come to know that each has seen the other?

Not so Borgesian, as it turns out, because one of the men was me and as a precautionary measure I mentioned (I hoped, casually) to the editor that I thought (that is, I was far from certain) that I'd seen X (that is, perhaps distantly, in a sea-mist) on the Isle of Wight, just in case X had seen me and thought my behaviour odd. Vagueness, however, proved impossible to preserve. The editor's questions were too specific. Where had I stayed, on which days? "So why on earth didn't you speak to him?" the editor asked. Because, I said, I hardly knew him (he works full-time in the paper's Canary Wharf offices, a place I haven't visited in four years). More importantly, I was with my family in bucket-and-spade mode and didn't want to have a desultory conversation about The Independent.

The editor was astonished - "desultory" and "Independent" not being words linked in his mind - and turned his cross-examination to X, who at first denied all knowledge of my presence in the Seaview Hotel, Seaview, near Ryde, and then confessed that yes, he'd sat four foot away from me in the bar and averted his eyes for the same reason.

All this week, the editor has been telling audiences that this story is the most perfect illustration of English behaviour he has ever heard, as though X and I were Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes, or two Victorian explorers passing each other in Arabia Deserts with nothing more than a gruff "good day". The problem is that neither X nor I is English (X being Welsh-Italian, two identities not known for reserve). Personally, on the principle of women and children first, I believe we behaved rather well.


THIS WEEK a regular little feature began to appear in The Independent's foreign pages under the title "The Balkan Question: Key issues behind the war explained". It's couched in the most humble of forms - question and answer - but I was glad to see it. The paper has had many excellent dispatches from the Balkans, perhaps especially those of Robert Fisk and James Dalrymple, but daily reporting has its limitations.

By its nature it's good at the present but bad at the past, and it often assumes (because it has to - the pressures of time and space) that readers know more than they actually do. My own knowledge of the Balkans is distressingly thin, a rag-bag of odds and ends. Example, the British knew Serbia as Serviauntil 1916 when the "v" was replaced by the "b" to remove any implication of servility, which would not be fitting for one of our gallant allies in the First World War.

So I'm grateful to Marcus Tanner in this new series for supplying answers to the most basic questions. Example, that the hybrid Serb-Croat language died with Tito's Yugoslavia, to be succeeded by Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, which are virtually indistinguishable; and that Slovenes and Macedonians have separate languages, but still Slavic.

Why does it help to know stuff such as this? In the Seventies, as a reporter in India, I used to look at the copy I'd sent back to London and think what a poor match it was to reality. An election in Uttar Pradesh could read like the same thing in Hertfordshire. The words were the same - "village", "majority", "polling station" - but what they described was totally different.

You had a narrative but its spare, simple lines badly needed the cross- hatching ink that could describe the society in which it was set (and which you, as a reporter, were just beginning to discover). The divisions of India are complicated and those in the Balkans probably more so. We need all the help we can get.