A puzzle for the world: who are these fiery new English people?

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The Independent Online
In the 1960s, there was a lot of talk about Negritude. This was a French idea about the experience of being black. Now, after the football week, I wonder if there is such a thing as Anglitude.

The writer Franz Fanon and the Franco-African politician Leopold Senghor made Negritude popular among left-wing intellectuals, but elsewhere the notion got a bad press. It was thought pretentious windbaggery. It was never clear whether the term meant a common black culture or just a resemblance between all colonised or post-slavery plights. Still, it was more interesting than Black Power or the fatuous fantasies of "Afrocentric studies". Negritude did not claim that black people were born with similar attitudes. Instead, it suggested that they had enough of a shared past to make them respond to oppression in similar ways.

When I sat down on Wednesday to watch England play Germany, I hoped Germany would win. This was not because Scotland had lost to England; it was the result of tabloid poisoning. At one stage, a list of pros and cons for applying for German citizenship had begun to assemble itself in my head: pro for German education, railways and political system, contra for nervous conformism, the frightful short-sighted pedantry of the legal system and the racist requirement of "German Folk-Membership" which meant that I would never be admitted anyway. Then the game began, and everything looked different.

It was the way England played. There was nothing beefy or steadily "English" about it. Instead, there was a wild and impulsive daring, a manner of attacking which was sometimes reckless and sometimes a flame of inspiration which ran through the team in an instant and for that instant made each player infallible. It's not easy to wish defeat on a team who play like that, although their way seemed the wrong way to win a match, and so it turned out. But their performance suggested that Englishness is not what it is usually held to be, and that something else - Anglitude - is setting in.

The stereotype no longer fits, if it ever did. The most important event in the week was the enormous blunder made by tabloid papers which claim to ventriloquise public opinion. The English, in a general way, do not much like the Germans. But in 1996 they refused to hate them to order, and unexpectedly rejected the tattered old wartime strip which they were invited to put on. Germans in London were amazed by unsolicited messages of friendship and apology. In the aftermath, German journalists were besieged for comments. Most were forgiving. But several, asked to explain the outburst of newspaper Kraut-baiting, brought up the old Dean Acheson chestnut about Britain having lost an Empire but not yet found a role.

That is a cliche which no longer works. There is certainly a new English nationalism rising, as the idea of "Britain" begins to lose conviction. I do not like this nationalism, which is "ethnic" rather than "civic" and has an unguided rawness about it which could lead to evil consequences in the wrong political hands. But its element of xenophobia is not about nostalgia for lost Empire. It is entirely unlike the venomous resentment of the old upper-crust right wing, now passing away, which blamed the Americans and (often) the Jews for stealing the Empire and for violating England's timeless innocence with chewing-gum and supermarkets.

The truth is that the experience of colonial Empire left the English cool. Few shared in its creation or its administration or even saw it (a much higher proportion of Scots was directly involved). It was nice to see so many continents coloured red in the school atlas; nice to eat cheap food and to work for heavy industries exporting to the captive colonial markets. But ordinary English people did not feel that the Empire was "theirs". Instead, they tended to regard the white settlers and district officers, perceived as an extension of the toffs at home, as the real owners of the Empire. Anyone who remembers the talk of English soldiers sent to fight colonial wars in Africa or Asia after the Second World War will recognise that.

In fact, the re-emergence of English nationalism was only made possible by the disappearance of Empire. In a new book of essays (Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History), David Marquand defines Britain as an imperial construct: "shorn of empire, 'Britain' has no meaning", so that there can be no such thing as a post-imperial Britain. As Britain flakes away, not only Scotland and Wales but England sees the light again - a Little England which may be arrogant and self-obsessed but which no longer needs a global mirror in which to recognise its own face.

Neither is the new Anglitude the same as that more docile English nationalism to which John Major sucks up. The Major version is doggedly rural in its imagery: cricket, village churches with Crusader tombs (dear to Enoch Powell's heart), those famous old maids cycling to Holy Communion. This worship of an imaginary England slips at its worst into blood-and-soil rhetoric. But England has been one of the most urbanised countries in the world for a century and a half, and it may well be that few English people have ever really seen themselves in that tourist board portrait. And this latest English self-image is remote from cricket or villages.

I met it first when I travelled across Europe in the cab of a container truck. In that business, they talk with wry respect about "the mad English". Irish, Polish or Italian drivers cannot match the English reputation for ribaldry, for generosity, for taking crazy risks, for sublime contempt for the policemen and customs officers who are the trucker's natural enemies. It's a reputation that the English drivers love to nourish. The English workers who undercut, outwork and outspend everyone on the gigantic building sites of Berlin are the same. So were England's footballers on Wednesday at Wembley.

If they are proud of being English, it's pride in a style rather than a landscape. And yet this style - high-spirited and lawless, hard on the enemy and fiercely loyal to the friend, loving the bold impulse and the bet at long odds - seems so "un-English". It is those Irish, Poles and Italians who are supposed to see themselves like that, or the Scots of whom the French used to say, "fier comme un Ecossais". What happened to George Orwell's English people, kindly and awkward, with their nobbly faces and bad teeth and their chipped white cups of weak tea? Where did they go, the resigned millions who used to tell their children that "folk like us are only here to make the numbers up"?

The answer is that they didn't go anywhere. Self-images are only masks, which a nation wears for a time and then discards for new ones. This piratical, outward-bound Anglitude is only another mask. The difference from older images is that English people designed this one for themselves, rather than accepting a face painted for them by friendly foreigners or by their own governors.

Where the "mad English" will take their country is anyone's guess. So far, the new image is almost unpolitical; it is centuries since England as such was the subject of politics. And that is a problem. As the geographer Professor Peter Taylor warns, "Whereas it is relatively easy for the Scots to reinvent themselves as a historic European nation, it is by no means clear that this is possible for England. This former 'global nation' has been reduced to its early-modern, lowest common denominator: resisting continental despotism."

Mad England will have to find its public voice, sooner or later. Let's hope that the voice avoids old grumbles and finds something new and generous to say.

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