My uncle was killed in the First World War. That's a generation out of the normal course of things, but my mother was born late in my grandmother's life, and her brother was very young. Too young, in fact.
There'd been a family row and he stormed out of the house. The sergeant at the recruiting station asked him how old he was and, on learning the answer, replied: "Take a turn around the square, lad, and when you come back, be 18." He did that. But he never did make 18, in reality.
My uncle's father, my grandfather, was a Gaelic-speaking Scot living in Southwark. He'd stormed out of his own family house some years before because his bride had been offered a job in the family factory. There was theatre in her background, it was said, and Irish.
But you couldn't find anyone more English than my mother. Born and bred in London. She was in and out of town during the Blitz. One night, she sat on a flat roof during a bombing raid, watching St Paul's light up in flashes. That must have been a night and a sight to make you certain where you belonged in the world.
Put out more flags. Be more British. Be proud. Not that being proud of being British is something we admit to in public. Why would we want to do that? It's the same as boasting, isn't it?
What are they, anyway, these core British values that our Prime Minister talks about? Inclusiveness, tolerance, respect. The more you look at it, the more like a party political manifesto it looks. They'll have the NHS in there soon. I don't know where it leaves the 19th century either, on this Downing Street definition that must have been the least British century we've ever had.
Historians are said to be moving back towards the idea of an enduring national identity. Alan Macfarlane wrote a paradigm-busting book back in the late 1970s, The Origins of English Individualism. That must have taken courage considering the sort of a decade it was.
It seems to me that the roots of our national identity go back well before the conquest. When you look at the reign of Ine, before AD700, it's marvellous how recognisable his laws are. You might almost say that the first authentically English statement was "I got my rights".
There's a law in there which says that if anyone take revenge before he demand justice, then he has to pay back the damage and also make bot (or boot, or compensation) with 30 shillings. The compensation wasn't for any specific damage, note, but because the victim's rights had been injured.
If you wanted protection of the law, you had to be in a tithing (so they could tax you). Rights are matched by responsibilities, we'll have to give the Government that one; you have to pay if you want protection.
And then Ine's 67th law says that if a lord has rented land to a tenant and suddenly produces a demand of cash or labour, the tenant could keep the crop without paying any rent. An 1840 gloss remarks that this law was still in force at the time of writing. That's some kind of enduring tradition, shaping behaviour over the centuries.
But back to Alan Macfarlane. He says that Europe generally was run on the same Germanic, common-law lines but that the continent diverged around 1200. Their states became more centralised and more absolute in their rulers while England kept its balance. Our monarchy failed to become absolute. That must be true, what with Magna Carta, and so forth.
Throw into this the fact that English property rights were kept secure, that must have been very significant. Early on, a middling class emerged, of traders, merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, farmers and minor professionals. Peasants also had certain rights in their land and their labour. An industrialised wool boom made the country rich. In the 13th and 14th century we begin to see why England became so distinctive.
After the Plague, peasants were far freer to sell their labour. Taxation was relatively light and transparent. People couldn't buy the right to collect tax (and keep a commission on it themselves). Civil society flourished in small, free-associating groups with rights of privacy outside the collective culture.
And if this is hostile to current administrative thinking, the Prime Minister can take inspiration from our historic appetite for regulations. New laws were absolutely at the centre of this system of liberty. In fact, there were called "liberties" (cf "taking liberties"), and they all depended on grants of privileges by higher authorities. A "restless spirit of interference" actuated the lawmakers, as one scholar put it. So cities were granted or sold charters guaranteeing them rights. Same for classes of people, or trades.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, wages were specified, trading partners were itemised in the book, lower-status dogs were kept off the streets during certain hours while "genteel dogs" could roam at large. But it didn't last, this entangling net of regulation.
A brilliant analysis comes out of this. Macfarlane suggests that British liberty was the result not of tolerance, inclusiveness and respect, but of the struggle for dominance between estates of the realm. The monarchy. The church. Parliament. The barons. The judiciary. The peasants, occasionally. They all secured victories, but none of them triumphed. Thus the state of British liberty existed in a state of dynamic tension between equally poised groups jealous of their rights, privileges and independence.
It's not just persuasive; it's attractive. And what people like me worry about now is that the equilibrium is being so disturbed. The political class is making a sudden and largely unrecognised bid for power, and is surging over the rest of us. My word, they've done well. They have metastasised; they have multiplied; they exist in quangos, trusts, authorities and agencies all through society. They've taken over territory that would amaze our ancestors.
But there may be a further strand in the national identity that gives us pause. Britain also has a restless appetite for modernity. For 800 years, we've led the world in revolutions commercial, industrial, intellectual and social.
Edward Heath was asked what he worried most for Britain. He said that he feared we might become the first police state in the Western world. It's certainly true that we aren't a police state, but it's equally true that if Heath's fears are ever realised, our future totalitarians will be most grateful to what this government has done over the past 10 years in laying down infrastructure they couldn't do without.
Howard Jacobson is awayReuse content