England's not the country, nor the country England

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THAT word again. The death of Bobby Moore, England's hero. Golden-haired, a gentle giant, a great Englishman. Sport, where Britain supports different national teams, has become one of the few areas where an uncomplicated celebration of Englishness is permissible. It is only a mild exaggeration to call England the submerged nation.

In Whitehall, as Bobby Moore died, the final negotiations were taking place which will allow the Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, to announce changes to the government of that country. They are likely to include an enhanced role for the Scottish Office, a separate parliamentary Scottish question time in Edinburgh, and perhaps a Scottish council of state, surrounding Mr Lang with advisers in knee-breeches and funny hats. None of that comes near Home Rule and it is possible that these changes will reignite the national debate, not smother it. But no one disputes the importance of Scottishness.

At some level, those Britons who are Scottish, Welsh or Irish have the choice of contracting out of the crisis of morale affecting Britain. As a Scot living in London, I have an extra level of identity to which I can retreat. English regionalism offers something, for some English people, but it is a weaker, more dilute identity: you can be proud of being from Yorkshire; but you cannot be patriotic about it. Englishness has become a problem.

There are many signs of this. Literally, sometimes: a friend driving from Hereford to Abergavenny noticed that going west there was a large, cheerful sign proclaiming: 'Welcome to Wales', but that going east there was nothing welcoming anyone to England. A Scottish Nationalist MP mused the other day that he often heard people describing themselves on the radio as 'Englishsorrybritish'.

As the historian of early Britishness, Linda Colley, says in Britons, English patriots deeply disapproved of the replacement of 'England' by 'Britain' in the 1750s. Britain was a political abstraction, popularised only by war and empire. But over the next two centuries, England often reappeared as an unconscious synonym for Britain. This was true for scoundrel patriots such as Oswald Mosley, and romantic patriots such as Stanley Baldwin, for whom 'England is the country, and the country is England'. England spoke to the heart: the alternating tugs of England and Britain can be traced through Churchill's speeches and, in a final inversion, in Margaret Thatcher's use of Britain when she meant England.

For now, British has become politically correct. You can be Black and British; but you cannot be Black and English. In a multiracial country, this gives the word an explosive charge it never used to carry. For many English, and it is to their credit, their own label has worrying connotations of racism and xenophobia. 'English nationalists' means the fascists and anti-immigrants. For others, Englishness once meant high standards of behaviour: the 1966 World Cup team, not the 1993 cricket one. The descent into yobbery closed off another patriotic avenue.

So England becomes a country that exists on the sports field, and in art, but not elsewhere. Go to the Tate Gallery in London and you can see in the best contemporary artists, such as Richard Long and Sir Howard Hodgkin, a tradition and outlook that connects with Constable and Turner. These are not British artists, they are English artists. Similarly, Philip Larkin was never a British writer: he was England's poet laureate of decline.

The problem seems to come whenever the boundary between private and public is crossed. A classic example is the real Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. His works for royal christenings, marriages and weddings are fascinating, ambitious failures. Here we have a great poet, working at the full stretch of his powers, to produce public, patriotic poetry. So long as he is writing about the English countryside, all's well. But the minute he turns to public and royal events, his poetry crumples ('A helicopter snatched you up/The pilot, it was me,' says Prince Andrew to Sarah). Mr Hughes's British patriotism is deep and was forged by the two world wars. But trying to interweave the imagery of ancient nations for a modern audience is too much for him - and for us.

Does the decline of England as a political or patriotic fact matter? It surely contributes to a sense of insecurity and unhappiness throughout much of Britain. More important, perhaps, we should bear it in mind as a potential source of political instability. Of Britain's embattled institutions some, such as the Anglican church, are avowedly English. Others, such as the House of Windsor and Parliament, are British; but perhaps their decline hurts the English patriot most. Nationalism can emerge in a foul temper when people feel their identity is threatened; and when the Maastricht rebels roar against the threat to 700 years of Parliament, we hear the authentic voice of English nationalism.

National feeling matters, and should never be underestimated or ignored. Common sense suggests that English nationalism is buried too deep to influence modern Europe. But common sense, Einstein taught us, is merely 'the deposit of prejudice laid down in the mind before the age of 18'. One day, reformers may rebuild this country in a way that allows England to re-emerge in her own right. Or they may not. Either way, this Scot has an uneasy feeling that the English have had a slightly raw deal. And it is an uneasy feeling.