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Englishness Evolves

Otto English charts the different strands of English identity over the years and how a dark turn may now be giving way to something altogether more inclusive, decent and inspiring

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan at the unveiling of a mural of England’s Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling at Vinegar Yard, London, on 13 July 2021. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Images

Englishness Evolves

Otto English charts the different strands of English identity over the years and how a dark turn may now be giving way to something altogether more inclusive, decent and inspiring

There was a time – not so very long ago – when, for most English people, our ‘Englishness’ didn’t really matter, because most English people conflated their identity with ‘Britishness’.

Look back at photographs of international games, and particularly the World Cup final in 1966, and the stands are a sea of Union Jacks. 

Englishness did exist but it was quite specific. It was of a type defined in Noel Coward’s famous song about ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ venturing out into the tropical mid-day sun. It was the prim upper-class Englishness of Joyce Grenfell and Miss Marple; Rupert Brooke and corners of foreign fields; of city gents in bowler hats, commuting to work on steam trains.

Crucially, it was an Englishness that ignored the great industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the north, or the people who emigrated here in the post-war era.

George Mikes, the Hungarian journalist who himself came to the UK in 1938, made a good living affectionately satirising this sort of Englishness in a string of books written from 1946 onwards. The chapter on ‘Sex’ in How to be an Alien can be quoted in its entirety: “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles.”

To Mikes, the English were likable, reliable, prudish, unfailingly polite, and non-confrontational – even when they were conquering half the world and obsessed with queueing. The books sold in their millions, for the simple reason that they flattered the English upper middle and upper classes who read them. 

The English people of the Mikes books were not the English people of my mother’s native Staffordshire, or those of Harlow New Town where I grew up. And that, of course, is because millions of people, across a culturally diverse island, don’t naturally share one homogenous outlook on life or one unified way of doing things simply because they happen to live within the same borders. 

In 1983, the historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined communities” to describe how, in the wake of the Enlightenment, the advent of mass printing and the Industrial Revolution, countries began to define what and who they were.

Many “imagined communities” contrive to place themselves at the centre of world events and forge myths to explain themselves on the back of a ‘destiny narrative’.

Many people in England – and the UK more generally – still buy into such a myth. They are encouraged to believe that our country effectively invented the modern world. That our language is unique. That our Empire was different from everyone else’s. That we should be unquestioningly proud of our history, which is more interesting than everyone else’s. That we stood alone against the Nazis. That British and, in particular, English values are the foundation of civilisation. That we are gifted with a unique sense of humour. That it makes more sense to drive on the left than the right. That Sir Winston Churchill was the towering figure of the 20th Century. That the Beatles were the greatest musicians in history. We are even told that we have a unique ‘Blitz’ or ‘Dunkirk’ spirit that sees us through difficult times.

It is these myths, and the ‘fake history’ that comes with them, which helped inform Brexit.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

A Dark Turn

The 14th Century Iraqi-born Sufi mystic Abdul Karim Jili coined the term “unity in diversity” to define a holistic view of the world and the universe. The term was later adopted as the motto of both Indonesia and the European Union.

There is something attractive and appealing in the idea of divergent peoples working together for the sake of collective prosperity and peace. And, in a sense, that is why England, within the United Kingdom, didn’t really notice itself: many English people felt that they were part of something bigger.

The problem was that, for many people living in the other nations of the UK, the feeling was very far from mutual. Thus, in the wake of devolution and the reassertion of Welsh and Scottish national identities, England had an identity crisis. And from that existential dilemma sprang ‘English’ political parties, most notably Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s English Defence League.

This English identity was very different to the one of the George Mikes books and Noel Coward. For a start, it was broadly unattractive. This Englishness was the very antithesis of witty, fair play-loving, self-deprecating gentility. It was brash and came with the distinct whiff of thuggery. It was an Englishness that didn’t so much invite but demand St George’s Day to be celebrated – while not being able to articulate quite what it was that we were supposed to be celebrating. It was nationalism for nationalism’s sake. It too was exclusive not inclusive.

At flashpoints – such as key football matches or the EU Referendum – it was almost as if the supporters of this English identity had adopted that old Millwall FC mantra of ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’. It turned off millions of English people, despite being the only Englishness on offer.

But perhaps, courtesy of a football tournament, that might now be about to change. 

A Different Englishness

Back in early June, before the European Championship had even started, one of those empty-headed culture skirmishes erupted when angry commentators and figures on the right started decrying the taking of the knee by England’s football players. 

The Home Secretary was swift to leap on the bandwagon. Referencing the Black Lives Matter protests of last year, she told GB News that “we should not be re-writing our history” and that booing the players was the “choice” of England fans. 

Soon, Farage was weighing in, arguing that “England fans… have a right to boo when players take the knee for Marxist BLM”, before adding – without a shred of apparent irony – that we should “keep politics out of football this summer”. 

A week later, as England faced Croatia, the players chose to ignore the decrees of Priti Patel and Farage and took the knee while several thousand fans booed them. But what was not widely reported at the time, and which many people watching at home seem to have missed, is that the booing was soon drowned out by cheers and applause.

As England progressed through Euro 2020, the booing continued but so did the counter-cheering with it. In sharp contrast to the bitter, spiteful Little Englishness of Farage, Patel, the drunken rioters in central London and the Boris Johnson Government, they seem to offer an alternative. Something optimistic. Something noble. Something reflective of the country that we could aspire to be.

Six of the 26-strong squad are descendants of the Windrush generation, reflecting the multi-culturalism of this country and the benefits that immigration brings. They have also demonstrated dignity and decency both on and off the pitch. Marcus Rashford is already well-known as an articulate opponent of austerity and a campaigner against childhood poverty and homelessness. His team-mate, Tyrone Mings, was unafraid to call out Patel’s hypocrisy when she ‘pretended’ to be outraged by the racism targeted at the black players who had missed penalties following England’s defeat in the final. 

Meanwhile, the team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, demonstrated the sort of leadership sorely lacking on the Opposition frontbench.  

This team has given young people something to aspire to and the rest of us something to be very proud of – but, critically, it represents an England that millions of us can finally buy-into.

It seems to have unnerved Boris Johnson, who will not be holding a Downing Street reception for the team. But it has made me feel proud to call myself ‘English’ for the first time in years. Both things can only be good.

Otto English’s book, ‘Fake History’, is out now

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