Thoughts on England

An interesting series of short essays under the general heading "What England Means to Me" is appearing — I suppose that I should be trendy and say "is being rolled out" — over at a website of that name, ambitiously subtitled "A Domesday Book of the Mind".  The most recent to appear, still on the home page, is my own contribution, which I reproduce below to save you having to click on the link to read it.  But the site is well worth a visit for some of the other contributions, including pieces by John Redwood MP and Stephen Ladyman MP among others, with more (I'm told) in the queue.

Here's my offering:

England’s my home, it’s where I was born and have lived most of my long life, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But—perhaps because I spent most of 30 years overseas trying to represent the whole of the UK, not just England—I think of myself as British first and only secondarily as English; and since England to me is meaningless except as part of the union of the four UK nations, I can’t separate my feelings about and hopes for England from my feelings about and hopes for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; for Britain.

I’m not an English nationalist and wouldn’t dream of painting a St George’s cross on my face or anywhere else on my anatomy. But there are many things about England that make me proud and affectionate and which I think are worth preserving and building on: our success in absorbing successive waves of immigrants (including many of my own forebears) with phenomenally little violence or discrimination; our generally stoical and courageous reactions to anarchists’ and (later) German bombs, the privations of six years of all-out war, and the barbarisms of the IRA, without giving up our precious civil liberties—until Tony Blair, Blunkett, Straw and the rest came along with their ignorance of our history and panic over-reaction to Islamic terrorism. I’m proud of other things: our restraint, until Thatcher, in managing our crucial relationships with Scotland and Wales (less so with Ireland!) usually without exploiting our relative size and wealth to their disadvantage; our global world-view, benign by-product of empire, contrasted with the blinkered ignorance of the outside world of most Americans and the narrow Eurocentrism of many of our European partners (not including the French); our humorous common-sense scepticism or indifference in the face of the weird claims of the priests, rabbis and mullahs; our relaxed attitudes to varying sexual and other unusual orientations; our gift to the world of the ideas of freedom of expression, the right to trial by one’s peers, and – again until New Labour began to chip it away – the notion that no-one should be detained without trial; the English idea that what matters is what people do, not what they think or why they do what they do; our tradition that we can do what we like provided that it doesn’t harm anyone else, is not prohibited by law, and doesn’t frighten the horses. I’m proud of our other huge contribution to civilisation, our incomparably rich and subtle language with its life-enhancing literature. Altogether it’s not a bad record.

England, though, means other things to me of which I’m less proud: our tenacious and pernicious class system which divides us and generates so much injustice, underlying all our most obdurate problems; our assumption, often mistaken, of our national superiority in the arts of politics and constitution management; our crass identification of democratic socialism, egalitarianism, and the idea of a less class-ridden society with Leninist communism, whose brutality and failure are fatuously deemed to have discredited quite different, nobler and more practical ideologies; the rapacious and unprincipled behaviour of much of our private sector and the way it systematically rips us off, with no means of redress; the surrender of our main party of the left to big business and Rupert Murdoch; the Conservative party; our philistinism. Our weather is mostly terrible and internal travel gets more and more expensive and disagreeable. Our mainly illiterate lumpenproletariat, through no fault of its own, gets daily uglier and represents a sad waste of human talent. But it’s still a terrific place, and living here is still the greatest fun.

3 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    Perhaps the IRA wouldn't have enjoyed the considerable level of support and sympathy that it did if England had thought that its 'precious civil liberties' were also applicable to barbarians.

    Brian writes:  I'm afraid the problems of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were a great deal more complex than that.  Apart from anything else, civil liberties are now in pretty good nick in both parts of Ireland — anyway no worse than anywhere else in the British Isles! — but the political wing of the IRA still enjoys considerable "support and sympathy", as the recent elections in NI seem to confirm.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    I am well aware of the complexities of Irish history, north and south. But if those 'precious civil liberties' had been applied in all of the UK and not just in a part of it, there would at the very least have been no internment. And it is generally accepted that internment, and the shambolic way in which it was performed, led to the increased recruitment for the Provos. What we see in the UK right now is not the first time that the British State has exacerbated a terrorist problem by curtailing civil rights.

    Brian writes:  There's room for more than one view about the rights and wrongs of internment (which was a response to IRA terrorism, not a cause of it) in a situation when manifestly dangerous people often couldn't be tried, convicted and locked up because key witnesses were too frightened to testify against them.  Factors such as religious sectarianism, all-Irish nationalism, the perception that a predominantly protestant police force couldn't be relied on to protect Catholic communities, and widespread discrimination against the Catholic minority by the Protestant majority in a then self-governing Northern Ireland, all played a far greater role in encouraging support for or acquiescence in IRA terrorism than internment.  None of these grievances (some real, some  only perceived), including internment, could justify IRA murders, vigilantism, drug-running, robberies, intimidation and other brutalities, any more than they can justify blaming the British or Northern Ireland governments for these horrors, whatever the shortcomings of the regimes to which those governments resorted.  To imply otherwise is like blaming Blair's involvement of the UK in the Iraq war, or anti-terrorist measures taken to deal with the jihadist threat, for Islamicist terrorism in England and Scotland.

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    I hope that it is clear that I have never (sic) said or done anything that would support or justify any activity of the IRA.

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