Upon reading Archbishop Stephen Cotterell’s remarks on English identity in the Telegraph, I was reminded of the time I was reading the Law Society Gazette whilst waiting for a court case to be called. An interesting report caught my eye: in the course of an employment law dispute, the judge was offering some remarks on what it means to belong to a country, and his reflections stuck with me long after the case faded from memory. I wish I had kept it.
This was long before European jurisprudence took a grip of our thinking via the Human Rights Act. The judge did not attempt to envision a concept of “pure Englishness”, but rather proceeded to build his reasoning empirically, drawing on pragmatic observation.
Archbishop Stephen would approve that the analysis began by recognising that many societies are faith-based; their dominant culture growing out of a shared religious heritage – Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Italy and India being obvious examples. Their distinctive characters are rooted in the core faith and cultural narrative from which and by which they were formed. England is no different. Even as some may describe us as ‘post-Christian’ in these British islands, the influence of our historic religion endures. In England’s case, 500 years of Protestantism cannot easily be left out of our evaluation of who ‘we’ are, whether that be for good or evil.
That is far from saying that everyone does or must subscribe to the same faith, but in all examples it would be hard to describe the culture without some significant references to those foundational beliefs. In this sense, even atheistic countries like North Korea are no less shaped by a core belief system.
One cannot sensibly conceptualise England outside of its historic religious framework. Its parish system was for centuries a key element of social identification, not least through poor law relief. Our lowest tier of self-governance is still often the parish council. For centuries, the Prince Bishop of Durham was a major political figure in the North. Elsewhere, the Bishops created schools and Oxbridge colleges; and religious orders founded hospitals.
Parliamentary democracy grew out of our Protestantism, and defence of our religion led the English to accept first a Scottish dynasty of rulers, then a Dutch one, before outreaching the Germany. The English prioritised faith, and the Faith was Protestant.
Whether we like it or not, the judge was right: religion is a key element in the definition of who ‘we’ English are.
Language was the next the factor which he identified. The commonality of speech is essential to a cohesive society, and English is the superstar in the linguistic firmament. Like the English themselves, the language has been strengthened and enriched by a relaxed linguistic cross-cultural osmosis. The middle-ages Norman aristocracy may have eaten ‘porc’ and ‘boeuf’ but the Anglo Saxon herdsman looked after the pig, the cow, and the ox. Modern English continues to gather its vocabulary and we have no equivalent to the Académie Française policing how we are allowed to develop our language. We are ironically laissez-faire about it. Historically and culturally that has tended be how we English roll, and as a result Shakespeare and the King James Bible opened up the extraordinary texture of the English mindset to one in seven people alive today. The population of England in Elizabethan times was somewhere around five million.
It is not simply linguistic nationalism that drives the English to want those taking up residence here to speak the language; in a real sense it is the vernacular that has enabled successive waves of immigrants to find a home amongst us and settle here. I cannot list all those who have done so, but within that accepted diversity we must plainly include Huguenots, Middle European Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
This bring us to the third important characteristic of the English and how newcomers are eventually accepted in their expressions of Englishness. The judge very acutely identified the incomer’s need to wish to belong, intersecting with a willingness amongst the long-established to accept. No matter how hard the identity politics culture warrior may wish to deny it, the English have an extraordinary history of making that mutuality of intent a reality.
If you really want to be English, the vast majority of English people are happy to have you. One only has to look at the unalloyed joy of black football pundit Ian Wright ‘going mental’ when the English football team scores a goal to see this attractive feature of Englishness on show. Regardless of skin colour or blood-line, Ian Wright is undoubtedly ‘one of our own’. Who actually cares how long his family has resided here? Whether you can trace a DNA lineage back to Bronze Age Britain or to some more recent migration, English is as English does. So, to be fair, is British.
Neither is this reaching out to some newly-taught doctrine of the identitarian left. When the black US anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass visited Britain, he recounted how he walked the streets of London unremarked upon, and his English tour was well received in all parts of England. On 12th December 1846 the Leeds Mercury reported: “Mr Douglass is a noble specimen of physical intellectual manhood, and we have no doubt his lectures will excite the same interest in Leeds which they have done in Belfast, Liverpool, Edinburgh and other places.”
Those other places included Manchester, Birmingham, Taunton and Exeter. This was not a response of the Metropolitan elite; indeed, when the American Civil War broke out, it was the Liberal free-trading Manchester Guardian that took the side of the Confederacy, while the cotton-workers of Lancashire refused to handle slave harvested cotton. This was at a time before the Welfare State, when such moral stances carried a severe cost to the working class and their families.
A reminder of the regional press brings us to another aspect of Englishness, which, though not remarked upon by the judge who stimulated these reflections, bears meditating upon. A sense of place is part of the English identity. Regional pride is no bad thing and is to be found in all parts of England, from Cornwall to Northumberland; from Wessex to Yorkshire. It will have many expressions of custom, through sport, music, landscape and dialect. Often it will be tied to historic industries, such as tin and coal mining, or pottery and fishing, even as many of these have declined or long departed.
This may account for the resistance to Westminster decisions over new infrastructure projects, as local villagers see their sense of place destroyed by London’s ‘metropolitan elites’, who bring their bulldozers into peaceful hamlets even as Mayor Khan expels all the traffic from London. These rural protestors are not just NIMBYs; they are people of place defending their homes and habitats and from the infringement of their way of life, as any indigenous people would. Metropolitan elite opinion reliably and readily identifies with the inhabitants of the Amazon – but not so much with those in Amersham.
Yet local protesters tend to respond in very English ways, which are not bad ways. They write letters, gather petitions, and lobby the press. They have some hope and expectation that they can appeal to a traditional English sense of fair play. This needs to be heeded by central planners, not only because the English countryside is worth preserving, but because so too is the efficacy of lawful reasonable protest. The Jarrow March was English in a way that the Toxteth and Tottenham riots were not. If those who make plans and decisions wish to preserve our social cohesion, then sensitivity to local opinion – whether in Brixton or Bath – needs to be more finely tuned. The English prefer reasonable redress to revolution.
Although the Archbishop of York was not speaking politically, as an Essex boy he was plainly on the side of those who feel alienated by the assumed political superiority of the woke. Though now ensconced in the North, where he served earlier in his ministry, he knows that the ordinary diverse English from Chichester to Wakefield are not some backwater remnant of a generically intolerant past.
Some of us will be descendants of the crew of the ‘The Black Joke‘. Our mothers may have been among the Dagenham women whose actions spurred the passing of the Equal Pay Act. Most of us will have family members who died defeating actual fascism, yet in the immediate aftermath of a terrible war that cost this country dearly in every way, our libertarian instincts still held strong and permitted Oswald Mosley and Colin Jordan to march, rally, and speak – to no great effect. That is how true democrats behave.
It is not England that has been the natural home of the exclusionary and intolerant. When many of us voted for the Brexit Party in the very last European Elections, the entry of those MEPs into the European Parliament doubled ethnic-minority representation in that pan-European project, which has never quite managed to align its representation with its ideals in the same way. There may be a reason why, given the money and the choice, migrants choose to head for the home of the English white van man.
But there is another aspect of our national character which ought to be acknowledged and celebrated – the instinctive puncturing of our own prejudices and pomposity. It falls to the very English Flanders and Swann – the disabled Michael in his wheelchair and the Quaker Donald at the piano – to give voice to our homely expression of jingoism in ‘The English the English the English are best – I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest’.
Perhaps Archbishop Stephen and I can sing this as a turn at the next General Synod members’ concert – I’ll bring my guitar.