A recent book by Prof Higgs of Essex University is entitled Identifying the English but it will be of little help in the independence debate as it is all about identity theft since 1500. But one of the major components absent from the debate is exactly that: who are the English? Most unionists seem to assume that there is an identity called ‘the UK’ and that, should we Scots go our own way, this would become ‘the rest of the UK’ or ‘rUK’ for short.
This is flawed thinking. The current treaty binding the UK (of 1801, modified in 1922 when Eire went its own way) is based entirely on the grubby 1707 document that is more concerned with protecting merchants and banning Catholics then anything as noble as nation-building. But, nonetheless, the present state of Britain rests on its equal partnership between England and Scotland. Should Scotland end that partnership, there is no such state of Britain or UK, any more than Canada or Jamaica are part of the UK.
And here’s where out English friends get confused. After 300 years of using ‘British’ and ‘English’ as interchangeable adjectives (who can blame them: most foreign countries make the same mistake), they are now forced to work out what distinguishes their own identity. Our Irish cousins have been dealing with this for the last 90 years. Given the harrowing circumstances that led to Eire, their acceptance of being ‘British’ has been reluctant, to say the least. But they—and in good time Scots—will learn to embrace the cultural, linguistic and geographic truths about all that we share on these islands.
But what about the English? Who are they, as distinct from just being the most numerous of the British peoples? Some years back, John Major—quite sincerely and without irony—tried to punt ‘British’ values that sounded very English to Celtic ears: cricket games on village greens and warm beer in the local pub. That makes sense coming from someone in Huntingdon—or the Cotswolds, or anywhere in the snugger Home Counties. But what about Cleveland or Clitheroe; what about Cornwall or Cromer?
As with any agglomeration of 50-odd million people, there is a huge diversity. London alone speaks a myriad of languages; Pimlico and Brixton are three tube stops apart but barely on the same planet. How relevant are thatched cottage idylls to most English, when cities are multi-ethnic and Salford or Bradford residents may never have seen a thatched cottage?
A pure North/South divide is too simplistic but the Wash-to-Bristol line does delineate a huge northern segment that is still struggling to find its common purpose in a post-industrial world. This has close parallels with our own Glasgow/Clyde valley. Whereas city centres like Leeds and Manchester have largely recovered, great swathes of suburbs and smaller towns have little economic vitality and therefore societal ties are looser and opportunities thinner on the ground.
This is not to write off the entire area—visit the Lakes, the Dales, the Peak District, the North York Moors, swathes of Northumberland and you’ll be charmed by England’s many hidden gems. But the cities and towns—where the majority live—are generally struggling to find either identity or affluence. For every Cockermouth or Grassington or Whitby, there’s a Salford or a Rotherham.
For them—as much as for us Scots—it is futile and stupid to talk in terms of what the empire achieved or of the Dunkirk spirit that saw off the Nazis. Proud though we all ought to be of such things, you can’t see the future if you’re looking backwards. I can see a Scotland using wealth from its bountiful oil and renewables to give new purpose to our greatest city, to turn a dependency culture into generations who invent what will make Scotland famous into the 22nd century. What is the English equivalent?
Whatever it is, I hope they don’t see it in terms of any more Falklands or Afghanistans; those days are done. By why can’t they use their copious muslim citizens as a force for good? What European country has so many people better qualified to form bonds with the Middle East and South Asia? Where are the tidal projects in their 14m-rise-and-fall Bristol Channel? Why are they letting us nail the renewables market?
‘Britain’ may be something we can all be proud of but, because of its imperial and imperious overtones, is it not time for a brand name change? Just as the Scots are seen as full of quirky and endearing character across the world, maybe it’s time for the English to mimic us and go for a spruced-up image. James Bond and Harrod’s; Rolls Royce and Beatles; Cotswolds to Chelsea; Man U. to Wimbledon; cut glass accents in Pall Mall clubs; West End farce or village brass band; punting on the Cam or strolling Blackpool pier; BBC costume drama or Fawlty Towers—they’re all quintessentially English. Don’t tell me there’s not enough material to work with!
And then, it will be so much easier for all of us on these islands to be British.