“What do they know of England who only England know?” —Rudyard Kipling
Brexit and its aftermath have brought a renewed focus on what it means to be British. Cabinet Ministers giving endless Covid briefings in front of union flags; devolved governments being reminded of Westminster largess; the stubborn refusal re entertain work permits for foreigners to ease staffing crises in haulage and hospitality. But, unlike Victoria’s jubilee or post-Dunkirk, it is not being embraced to the same extent or with as much enthusiasm.
Certainly, there are those who unreservedly apply the description to themselves, among them ex-servicemen, Ulster Unionists; Gibraltarians; Lanarkshire Orangemen; Scottish and Welsh mainly-Conservative unionists. But there, it starts to thin. It is now no longer news that the majority of people in the United Kingdom outside England no longer regard themselves as primarily British. The surprising development is: neither do the English.
It’s true that the English are happy to be described as “British on their passports and other official documents. They do not rankle at this the way many Scots now do. But deeper investigation reveals a preponderance of using “English” to describe their culture, interest, etc. Ever since the Scots 300 years ago and the Irish 200 years ago were folded into a union with the more populous England, there has been a casual conflation in that country of the terms “British” and “English” as, effectively, equivalent. Foreign powers, having dealt with the more dominant England, seldom adjusted to the new arrangement and the terms “Angleterre”, “Inglaterra”, etc. continued in common use.
While the Empire was mighty and the Scots, Irish and Welsh happy to shelter un der and exploit that might, nothing worse than the occasional ruffling of provincial feathers occurred. Joining the EU hot on the heels of the dismantling of that empire gave smaller members of the UK union the sense that a newer, wider family of nations was showing them horizons beyond those dominated by England.
It was at this point that the construct that was England started to fragment. The clearly dominant element of the UK that interposed “English” and “British” as it pleased, found itself not even primus inter pares but just one of four big economies, often outvoted by a swarm of small economies. Understandably, this did not sit well with the pride of a “top dog” nation, even if its bark and bite had both become muted.
The English are not used to thinking of themselves as fragmented and troublesome. Such things were repressed while the minor nations of the UK were supine and holding sway over a quarter of humanity boosted the collective ego. But even partial subservience to the EU brought this to the fore.
(to be continued)