by Ed West
Thursday, 16
July 2020
Response
15:00

Yes, there is such a thing as Englishness

by Ed West
An English rugby fan in full kit. Credit: Getty

You won’t have noticed because we don’t like to make a fuss but last Sunday was the birthday of something very precious to a lot of us — England.

On 12 July, 927, King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred of Wessex, and nephew of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, received the submission of the Northumbrians, formally uniting what had once been a collection of tribal kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons. As a contemporary wrote: “Whom he now rules with this Saxonia now made whole: King Athelstan lives glorious through his deeds.”

England is very, very old; its borders are almost unchanging; most of its counties date from before 1000AD; its distinctive and little changed legal system from the 12th century; a distinctive vernacular literature from the 11th. By that point there was already a strong sense of a group of people united by a common culture.

Along with France and Denmark, England is one of the oldest nation-states in Europe, yet, of course, today it is unique among European nations in not having a governing parliament of its own, a by-product of its historical relationship with its smaller neighbours.

Indeed, this makes it harder to understand what England now means, and what Englishness is. This is a pressing problem, as the Union’s prospects looks increasingly bleak in the post-Covid world (I mean, everything looks bleak).

Writing in The Guardian today, Newcastle University’s Alex Niven argues:

One of the major problems with contemporary debates about ‘Englishness’ is that England does not really exist as either a coherent idea or a concrete political reality. Because it has so few political institutions that are truly its own — no parliament, no legal system, few cultural references to distinguish it from Britain as a whole — England can mean pretty much whatever people want it to mean in any given circumstance.
- Alex Niven, Guardian

Of course, people on the Left feel less comfortable about nationalism than those on the Right, and the sort of progressive patriotism advocated by Billy Bragg et al somehow fails to hit the spot — because it is patriotism for an idea, not a land. English people of the Left feel especially uncomfortable with patriotism; Orwell is often quoted on this subject but it goes back to at least the French Revolution, when various radicals were as motivated by dislike of England’s institutions as they were by enthusiasm for events in Paris.

It was characterised by William Wordsworth when he begrudgingly supported his country against a now-obviously tyrannical France with the lament “Oh grief that Earth’s best hopes rest all with thee!” Indeed, that sort of discomfort is a uniquely English — rather than British — trait. (And, in fairness, there are things to worry us about English nationalism. I think it’s disingenuous when conservatives attribute this all to Leftist snobbery.)

But to suggest that the United Kingdom has erased England is to make the Union seem a more egalitarian-sounding idea than in really it has been. The reason “English” identity seems mysterious to some is because Great Britain always was an extension of England, which is why people historically used England and Britain interchangeably. The UK offered immense opportunities for many non-English people, but it was for many years deeply repressive of Celtic culture.

That is why there was no reason to think of some culturally distinctive “English” things in the same way Welsh and Scottish people needed to preserve their own culture from British (English) domination.

And it’s why, if the union does end, it’s not going to have the same huge psychological impact on English people as it will on Scottish Unionists. England has always existed, and always will — and even 300 years of union is not a huge length in the lifetime of a kingdom that dates back to the time of Athelstan.

Join the discussion


  • July 20, 2020
    I think it depends a bit on how many generations you consider a family's "blood" to be "foreign". Having said this, I think aristocracies all over Europe often had different origins to the peasants and merchants they ruled. In the 7th Century, even the Anglo Saxons were "foreign blood". Surely the... Read more

  • July 19, 2020
    I think it's always worth thinking about something, and can't help noting that Wessex is an older place/idea than England is, just as England is older than the UK. But also that "Britain" is an older idea than England or Wessex. We all share this island and our interconnections are many and... Read more

  • July 18, 2020
    Yes indeed, spot on! “Know thy enemy” as we used to say. Read more

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