The young don't want an English national identity

Just hours after leaving the sunny isles of the Caribbean, I had to fulfil a contract with the BBC, which had devoted the week to considering the idea of Englishness. My task was to introduce the theme in ten outlying stations around the country.

I was rather puzzled that the presenters were posing the basic question: what is Englishness? They felt I had something to say because I had recently written and presented White Tribe, three one-hour documentaries on that same subject, for Channel 4.

It was all too difficult, abandoned as I was in a tiny studio at Television House, Wood Lane, west London, speaking to voices, but no faces, for more than two hours. If I had been asked that question 40 years ago in Trinidad I would have replied: "Englishness is the BBC." Not a sound came from our mouths, both at home and at my grandmother's, when that voice beamed in from England at 4pm: "This is London calling. This is the voice of the BBC."

It was said with such certainty that we were all expected, it seemed, to stop everything and pay homage to this powerful organisation. For years I listened as a matter of routine. Our teachers would stand in the classroom the day after a broadcast and develop some item or other.

It was while on holiday in Grenada that I learnt that the issue of Englishness - or rather, Britishness - had caused great anger in the UK. The Runnymede Trust, we were told in Grenada, had produced a report that made some rather unfortunate remarks. I have not read the report, as I do not intend to pursue such abstractions.

The discussion may go on for ever without reaching any profitable conclusion. It simply adds greater confusion, choking a process that is moving along, independent of the pontification of intellectuals.

Old England is by and large dead; and where it is not, it remains a figment of the aged imagination. Nothing has taken its place; we are in a period of transition. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are stumbling and fumbling along.

There is no demand here, as seen in the social lives of so many in England, for any strict identity. More than any other nation on this planet, we have been straitjacketed with English myths, fantasies, cruelties and pomposities. Every conquest was a demonstration of our invincibility. Very little of that remains. Shooting 25 Africans in Sierra Leone hardly merits enough news coverage to last more than a day or two.

In my travels round England for White Tribe, the young people I met were totally uninterested in tales that recalled the land of hope and glory. They were far more interested in journeys to faraway places. They appear to be easing into an internationalism, unrestrained by whatever ideas intellectuals may construct.

An identity cannot be declared, cannot be written into people's minds. We can only observe with a discerning eye new, emerging forms of self-expression. I have never lived under any government other than that of the British. I left Trinidad before independence. From E P Thompson's work, I understood the English working classes and their history of revolt against aristocratic domination. That was the perspective from which I understood this place.

Likewise, C L R James's The Black Jacobins explained that slavery was much more than a story of woe. The babble about national identities comes from people who do not know history.

On the radio that morning, I found the same thoughtless comments as I did when filming White Tribe. Englishness meant football and beer - that was as far as most working-class men were prepared to go. The monarchy got short shrift, the military barely a look-in, while literary achievement was the favourite among women. Where all this takes us I don't know - except there must be some satisfaction to be gained from chest-beating, one of those typical English pastimes.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve