Englishness: who cares?

Michael Bywater cooks like a Frenchman, eats like an Italian and makes love like a Greek (or so he s

I am English. And ashamed of what it means. I am ashamed to be white; ashamed to be middle-class; ashamed to have been educated at an elitist university, to speak Received Pronunciation, to be emotionally constipated. I am ashamed of my violent history, my rape of the globe, my racism, my egophalloethnocentricity. I am ashamed of the unspoken discourse of supremacy that lies at the heart of my foundation myths and my literature. I am ashamed of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of my (established) religion and the entrenched interests of my ruling class. I am ashamed that bad food, bad sex and bad weather led to my disenfranchisement of so many peoples, the enslavement of some, the obliteration of a few. I am ashamed of our stroppy proles, white-van men, thugs, oiks and geezers.

I am English. And ashamed of my political culture: the lying, the cronyism, the establishment arse-licking, the secrecy, the monarch. I am ashamed that we have let things run into such disarray that our kinfolk in Wales and Scotland have run screaming for devolutionary cover. I am ashamed that I had to elect Mr Tony because he once appeared to us to be marginally better than what went before. I am ashamed of the growth of our computer surveillance; our dislike of democracy; our dismantling of the presumption of innocence, the right to silence, and the freedom to foregather; the disintegration of the NHS. I am ashamed of Mr Tony's little plans (Mr Tony knowing better than the Christ he claims to worship) to criminalise the poor. I am ashamed of a government that conspires with the French sandwich-and-incarceration company, Sodhexo, to print special joke money to shame people seeking asylum here. I am ashamed of the rubbish, the potholes, the dirty-minded tabloids, the sodden dung food, the endless rain, Britpop, Brit Art, motorways, officials, the Underground, rude notices, Jobcentres, Blackpool, Polperro, Murdoch and the Dome.

I am English. And proud of what it means. I am proud to be a member of the most innovative, creative people in history; proud to belong to its middle class, known throughout the world for fairness, discretion, a respect for privacy, for the cultivation, not of flamboyance, but of decency. I am proud of the way my people have fought as often for dignity, freedom and justice as for power and self-interest. I am proud that my people were immune to tempest and drought, to the lures of gluttony, to narcotic flesh and the sodden tumble of bedsheets. I am proud of my nation's established religion, tempering mysticism with fair play, infusing clear-eyed thought into excitable Italianate transcendentalism. I am proud of our working class, neither slaves nor aspirant bourgeoisie: culturally coherent, ironical, resourceful, uncowed and uncorrupt.

I am English. And proud of our current political culture, free of falsely divisive rhetoric, unconstrained by outmoded orthodoxies, incorporating the ideals both of democratic republicanism and constitutional monarchy into a well-working whole. I am proud of the way we, while holding the economic reins of the Union, have acquiesced in our Welsh and Scottish kinsfolk's desire for self-determination. I am proud that corruption is almost unknown in our establishment, that it is impossible to bribe our civil servants and almost impossible to bribe our policemen, that our politicians seek office out of the desire for political, not economic, advancement. I am proud that, almost alone in Europe, we seek to comply with the rules, not twist them or claim exemption to suit our local interests. I am proud that our police are unarmed, that gunmen are few, that justice is tempered, if not with mercy, at least with a decent prolixity; I am proud of our legal aid system, of our taxi-drivers, of our sustaining of the NHS despite financial and market constraints. I am proud that we still take the weak into our calculations, that we still have free speech, decent television, well-made shoes. I am proud of the softness of our climate, the modesty of our women, the honesty of our food. I am proud of our history, our heritage, our countryside, our architecture, our literature, our lack of vanity. I am proud of London, the Cotswolds, the autumn, rural railway stations, Radio 3, Ruddles, Stilton and the Tower.

I am English. And, frankly, I couldn't care less. As Englishmen never say: Nu? This is the 21st century. The world has not just shrunk: it has shrivelled. We inhabit a globe increasingly pocked and raddled by the corrupt imperatives of dollar- hegemony; we lie down compliantly while American media barons dangle their wares (as rugose and unwholesome as a dotard's scrotum) in our stupefied faces. We are ring-fenced by concentric, competing appeals to our loyalties. Are we .comizens or Europeans? Are we Anglo-Saxon or multicultural, united by bloodline or by the territory in which we live? Are we citizens of Nato or the EU, of Britain or the UK, global or local? The boundaries that we adopt - a primitive means of defining ourselves by reference to those whom we exclude - are redrawn according to self-interest or the subject under discussion. When we are ranged against American cultural imperialism, we are Europeans, and speak proudly of our European heritage. But speak of beef, and - behold! - France is another world away, our ancient enemy. When we wish to pride ourselves that we are still the world's peacekeeper ("Shape up, you chaps; you won't always have the White Man to lean on"), we march off to the Balkans, upper lips stiff as a woodsman's tool. But when those self-same people whom we so eagerly went off to defend want to come here in the hope of surviving a little longer, the upper lips reform into a purse. Suddenly, the Balkans are light-years away, its people three-headed, with green blood and no morals.

The habit of defining ourselves by what we are not is an old one for the English. We have, at various stages in our history, seen ourselves as not Norman, not French, not Scottish, not Indian, not Chinese, not black, not German, not anyone you could shake a stick at (and frequently did). Two, at least, of the great defining moments in our history have been defined by our notion of not-ness. The first was when Henry Tudor (a fine old English surname) defined us as not Romish, an act of cultural hegenomy-by-default that has allowed innumerable acts of institutionalised intolerance ever since. And the second - according to work-in-progress by Quentin Skinner, Cambridge's Regius Professor of Modern History - was when the "democratical gentlemen" of Charles I's parliament decided, after a brow-knittingly legalistic excursus into Roman political philosophy, not that we wanted to be free (the ostensible purpose of almost every other revolution in history) but that, for as long as the King possessed the "negative voice" (the power of veto over parliament), we were not free. And thus, being not-free, we were therefore slaves (the only alternative); and something had to be done, because the one thing the English could never be was slaves.

The English sense of self-definition by "not-ness" has never deserted us. It informs all classes, although (as always) it is the middle class that agonises over it the most. Ignore the vapid nonsense of the heritage industry. Heritage, if it means anything, refers to that which is ours by a sort of inchoate, ill-digested sense of birthright. Heritage, in the commercial, government-appointed, quango-gauleiter sense, means precisely the opposite: things that are seldom, if ever, ours, but which we are allowed to "experience", providing we pay. These include cream teas, Windsor Castle, the Cutty Sark, the Royal Family, giant roast beef dinners that would poleaxe any normal human being, fox-hunting, Stonehenge, the Elgin Marbles. But the true English heritage is drizzle, respectability, queues, class, public squalor and private making-do. It is the world of forms, exclusion, patronage, the criminally insane divisiveness of the public-school system ("charitable status", my well-educated arse); of the endless, pompous, fruity white male establishment; it is jelly-babies, microwaved samosas, the Daily Mirror, doing your best, Ginster's Cornish pasties, politeness, saying "fuck" a lot, stewed tea, bus tickets, fighting, a nice walk, supermarket cartels, traffic wardens, the telly, grumpy sex, canned music. That is the bottom line of the English heritage. Anything else, you have to pay for.

And money being what it is, there's always a danger that the wrong sort - people whom We Are Not - might get the money and pay; and so there is also the English Code, honed to the sharpness of a Sheffield blade by those masters of codified exclusionism, the Victorians. They brought to its apotheosis the thesis that We Are What We Are (And Do) Not.

Englishmen do not show emotion. Englishmen are not enthusiastic. Englishmen do not cry. Englishmen do not audibly laugh. Englishmen do not notice what they eat. Englishmen do not notice each other's houses. Englishmen do not feel pain. Englishmen do not wear scent. Englishmen do not have orgasms, or, if they are ill-bred enough to have them, do not comment on them. Englishmen do not notice servants. Englishmen do not eat garlic, suffer religious transports, weep at great music, fall in love ("you're not such a bad old stick, Effie"), dress up, attract attention, shout, argue, dance in the streets, get drunk. And, by not so doing, Englishmen make it clear who they are not. They are not excitable Froggies, cowardly wops, poncy dagos ("awfully hairy, your Spanish women"), shifty wogs, sneaky Taffies, drunken micks, hairy Jocks, idle coons, thieving Gyppos, po-faced krauts, foul-mouthed ockers, loud-mouthed Yanks . . .

What does it mean? What is the point in all this careful not-being? If we were to start from scratch, here, now, on this wet little island in this grey sea, but not with the memory of Danes and Normans and Romans and Germans and everyone else; if we were just us, just here, with the Channel Tunnel and the EU and the internet and television and cinema and the hideous thump of rock music levelling the face of the world like a red-hot salamander . . . would we bother? Would we say: "Right, what we need is an identity, we need to distinguish ourselves from all the rest?"

Otherwise what? Otherwise we might end up like them?

But we are like them. Taken all in all, no better and no worse. Paler than some, yes, and weaker than others; a tendency to bad teeth and pastiness; not much of a culinary tradition, a dislike of too much fuss and an odd liking for beer over wine . . . but that is not enough. Not enough to account for the agonies some people undergo in trying to define Englishness.

One wonders why they bother; why they don't say "to hell with it", instead of going on constructing, from the fragmentary materials to hand, a sort of fantasy that helps them endure it all, like a dreadfully bored woman who can only make love with her husband if she fantasises about Cliff Richard.

We aren't English. English was for the old days, when Corinium was five days' march from London, when Chartres was terra incognita, when our Australian garrisons needed a year to send home for orders and receive a reply.

I am English. Yet my passport says British Citizen, my postal address says UK, my taxes, when there is no alternative, are paid to Her Britannic Majesty, my food is regulated in Brussels, my trousers are Australian, my shirt is American, my shoes are French, my watch is Swiss, my spectacles are German, my scent is Austrian, my telephone is Finnish, my car is Japanese, my computer is made in Ireland. I cook like a Frenchman, I eat like an Italian, and in bed I am Greek: to be precise, Olympian.

I'm English. Excuse me? So?

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?