“What is England?” asked St. George
It’s one of those amusing quirks of history that we have a national patron saint who never visited England, would not have spoken the language of these isles at that time and probably could not even name this little island – which was not to be known as England until another 500 years after his death.
However, if we lay all that aside and imagine that St George was to appear on these shores today, I think we would struggle to answer the question: what is England? What is Englishness? Of course those questions beg us to answer some others: what do we want England to be? And how do we get there? Not questions I propose to offer an answer to here, but they need to be acknowledged as we seem to lack anyone proposing a vision for our nation – let alone how to get there. Rumour has it that the Government is bereft of a ‘big idea’ despite an ideology of austerity, which in itself is an idea of retrenchment. We have an austerity of ideas as well as of spending.
But why England, specifically? Why is the question not posed about the UK as a whole? Well I think much of what we think of England is shaped by the fact it is not Scotland, Wales, Ulster or Ireland. There seems to be a greater sense of national identity in the other nations. Certainly many are keen to make something of their Celtic roots. It can feel that nobody wants to be English: often on forms there is an option for ‘Black British’ but there is rarely an option for ‘Black English’.
I have an interest in what role faith has in national identity. In fact, it was David Cameron’s statement that this was a Christian country that first triggered me to consider: what is England? Do I agree with the Prime Minster that one of England’s defining features is its Christianity? I am not sure that anything other than a person can have a faith – neither a building nor a location adheres to faith. I would say that England and the UK has Christianity at its roots, which has a key role in shaping what we are. Are we still a Christian nation? A question for another time I think, but we are in danger of losing the very values that the nation was built upon.
As I travelled around the country working on the Faith Covenant and other projects for FaithAction, I took the opportunity to ask the different people I came across, from taxi drivers to local officials, councillors and faith leaders, how would they answer the question: what is England? ‘A country defined by its Celtic fringe’ is a good way of describing the sense that there is a temptation to define England by what it isn’t. What was interesting was the north/south difference. Those in the north were more at ease with their patriotism. But what was often expressed was a difference between them and London. So the UK can be seen as including Scottishness, Ulsterness, Irishness, Welshness and northern-ness, and all of them disparaging of London-ness.
To many outside of London, our capital could be the capital in any western, European city. It appears as a cosmopolitan ‘smerge’, different and distinct from the rest of England. The beaches of the south coast, industry of the Midlands and grit of the north – London feels to them like somewhere ‘a bit foreign’.
It could be because London represents a moral liberalism which is at odds with the natural conservative nature of ‘Englishmen’. The diminishing of social conservativism, often described as a liberal secular erosion of religious conservativism, can be seen as part of this steady creation of two nations. These two are not merely the nation of the poor and nation of the rich (as Disraeli described), but the libertarian secularist metropolis of London, with the rest of the country socially conservative – and with a sense of being left behind.
In 2014, in the final year of the Coalition, I was amused to come across Lord Glasman, the Labour peer, speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference. The first thing he said was, “I’ve come here to see if there are any conservatives [Conservatives?] left!” The intrinsic conservative nature of England and Englishness, never the possession of the Tory party, seems to be under attack as never before.
For all the good done by work to improve equality, do ‘rights’ adequately replace the value of tolerance (as is described by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in his book We don’t do God)? Of course, the intolerant goading and hunting by keyboard moralists makes freedom of speech a freedom for some, who operate within their own strict boundaries, happily crying ‘bigot’ at anyone who dares suggest another opinion.
Although accounts differ, what is generally agreed is that St George defended the helpless and those in danger, and when he was offered inducements to change his moral position and faith, he sacrificed himself and was martyred.
So if St George were to ask, ‘What is England?’ the answer would be, ‘We can’t say yet, but your own values of chivalry, self-sacrifice and faith could do with a revival’.
This blog was also published on the Huffington Post.