What is Englishness?

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Thanks to Toby in the North for pitching this show. Twice. We get to things eventually…

English Pride

English Pride [Lisaconnolly / Flickr]

We loved Hurley’s idea for a series picking apart contemporary European identity. To kick it all off: what is Englishness?

Some recent studies have shown that the inhabitants of the different regions of the British Isles are genetically nearly identical to each other. Rather than each successive invasion of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans pushing the former inhabitants to the margins and taking over, the core British population has instead remained more or less unchanged since the isles were originally settled many thousands of years ago.

If so, and there is really no genetic difference between an Englishman and a Irishman, then perhaps all that serves to distinguish the British nations from each other are culture and history. But where national identity is concerned, some English worry that they are getting the short end of the stick. If Scots have kilts, and the Welsh have dragons — and both have their own languages — are the English the “none of the above” of the British Isles?

In recent years, the quest for Englishness has been partially represented by the English nationalism movement. In his original show pitch, Toby in the North discussed the flags he saw flying at the 2006 World Cup:

When England won the world cup in 1966 the stadium was full of Union Jacks, now it is full of the Crosses of St. George. There is a lot of talk in the UK about how football over the last decade has helped reclaim the flag (the Union Jack) from the far right, but I only think that is half true – really a new flag has been adopted as a popular symbol – the Cross of St. George – and the odd few hooligans aside it is becoming identified with a newer, inclusive, multicultural England.

Toby in the North, in a comment to Open Source, June 20, 2006.
English Breakfast

Paradoxically, this man is Welsh. [Brockenbrough / Flickr]

After the formation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, English nationalism has rallied around issues of representation, arguing that England is now the only member country of the UK without its own independent assembly. And although English nationalism has traditionally been associated with a far-right, xenophobic stance, Toby says that there are those on the left trying to reclaim the search for Englishness as their own. He points to Billy Bragg, musician and author, whose list of the best books about Englishness includes Orwell and E.P. Thompson.

Will it be possible to radically reimagine English nationalism, moving away from associations with football hooliganism and towards a vision of an open, welcoming, and culturally independent England? If you live in England, do you consider yourself English, British, or something else entirely? And how patriotic do you have to be to get a full English breakfast tattoed on the top of your head?

Arthur Aughey

Professor of Politics, University of Ulster.

Author of the forthcoming The Politics of Englishness

Will Hutton

Chief Executive, The Industrial Society

Former editor, The Observer

Author, The State We’re In

Christine Constable

Vice Chairman, The English Democrats

Leading Sponsor, Justice for England

Extra Credit Reading

Michael Bywater, Englishness: Who Cares?, The New Statesman, April 3, 2000: “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).”

Wells Bombadier, The English Test: “Which pre-eminent female English sculptor, born in West Yorkshire, was a good friend of Henry Moore?”

Richard Donkin, What is it to be English?, Donkin Life, March 5, 2007: “The English don’t have the same identifying props that the Scots have. We don’t have tartans, kilts or sporrans. We don’t have leprechauns or shamrocks like the Irish. We don’t have Eisteddfods like the Welsh.”

Garry Bushell, An Interview With Garry Bushell, England Democrats Party: “The English are the only people in the world who are told that it is wrong to celebrate our history and heritage. Tony Blair, who is Scottish, gave the Scots a Parliament stating rightly that they are a ‘proud and historic nation.’ But his Deputy, John Prescott, who was born in Wales, is on record as saying ‘There is no such nationality as English.’ Have you ever heard anything so absurd?”

Madeliene Bunting, Beyond Englishness, The Guardian, March 14, 2005: “[David Blunkett] argues that the left’s historic ambivalence about nationalism is in danger of leaving open a territory that can be captured by rightwing opinion, which can mould it to fit a narrowly defined, introverted, racialised agenda with dangerous consequences for communal harmony and foreign policy.”

James Graham, Thanks. You’ve been a great audience…, QuaeQuam Blog!: “Nationalism is a bit like the mogwai in 80s classic Gremlins. It comes in two types: cute and cuddly civic nationalism, and the nasty, violent, murderous ethnic version. To prevent the one from transforming into the other, you have to rigidly obey certain specific rules.”

Toque, Show of Hands “Roots”, Little Man in Toque, February 10, 2007: “English nationalism expressed in musical form?”

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  • Tom B

    Fascinating and very surprising that studies show “the inhabitants of the British Isles are genetically nearly identical to each other”! When I lived in England, I was always struck by the prevalence of blond-haired people in East Anglia (where I lived) as compared to the predominance of dark-haired Welsh folk. I seem to remember that only a few genes select for hair color ( I don’t have time to find the links right now). If the human genome consists of 25,000 genes http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/faq/genenumber.shtml at the low end, the fact that only a few genes are different would indeed confirm that ALL HUMANS (at least as concerns hair color) are ‘nearly identical to each other.’ Which raises another question: Are the inhabitants of the British Isles any more or any less identical to each other than they are to all other Western Europeans — or to all other homo sapiens? —- An interesting excercise in the relatedness of people is to extrapolate the number of one’s ancestors (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, etc, etc, etc.) The function is 2 to a power. If one goes back 30 generations, each of us has about a BILLION great whatever-they-are-calleds. Since the number exceeds the population of Earth 30 generations (approximately 600 years) ago, we must be part of an interconnected network of incest — broadly defined. Sooooo….. though all humans are certainly NOT brothers, we almost certainly ARE all cousins! Yep, not too surprising that ‘the inhabitants of the British Isles are genetically nearly identical to each other”! All that inbreeding come back to homogenize us….

  • Tom B

    So why so many blondes in East Anglia, and so many dark haired Welshmen? Maybe Darwin had it right with this theory of ‘sexual selection’ that “states that the frequency of traits can increase or decrease depending on the attractiveness of the bearer”… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection . Now why does Indian corn have all those weird colored kernels while the stuff I buy at Kroger’s is uniformly yellow? (I can’t imagine that corn thinks that ‘blondes have more fun’!)

  • enhabit

    as for the blonde part…i’m blonde..was anyway, my english mother grew up in a place called “dane end”..nuff said.

  • jazzman

    Tom B asks: Now why does Indian corn have all those weird colored kernels while the stuff I buy at Kroger’s is uniformly yellow?

    Kroger’s Yellow Corn is Sweet Corn for eating on the cob or in fresh corn dishes, Indian Corn is Flint Corn which is used for cornmeal (blue corn tortilla chips, etc.) and is only tasty on the cob when immature.

    BTW Darwin made many detailed observations but drew totally incorrect conclusions from the data and created the baseless theory which comprises “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” Daniel Dennett’s blathering notwithstanding, the true danger is that in a Darwinian aleatory universe, humans and all entities are free (Dawkins might say compelled) to behave in any manner that they and their selfish genes see fit by niche exploitation or competing tooth and claw (many humans rationalize such behavior as part and parcel of their “natural” right and license) to enhance the chance of passing on their heritable characteristics. The correct theory is the Cooperation and Evolution of Consciousness which makes existence as we know it possible.


  • When I think of Englishness, I think of Engish pride. Are they synonyms?

    It’s tempting to think of Englishness as pride in their accomplishments. Certainly England was powerful and accomplished for hundreds of years, but England was just catching up to Spain and France when Shakespeare wrote:

    “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

    This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

    Feared by their breed and famous by their birth.”

    On the world stage, the great accomplishments were yet to come (putting aside the odd Henry V / Agincourt and such). But the pride was already there. Does it come from being separate, an island nation? After all, you see hints of similar pride in Japan.

    Does it go back to Alfred, or Arthurian myth? But don’t pretty much all countries have founding myths that have grown with the telling?

    If not pride, then what is Englishness? Custom? Isolation? I’m looking forward to this show.

  • Potter

    For me this is Englishness:


  • rc21

    When I think of England I think of The Stones, Cream, Yard birds, Eric Burden and the animals, The Who and all the other great bands of the 60’s. I also think of Coe vs Ovett and there great runs during the 80’s.

  • Randolph Carter

    Please do not refer to Ireland as a ‘british’ nation – it causes offence, much as Canadians do not like being mistaken for citizens of the US and New Zealanders object being called as Australian. What sets the English apart? A staggering ignorance towards their own history. So far as most English are concerned, their past can be summed up thus: “one world cup and two world wars”. Which might explain why the UK is occupying parts of the middle east when the rest of europe -which HAS learned from its past – blanched at the prospect. This was made clear by the response of the mainstream UK media – echoed by anglophile segments of the US press – towards the Wind That Shakes The Barley, a film that dared suggest the British occupation of Ireland was violent and immoral. Eighty years on, they still haven’t figured it out.

    Randolph Carter, Dublin

  • One book on my list is:

    Gilroy, Paul ‘There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation.

    (review) http://www.spunk.org/texts/pubs/er/sp000039.txt

    recent writing by Gilroy: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/articles/gilroy.html

    Sam, he would be an interesting guest!

    As much as Welsh and Scottish nationalism is a response to the dominance of “Englishness” in Britian, it seems that the neo-English nationalism across the political spectrum is in part a response (though not uniformed) to the newer phase of globalization that has brought formerly colonized others to the motherland. These immigrants and their off-spring have, through the politics of identity and movements for social justice, challenged exclusivist England for their recognized and rightful place in union. This provokes many to question just what it is to be English. Many responses have a nostalgic bent that should be resisted.

    Though Bragg’s insistence that Englishness include the long, hard struggles of the lower classes for equality is important. Efforts to remake the UK as a multicultural nation with black in Union Jack and equal recognition and access to the seats of political, economic and cultural influence, regardless of DNA, deserve attention and applause.

  • pryoung

    Ha, love the “Full English” skull tatoo. Hard not to imagine that skull being used as a weapon at some point, though that might be completely unfair.

    Along the lines Sidewalker and Randolph sketch out, you might consider with your guests how “Englishness” has always required a foil. In this it resembles other national identities—which are fictions after all—though I think the English have needed it more than others. Englishness has always been forged in encounter with and often domination over an Other.

    It’s often France that has served this role, especially during the French Revolution and Napoleonic periods. Burke’s condemnation of the Revolution reads for long passages like a paean to England’s stodgy distinctiveness. At other times it’s been Scotland or Ireland that have played this role, bringing into clearer focus what it is to be English by showing all that Englishness is not. Then it was the colonies of the Empire that served the purpose, albeit in even more expressly racialized fashion.

    I wonder if it’s now an integrated Europe that Englishness defines itself principally against. The ‘special relationship’ with the US seems at times as much about creating separation from Europe as it is about any genuine convergence of interest. Maybe the debacle in Iraq will change this a bit.

  • My grandparents were Highland Scots immigrants so I was raised with a distinctivly Scots; Bobbie Burns tea towels and bagpipes (as opposed to “British”) sensibility. Perhaps the immigrant Scots feel more even more deeply about retaining a separate identity due to the reasons why they felt so compelled to leave dear old Scotland in the first place. That said I am a big fan of Billy Bragg. I like his book list but to me “Englishness” (And there is some English on my Mom’s side – so here is a mixing of the gene pool) consists of William Blake, Jane Austin, & Montey Python and NOTHING could be more English than Wuthering Hieghts or The Hounds of the Baskevillies.

  • enhabit

    i have fond memories of visiting england when i was a child. my grandparents lived outlide london. row houses, my grandmother chatting across the fence with the neighbor (hello mrs. premise)..going around the shops (no supermarkets yet) with my grandfather “papa” (ex bobby and vertran) cool guy! gypsy caravans on the green, choc ices in the park, sneaking sips of woodpecker cider with papa. the neighborhood kids called me “the yank”.

    the only downside of it all,detectable to a child, was also part of what made the empire work..the class consciousness that gave everyone a place…and the feeling that they had to stay there…and then the open racism, also in the states at the time…but really open amongst the brits of the sixties. bad as the racism may have been there was a cohesiveness to the english..when i studied in japan i found some familiar similarities.

    growing up on english food has served me well in my travels…i will literally eat anything that is served. amazing how pleased people are to have you enjoy their cuisine without hesitation.

    part of the secret of england is found in its nostalgic beauty and sense of tradition, reinforced by many, many rituals..nostalgia can be dangerous imo..its seduction can feed selective memory and breed a sense of longing for the good old days..and no, people weren’t more moral then..they just had more respect for authority and went to church more often..there were considerably fewer people as well. but i digress.

    this nostalgia and cultural cohesion can be quite a wall for the immigrant to come up against. it would appear that the english love of curry, to the point of obsession may be helping a little.

    as for the irish, there is such an ancient exasperation there coming from both sides that god help them! just look at how old the northern ireland fallout is…give it all back to the irish and get over it already.

    both the scotts and the irish and all the tribes therein have had a really ugly time through the centuries at the hands of the english..including my welsh ancestors. the english learned a lot from those old romans.

  • enhabit

    my english ancestry is as mongrel as my american. scotts (McGregor they actually had to change the name when they came south, things were that bad), welsh (came to america, things were that bad), english from various regions with at least one (probably more) marauding dane in there..who nows what the romans got up to. i wonder if there is any such thing as pure english anyway..the queen certainly isn’t.

  • Lumière

    My people hail from St. Albans (Verulamium), which appeared during the time of Roman rule and was burned to the ground by Boudicca. Our surname is an honorary name. The family lore is that it was given to our clan so that we would stop fighting everyone and join them against the Romans.

    I like to think that we fought with the Iceni, lead by the red-headed warrior queen Boudicca, but then we would have all been killed.

    What is Englishness?

    We left in 1635 – I can’t wait to find out what they have been doing there without us raising hell.

  • I have a Scottish, Welsh, German, French heritage. Never thought of my background as English.

    I did live in London in the 80s. Here was something I found particularly “English”:

    If you took a late lunch – and did bring your lunch – in London, at the time I lived there, you were out of luck. Midday meals were eaten at the pubs. But the pubs closed from 2-5pm. I was often frustrated – and hungry – due to this. When I asked why they closed, I was told that it was an ordinace created during WWII. In order to get people back to work, they shut down the pubs. Too many blokes were getting drunk and not returning after lunch. Okay, fine. But it was 40 years later. When I would ask, “Why hasn’t that law been revoked?” There would usually be a blithe shrug of the shoulder and the reply, “That’s just the way it’s alwasy been.”

    I encountered several of these idiosyncracies. Old laws/customs that were actually counter-productive and could easily be addressed were not just as a resistence to change.

    That felt peculiarly English to me.

    Also, I second enhabit’s comment about whether there any purely British people. The island has been inhabited by so many ethnic groups and royalty hasn’t been of families descended from the soil. What is an ethnic Brit?

  • Allison – you’ll be pleased to hear that you’ve been able to all day drink in the UK for at least a decade I think, maybe more. I turned 18 (legal drinking in UK) in ’91, and I don’t remember afternoon closing even then, although it might still have been around. The current big booze fight is over what time bars and pubs have to close in the evenings, with the government favouring 24 hr licensing. The law has been relaxed over the last decade, in certain areas like city centres etc. but still in many pubs around the country, last orders is at 11 pm, throwing out time is at 11.30, although as I said, city life is different. This partly explains why the UK from the late 80s onwards has had such a prominent club scene (and also has more street violence than many other European countries). Past 11 pm if you didn’t go clubbing, there wasn’t much to do besides go home to bed or start fights.

    More generally, it’s very interesting to see how many Americans look at this through the idea of heritage: “where my people came from” etc. I guess that’s very much a country of immigration response. Many Aussie friend are similar and have a much better sense of their family history than most British people will. If there is a “new Englishness”, I would argue that it is absolutely the opposite to this. Scottish nationalists, with a very few exceptions, tend to be quite embarrassed by the Hollywood-Braveheart-paint-your-face-blue-and-wear-a-kilt type of nationalism. I don’t think Alex Salmond, longtime leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has ever been seen in a kilt. That’s for the tourists. The new Scottish nationalism is in many ways a conscious attempt to reconstruct Scotland as a Nordic social democracy. They look to the Norwegian “oil fund”, set up to endow the Norwegian welfare state into the future, for inspiration. Or to the Finnish or Swedish parliamentary proportional representation systems. It’s a conscious effort to recreate Scottishness as citizenship, not an ethnicity, so that being Italian-Scottish, or Pakistani-Scottish makes sense.

    The devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Welsh Assembly, has forced this issue onto England. If “the UK” means less and less, “English” needs to mean more. In 2000 I was tutoring political science groups at a university in Manchester. One class I remember of about 15 students was very diverse: students whose families had come from Pakistan and India, Ghana and Jamaica, Poland and Ireland. We were discussing national identity and it was interesting that most non-white students tended to see English as ethnicity. For them, to be English was to be white. Their multiple identities tended to be local: Mancunians, Brummies, Liverpudlians, etc.; National – British; and ethnic: Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean etc. “English” didn’t make it – after all no one has a passport saying they are English. Post-9/11, “Muslim” has probably been pushed onto some of them as an additional, and at times over-riding identity.

    But have things changed in the last 7 years? I’m not sure. Anecdotally, people say that the following of the English football team abroad in recent years has become much more multiracial (as well as more women and families supporting). The fact that football is played by the sub-nations (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all have their own teams), unlike for example the Olympics where the team is “Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, has pushed this issue. There are lots of black players who proudly represent their ‘country’ in the English team. So this is why last summer’s world cup brought discussion of this to the fore.

    I think the idea of a new, positive, English nationalism faces some structural problems: a) “Cool Britannia”, although rather sneered at now, the late 90s idea was that Britain was cool again – booming economy avoiding some of the difficulties faced by continental Europe, the music, the diverse young creative hip spirit of London etc etc did have some resonance – but it suggested being British was cool, not English. b) That the capital of the UK is also the capital of England: why does England need a parliament say, when it already has a perfectly good one in London? In Scotland people now look to Edinburgh, in Wales to Cardiff, but in England there is nothing new – the UK institutions seem to basically be also the English institutions. The government had the idea of regional parliaments in England, that would devolve power away from the London a bit like the States in the US, but when the voters of the North East were asked first, they heavily rejected it as it looked like just more bureaucracy. The idea got shelved.

    I suspect that a new Englishness will probably only come about if really forced onto people by Scottish independence. This looks unlikely now, but isn’t impossible. Until then, those of us who think of ourselves as British but come from England, will probably keeps saying when asked: “I’m English, eerrrrrr…. British; I come from England, errrrr…. you know – the UK, ummmm… Great Britain. You know what I mean?”

    Anyway, British, UK, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, whatever – we do have the best beer. 🙂

  • Geez, that looks like an essay – not a comment. Sorry. I will attempt to be more pithy in the future!

  • Lumière

    Toby, that was bloody great – keep it up!


    Mel isn’t too popular here either !

  • enhabit

    don’t worry about the pithy…really helpful essay Toby! Augustiner Dunkel in Munchen or a good Pilsner in Prague is more than a match for UK beer imo. the best sausage going is the banger though.

  • enhabit

    as for ale? exports badly except for some IPA’s but nobody gets ale quite like the UK. americans like to think so but something happens..is it the yeast strains? protect those small UK brewing operations, some of them are jewels! don’t lose them.

  • tbrucia

    Just some geographical comments… It’s my understanding that THE BRITISH ISLES includes the nations of England, Scotland, and Ireland and the islands they control. THE UNITED KINGDOM includes all of these except the nation of Ireland. GREAT BRITAIN is a geographic description of the ‘big island’ occupied by England, Wales, and Scotland. (Which leaves me wondering if the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, and the Channel Islands, to mention a few, are or are not parts of Great Britain.) ENGLAND is a nation within the United Kingdom, along with Scotland, Wales, etc. In turn England is inhabited by the ‘oldtimers’ like the Jutes, Angles, Saxons, etc, overlaid by the ‘newcomers’, i.e. the Normans. — If this all seems like a pastiche of confusion, perhaps we could say that ‘Britishness’ is an idea rooted in confusion and gloriously happy ignorance of geography and history. And perhaps the British have been so successful as imperialists and colonizers because the nation itself is such a stew…

  • Interesting thread and I can’t wait for the show. I’m an American mutt but my aunt has traced the root of our family to one Wm. Dunbar who was an indentured ‘servant’ in Mass Bay Colony in the 1600s.

    But that’s really all we know about him. Why did he come here, what made it worth seven years of indentured servitude? Did he miss Scotland? We’ll never know at this remove.

    For me Englishness is the 60s’ British Invasion, Dr. Who on public television late at night in the early 80s, BBC America. Englishness is also the 17th century with Charles I, Cromwell and the Restoration. That period in particular fascinates. It’s also the learned voice of James Burke and his ‘Connections’ series.

    Which will probably be odd to a native Brit but there it is.

  • Lumière

    England and America are two countries separated by a common language. –George Bernard Shaw

  • Tartanhero

    Brian – it’s interesting that you place Charles 1 with Englishness as he was also King of Scotland at the time, but I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate the historical accuracies – can’t say I know all of early United States history. Still this does illustrate how Britishness and Englishness are synonymous, interchangeable and no one blinks an eye.

  • Brian – it’s interesting that you place Charles 1 with Englishness as he was also King of Scotland at the time, but I wouldn’t expect you to appreciate the historical accuracies

    Hey I resemble that remark!

    Actually I knew about Charles 1 being king of Scotland – but yes it does get all mangled up.

  • Tom B

    Anyone care to comment on those German rulers of England, the Saxe-Coburg dynasty? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Windsor .

  • enhabit
  • Enhabit – having grown up with “the Troubles” always in the background it’s good to see that despite all the stumbles and missteps, it seems that NI will get its devolved authority again. Nevertheless, there is something rather hilarious about Paisley and Adams being in govt. together – politically it really is unbelievable. This isn’t the equivalent of the far left of the Democrats and the far right of the Republicans coming together – say Kucinich and Gingrich in bipartisan harmony – it’s more like, ummm…. a grand wizard of the KKK and a Black Panther leaders sitting down to form unity government! You really have to laugh (and keep many fingers crossed). Bizarre in a wonderful sort of way.

    More generally, I’m not really sure how much difference the peace process makes to the rest of UK. For the English and Welsh, most people just looked at the troubles with a feeling of horrified bemusement – much like we look at Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq now. Of course politicians had to have some sort of position on the issue, but the parties’ manifesto commitments on Northern Ireland that I remember back in say the late 80s were always lowest common denominator stuff. In Britain, there are those on the right that have always supported the Unionist cause, whilst on the left, particularly the hard left, there was support of the Republican cause, but for the majority of English and Welsh, Northern Ireland was a mystery. Scotland is different because the sectarianism of Northern Ireland is more prominent, and is reproduced in a ugly form in the Scottish football scene. When I moved to Glasgow to go to university, the graffiti on the toilet walls in the University library was an education in a type and depth of catholic/protestant prejudice and bigotry that I had just been totally unaware of growing up in England.

    Tom B, the Queen of Sweden is originally German as well. Royal Families are the original pan-European institution from long before anyone dreamed up the EU! 🙂

  • enhabit

    the romans were absolutely perplexed by the irish, and the scotts for that matter..but the irish seem to have that inherited capacity in their very genes…what writers they make though! i have all my digits crossed for northern ireland.

  • regarding the Scottish kilt. Toby in the North says: That’s for the tourists.

    I heartily disagree with this statement. The Scots kilt is a traditional yet always timely and handsome mode of dress. Maybe its my Scots-American 2nd generation status but Highland bagpipes stir my blood. I might even paint my face face blue. Or start quoting Bobbie Burns.

  • Peggysue: “The Scots kilt is a traditional yet always timely and handsome mode of dress. Maybe its my Scots-American 2nd generation status but Highland bagpipes stir my blood.”

    Yeah, exactly. Like I said, tourists. 😉

    The main reason my Scottish mates seem to wear kilts for weddings and the like is the immense fascination young ladies of other nationalities develop, after a few G&Ts, in attempting to find out whether its true about what Scotsmen wear under their kilts.

  • jazzman

    Toby: The question is what’s worn under a Scotsman’s kilt?, not what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.

    The answer is: Nothing!

  • rahbuhbuh

    don’t take the following random bits of contemporary Englishness as my world view, they’re just more filters:

    Bill Buford’s book “Among the Thugs” about his days as a yankee tourist hanging out with Manchester United fans during the 80-90s


    which meanders into the scariness of the National Front and crowd psychology, and moronic xenophobia bull-in-a-china-shopping its way through Sardinia in the 1990 world cup.


    Zadie Smith’s everpresent “White Teeth” informed me about multicultural Britishness, as did The Clash, Paul Simonon, and Ska music.

    A coworker, former Brit, always resolutely explains himself with a favorite Albion-ic phrase “it just isn’t done.” No wonder Malcolm McClaren needed to exist. It makes me think of butlers. Mr. Belvedere. this is a prim and proper stereotype I wish Hollywood would help quell because it must be outmoded by now right?

  • Toby OT North sez: “Yeah, exactly. Like I said, tourists”.

    I would be a tourist if I were in Scotland but I find a kilt a very handsome mode of dress in Washington State or Montana just the same.

    I do get your point though and completly acknowledge that there is no one is more sentimental regarding Scotland than those who immigrated. My Dad grew up in Montana speaking Scots Galic at the table. He was a Boeing engineer who listened to bagpipe music sitting in his E-Z-Boy by the Magnavox. He never set foot in Scotland but when I did I brought back some Scottish soil to put on his grave here in Washington State. I don’t quote Bobbie Burns like he did but can rip off a pretty good “Scots Wha Ha With Wallace Bled…”

  • But anyway, this is about Englishness not sentimental Scots immigrants. Englishness is very “Chin up, duckie, no problem so great a cuppa tea won’t make it better”. And then there is the monarchy and the tabloids. Could one exist without the other?

    And Henry Moore. His drawings of people sleeping in the Underground during the Blitz.


  • enhabit

    discovered henry moore’s drawings in grad school..they are exquisite. so many artists excel at drawing but it gets lost in the success of their other media..but that’s another show…

    my english grandmother who called people “duck” had this amazing ability to keep a lit cigarette (called them “fags”) in her mouth…seemingly without ever removing it to flick the ash, which would get quite long. i often found myself chasing her down with an ashtray and doing so..without removing the cigarette, of course. i noticed that other brits seemed to smoke the same way. she was full of victorian “chestnuts” like “your sins will find you out my boy!” or “satan finds work for idle hands to do!”

  • plnelson

    Despite my name, I don’t have a drop of English blood in me – my name “Nelson” is a corruption of my Scandinavian family name.

    I’m afraid that Englishness means less and less. From this thread I have the distinct impression that it amounts to little more than food and football teams and fading memories of past glories.

    I still want to know where the HMS Cornwall was the other day when its sailors and marines were abducted by the Iranians. They were in small rubber boats so they could not have been far from the mother ship, which is a powerful, fast, heavily-armed Type 22 Royal Navy frigate equipped with a pair of Lynx helicopters.

    Would Royal Navy captains of the past have stood idly by on a capable fighting ship if an enemy abducted their crew in such a manner? I suspect the answer to that question has a lot to do with the answer to the question in this thread.

  • enhabit

    yikes brittania! brittania doesn’t rule the waves anymore!

    perhaps they have grown up a bit since the opium wars days…hope so.

  • Lumière

    ////Would Royal Navy captains of the past have stood idly…\\\

    UN mission – probably had orders not to engage

  • plnelson

    UN mission – probably had orders not to engage

    UN missions usually allow self-defense.

    But in any case I’m not arguing whether they should have engaged the Iranians; I’m asking whether they would have engaged them. I’m suggesting that whatever England is, it’s probably not the same as it was. Whether this is better (as enhabit suggests) or worse is immaterial to the question.

    Sooner or later the SNP will win and Scotland will be gone. NI is devolving; Wales will be next, England will be nothing more than a tiny geopolitical poodle accompanying the US around the world on its (mis-) adventures and sleeping at the end of the day at its master’s feet, dreaming of past glories. The English have always loved their dogs.

  • loki

    Dublin is more interested in Brussels than London!

  • plnelson

    Dublin is more interested in Brussels than London!

    If they’re smart they’ll be more interested in Beijing or Bangalore.

  • Where is Horatio Hoenblower when you need him?

    And, Oh yes! Please please get Billy Bragg on the show!

  • plnelson – it’s an interesting argument that England would be tiny and insignificant post-Scottish (or Welsh/NI) independence, the argument is normally made the other way around. Firstly the English population is over 50 million people: that would still make it the (off the top of my head) fourth biggest EU country ahead of Poland and Spain, behind Germany, France, and Italy. Or bigger than Canada and more than twice the population of Australia, for anglophone comparisons. The city of London is also massively important for the UK’s GDP – again someone needs to Google it but in my mind I have the figure of around half of the UK’s GDP is generated by the City, so England would inherit that. Some argue as well that the maritime border that would have to be delineated between the England and Scotland would put a significant minority of the North Sea oil production into English not Scottish hands.

    Scotland’s population is a bit over 5 million, Welsh – a little under 3 million, Northern Ireland 1.7 million. So England is very much the big brother in the UK family. And English nationalists of both the thinking and unthinking type are very aware of this.

  • enhabit

    one can no longer leave ethnic indians, pakistanis, africans, carribbeans etc. out of the equation. the sun never set on the empire at one point..they moved.

  • Lumière
  • plnelson

    plnelson – it’s an interesting argument that England would be tiny and insignificant post-Scottish (or Welsh/NI) independence, the argument is normally made the other way around. Firstly the English population is over 50 million people: that would still make it the (off the top of my head) fourth biggest EU country ahead of Poland and Spain, behind Germany, France, and Italy.

    It’s kind of (‘kind of’? try ‘literally’, PL!) Eurocentric to use the EU as the point of comparison. The center of the world has shifted. Europe itself is becoming less and less important. Once Europe led the world in manufacturing, technology, science, music, art, military power, diplomatic influence, economic innovation and a ton of other things. Not anymore. EU-ians are desperately trying to hold onto what they have left and to keep any more factories from closing and jobs from going to China (electronics, clothing, toys) or the US (cars, pharmaceuticals) The UK’s only remaining steel company was just bought by the Indians. Are there any British-owned car companies left?

    The fact that London remains a major finance center is cold comfort. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about Alan Blinder’s research showing which jobs were the most portable and likely to move to places like Asia. Among the top ones were bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks, financial analysts, economists, mathematicians, actuaries, etc. The companies may stay in London, but the jobs they create can be done anywhere in the world that has internet access and smart workers. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in – not a good sign for job creation.

  • valkyrie607

    “English” seems to me to be somewhat similar to “anglo-saxon” in that it’s vague, basically dependent on historical interpretation, and can be called up to serve any number of purposes. It’s definitely white, the good-natured efforts of some liberal-minded folks notwithstanding, and it bears a heavy burden of history which many are loath to confront.

    That said, y’all should DEFINITELY check out this video by British Sikh comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli, wherein he tries to get at the essence of what it is that defines one’s race. There’s the Pakistani guy who’s more British than the British–drinking tea, eating scones, decorating with St. George flags and all that. The responses are hilarious when he stops random people on the street and asks them, point-blank: “Am I English?” (He was born and raised in the UK.)


  • rc21

    How long can the UK survive as well as the rest of Europe? At least in it’s present state. Will we see a further decline in power and influence as pln seems to indicate?

  • tbrucia

    My wife was a Spaniard who did her student teaching in Walsall in the 60s. We lived in rural Suffolk in the 70s when I was an airman. Our jaws simply dropped the first time we saw Richard Quest on CNN ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Quest ); he seemed like a space alien caricature of an Englishman . How did he relate to the characters from ‘Softly, Softly’ or Dawn French as ‘The Vicar of Dibley’, or Miss Marple of Agatha Christie fame, or even Tom Baker playing Dr. Who? I suspect our images of Englishness are quite different from those of historians examining the roles of Churchhill and Gertrude Bell and Sir Richard Francis Burton… And obviously my image is quite different from those who think The Beatles (Wings?), Sting, or the Kray Brothers. Perhaps we all pick up pieces and paste them together — revealing as much about ourselves as about the English… 🙂

  • Valkyrie607 – thanks for digging out the Singh Kohli video. Hardeep is a bit of a star. It was interesting though, the one thing he didn’t really try to do in that video was unpack the idea of British and English, although he himself clearly thinks of himself as a Scot, but then also very much as British.

  • hurley

    Two possible guests from different ends of the political spectrum, Tom Nairn and Ferdinand Mount. Nairn Scots and a former editor at New Left Review, author of The Break-Up of Britain and a withering attack on the monarchy, The Enchanted Glass (his latest essay for NLR here: http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2654). Mount a Baronet no less and former editor of The TLS who has written a great deal about England. Both extremely bright, fluent, etc.

  • hurley
  • galoot

    I have dual citizenship US/UK and have lived in England since 2002. If there is one quality that seems to differentiate “the English” from Americans, it is a certain ability to face the realities of life with a sort of grim determination. When I turn on Fox for a few minutes just to raise my blood pressure and remind myself why I’m here, I am struck by the breathless amazement that Hey, bad things happen to people! Innocent folks just trying to get to work and BAM – disaster! Over here, I think people expect problems, setbacks, delays – it’s as if England has a collective memory of past woes in a way that the US does not…

    Just my 2 pence worth 🙂

  • nother

    Pride or pretension, that is thy question.

    There is a slippery slope from “a shared nostalgia,” (David Gervais’s phrase) to a shared arrogance. Like for instance, Boston Red Sox fans who revel in a shared nostalgia and New York Yankee fans, who revel in a shared arrogance. (Sorry, I’m getting a little antsy for opening day.)

    It can be endearing to see some of the old-time Bronx Bombers pridefully mingling on the field with the likes of Jeter, but that palpable pride can turn obnoxious in the blink of an eye after a two or three or ten beers in the stands.

  • nother

    Was it Churchill who said, “It’s the pride of hearing the rest of the world speak your language back to you.”

    I know someone is English if at the bar they order a g and t with little ice.

    At this blog devoted to English patriotism, http://crossofstgeorge.net/

    The authors pridfully wrote on the homepage that England has

    “a great deal to be proud of., From Alfred the great to the Magna Carta to Blenheim to the battle of Britain this is a story of triumph over adversity, how a motley, group of starving of Saxon tribes forged their own nation in a new land, how they fought off invasion after invasion and started on the road to forming one of the largest empires the world has seen.”

  • rahbuhbuh

    I want to hear Englishness described by those whose countries were part of the Empire and those who never encountered any sort of occupation. A Russian’s interpretation would drastically differ than someone from India or the U.S.

    The only time in my life when my cultural and civic identity hasn’t been shaped, in a reactionary way, by the British was two years spent in Wisconsin as a boy. Philadelphia had Liberty Bells and Ben Franklin reveering yet ultimately rebelling against the British. Savannah was scraps of British gentility amidst their prison colony. Boston’s Paul Revere, Bunker Hill, and the Tea Party all frame an Eastern Coastal picture of the Englishness: something to rebel against.

  • patsyb

    And where’s the Englishness in art, literature, music?

  • redken

    I grew up in the working class north east.. Most members of my family on welfare on and off during the Thatcher era. That’s how ive come to define Englishness, poverty. I think Blair has done a lot to focus attention on the north over the past decade and blur the North South divide.

  • KFbollo

    The English are so wrapped up in their own time warp they are clueless as to the effect their ‘empire’ has had on modern society. Not uncommon to hear an Englishman say that the colonies would be better off if they were still colonized. They are drowning in their own ignorance and lack of knowledge of their own history & sins.

    Good luck to the Scots, they are better off without them.

  • redken

    Maybe Europe could bring more equality between the classes than English on there own.

  • As I listen to tonight’s show, I would like to wish all our English friends a happy Passover 😉

  • The issue of class is what I was thinking about toward the end of the show (that ridgidly English upper crust) and I was glad Chris brought it up but I’m not sure it was really answered. I would have loved to hear Billy Bragg’s take on it.

  • Peggysue – So Billy was on? Excellent! Haven’t had chance to hear yet, I’m like a small child before Christmas – excitedly waiting for the MP3 to go up. I think the show tried to call me, but it was half-past-midnight my time and for once I had actually managed to get to bed before midnight, so in my sleep addled state I just stared at my phone thinking (very, very slowly) who the hell would be phoning me at this time! If they had Billy on, I’m sure they didn’t need me anyway! 🙂

    Come one ROS – wake up and MP3 the show! You have people in other timezones waiting for you.

  • darwhin

    “Good luck to the Scots, they are better off without them. ”

    not really, last i checked they actually are subsidized by the english tax payer. they get things like free university education when the rest do not. frankly this fetish for over concentrating on your past is plain selfish mastabatory nonsense. its return to clanish behavior that does no good, look at iraq if you want one example. never mind the ugly violence at football games based on such “identities”. it should not be encouraged. its time for them to realize they are stronger together than apart and get over their petty nonsense.

  • darwhin

    as for the rise in english identity, its probably a reaction to the rise in the other identities..endless complaining and whining about past and current grievances against the british. it probably defines the other groups, and is used to extract concessions, a weapon. ugly stuff

  • There is no rise in English identity. English people have always been English and felt English. Dropping the Union Jack in favour of the Cross of St George was just a signal that we no longer felt that we had to appease Scotland and Northern Ireland with the British tag.

    England has always been a multicultural nation based around its thousand year-old counties. Rivalries in these counties have arisen such as that between Yorkshire and Lancashire, but when the chips are down we English stand shoulder to shoulder.

    That is exactly what is happening now which is why 47 million English Flags were sold last year during the world cup.

    Scots say we are finding our identity which merely shows that even after 300 years of being in a Union with the English they still have no idea about us.

    My country is under attack by our so-called “fellow Brits” who are actively trying to abolish England. Here are some quotes from senior British politicians.

    The late Robin Cook, (a Scot and former Foreign Secretary who famously resigned over Iraq and infamously sanctioned Britain’s bombing of Serbia) “England is not a nation, it is just a collection of regions”

    John Prescott (a Welshman and Deputy Prime Minister, notorious for mangling the English language, punching egg throwers and speaking of Kovoso) “There is no such nationality as English as laid down by various Acts of Parliament and Accession”

    Charles Kennedy (a Scot and former leader of the Liberal Democrats Party) speaking to Scottish Liberal Democrats “In England devolution is moving at such a pace it is bringing into question the very existence of England itself”

    With friends like that who needs enemies. Unfortunately, there are a number of English self-loathing politicians and journalists who have insinuated themselves into positions of influence and are equally determined to eradicate England from the world. The nastiest bigots are the ones prejudiced against their own people, and in my estimation and in the opinion of many others, the present Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is one of these.

    Only in recent years has this man approved public spending for St George’s Day celebrations. The Cross of St George has erroneously been associated with racism and banned by various authorities, when in fact it is the Union Jack which has been brandished by racists. The English retreated from this association by dumping the Union Jack and re-adopting the Cross of St George (although a great number of us have always taken pride in the English flag).

    It may interest people to know that the Scottish Saltire, the blue and white flag of St Andrew is the flag of the Ku Klux Klan. Curiously, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, has failed to report this, but has never missed an opportunity to defame the English flag.

    I have been actively campaigning for an English Parliament for about three years now, and I was stunned by the anti-English bile spewed by certain sections of the media, notably the BBC.

    Be in no doubt there has been a concerted effort over the last ten years to abolish England and the English identity. It has failed. As Labour MPs fear losing their seats some have belatedly come out in support of England. One Early Day Motion has asked the House of Commons to recognise that the English are more concerned about having an English Parliament than any other constitutional reform. A second has asked for St George’s Day to be made a Bank Holiday and for all public buildings in England to fly the English Flag.

    If the United Kingdom survives, which is increasingly doubtful, then it will be with an intact England.

  • rahbuhbuh

    purely for representational fun, Englishness in comics. It seems there’s a variety of English monikered heroes and villians:

    Captain Britain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Britain

    Union Jack, originating in the 40s: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Jack_%28comics%29

    Lionheart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lionheart_%28comics%29

    Albion: http://marvel.com/comics/onsale/lib/view2.htm?filename=/comics/onsale/covers/0307/NEXCAL018cov.jpg

  • mjgw

    I find Tom B’s obsession with genetics deeply depressing. I don’t see that that’s got anything to do with Englishness, even for a second, nor any other national identity for that matter. There are lots of black people who, and you might not like this, *are* ethnically English. Assuming you insist on believing on this elusive “Englishness”, you have to start with shared cultural and historical experiences.

    Even that wears a bit thin – one can quote Shakespeare and Dickens over and over again, and maybe in schools it has a role to play – I studied both of them for GCSE English – but down on the ground, Englishness is basically just not being Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or Manx. I have as much in common with somebody from Newcastle culturally as I do with a Glaswegian person anyway, yet both the geordie and myself would be considered English, but obviously not the person from Glasgow.

    When I think of Englishness in a kitch sense, I think of bizarre meaty food, sea shanties, blackbirds, english folk songs, mediocre sports teams that overcelebrate the smallest of victories, and white racist skinheads from east London and the North, but this is just as inaccurate as any genetic account of the English. In fact what we see yet again is that you just can’t generalise a majority, especially not one as big as 95%.

    When I’m in the UK I’m a Londoner, (a much stronger, more healthy cosmopolitan identity open to anybody who lives there or knows it well) when I go outside, I’m “British”, not by choice but because that’s what people mostly think of then they meet somebody from the UK. Most Americans think that English and British are the same thing anyway.

    oh, and Christine Constable: wft are you on?

  • mjgw – wise words. The point that me (sort of West Midlands), you – a Londoner, and the hypothetical Geordie all get considered to be in some way that same, whilst the Glaswegian is “different” is the point that Benedict Anderson makes in the classic “Imagined Communities” (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagined_Communities ). There isn’t really anything beyond our imagination, and the imagination of others, that makes us “English”.

    On Christine Constable, she is trying to imagine hard enough for all of us, although after listening to her ever increasing shrillness through the interview, I don’t think I’m going to put too much effort into re-imagining my Englishness… 🙂 Will Hutton was definitely trying (and succeeding) to wind her up though. I think her moaning to him about “you lot on the left…” suggests that for Christine at least, if not for the English Democrats more generally, Englishness does suggest politics that I’m not comfortable with.

  • enhabit

    it would be interesting to hear a knowledgeable comparison of Japan and the UK. two island nations, driving on the left (just kidding), but at one time, both having a sense of social cohesion that creates both good and bad results. the UK is well into a state of transition out of this period..what’s in store for Japan?

  • Toby: thanks for the link. I actually wasn’t aware of “imagined communities” as an established theory, but gave that page a read and will seek out more on the subject. I think our friend Christine could do with reading it too.

    “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

    Wise words for sure.

    enhabit: I agree that would be very interesting. I have a few Japanese friends who I’ve heard make similar comparisons (and prefer London), but obviously that’s subjective.

    oh, and excuse the typo – I realise English people are 85% of the UK by population, not 95% 🙂

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  • Teresa “Martinique325” Martin

    To answer the question: “If you live in England, do you consider yourself English, British, or something else entirely?”
    I say English. The UK is comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. All of these encompass ‘British’.