Writer Mike Marqusee is unusual for an American in being a cricket buff. Despite his affinity for the quintessentially English game, he’s suspicious of the resurgence of English identity visible at recent sporting events.
Recasting English national identity as forward-looking, inclusive, free of chauvinist aggression is a more complicated business than merely "reclaiming" the St George’s flag from the far right (which is not in the least depressed to see its favoured emblem so widely adopted). The reclaimers want to skip over a vital step in the process: a realistic examination of British imperial history and its current role in the world. In a climate shaped by paranoia about immigration, demands that minorities "integrate", the war on terror and the presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, an uncritical, ahistorical celebration of England remains, at the least, problematic. (CommentIsFree)
While I agree that the British Empire is a central part of English history that cannot be ignored, I want to take issue with some of this. The current policies which Marqusee mentions are all being pursued by a state which prioritises Britishness not Englishness. Indeed, Englishness may be the ultimate threat to that state.
Marqusee’s point about ‘chauvinist agression’ is reminiscent of Jack Straw’s claim that the English are "potentially very aggressive, very violent."
The irony of Straw’s statement was that the then Foreign Secretary was scapegoating the English public for the evils of empire, in order to argue against a reform of the very Westminster institutions which really were responsible for the empire.
Straw’s comment comes straight from the Whitehall playbook of ‘uncivilised tribes.’ The only difference is that this time the tribe is Anglo-Saxon.
The reality of post-Imperial Britain is summed up perfectly by a quote which I was lucky enough to come across today while working on another post:
Although Britain is a democracy in some senses, the ‘will of the people’ has never been extended to cover the key areas of interest to a state which was developed to run and service an empire. Defence, foreign policy, security and intelligence policy – in none of these areas can MPs or their constituents have access to official information or have any input into policy. (Robin Ramsay, The Wilson Plots, in Variant magazine)
If you doubt what Ramsay in this 1999 article, think about everything that has happened since: the decision to go war in Iraq in the faces of the largest mass demonstrations the country has ever seen, the dodgy dossier, the Hutton Report and the emasculation of the BBC.
You don’t even have to back that far, just look at the ‘democratic debate’ over a replacement for Trident.
English nationalism may be the best chance for a renewal of civic identity that can challenge those assumptions.