ON 2 SEPTEMBER 1939, LABOUR’S DEPUTY LEADER ARTHUR GREEN got to his feet in the Commons Chamber. He had been called upon to respond to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ambivalent speech on the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. As he rose, a Conservative backbencher, Leo Amery, shouted “Speak for England, Arthur!”
So much that hobbles our understanding of the four nations which make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, their relationship to each other and of their identities, corporate and individual, is expressed in those words – most of all, and on the very brink of war — the assumption that the United Kingdom is really ‘Greater England’.
The Southern part of Ireland, whether considered to have acheived independent nationhood in 1922 or 1937, remains, in the minds of many English people, no more than a slightly troublesome colony. It was only in 2018 that Westminster Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen declared in a Radio Ulster interview that “Everyone in England is entitled to an Irish passport”.
Though this level of ignorant entitlement is, one hopes, not too widespread, there remains something patronising and exceptionalist among many English people when they speak or write of the devolved nations. The recent comment of Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, that Welsh sports teams should sing God Save the Queen when lining up for international competitions is similarly embarrassing. It seems to me a pity that Archbishop Cotterell, who is a good man, thought it more important to say this than to praise the moral virtue of Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who set such a good example of community solidarity and citizenship by the manner in which he encouraged young Welsh people to get vaccinated. An approach which put the Westminster government’s transactional bribes in a most unfavourable light.
So, as an Englishwoman, how am I to define my own Englishness? Do I need to? What are its commonalities with other identities? How might the increasingly toxic nature of the English ‘brand’ be ameliorated?
I am English because I was born in England of parents who were UK citizens. Like so many of us in England, my ancestry is diverse. My mother’s family fled from Tsarist persecution in the 19th century. On my father’s side, there are Bavarians and Ulster Scots. In recent generations we have been local councillors, farm labourers, shepherds, weavers, woodworkers, teachers, musicians, chemists and writers. We have identified with England and known ourselves as English – whatever failures and graces of our country we may have lived through. We have always been dissenters and have sometimes had troubled relationships with those things which make for war. We are typical of millions.
England has formed me. It would be conceited to claim otherwise. I love its landscapes, from the west Cumbrian seaboard to the vast skies of East Anglia. Its varied townscapes, made by industry, rural markets and historic conflict, all have their own place in my makeup. English folklore, so closely bound up with the wonderful diversity of strongly characterised regions, lives in my imagination, whilst the English radical tradition is an ongoing inspiration.
The literature, music and visual arts of my native country are woven into me – again, as they are for millions. They may literally be life-giving in the darkest times and places. The tragedy is, that as with so much we hold dear, this has become tainted by an arrogant exceptionalism which refuses to even entertain the concept of other nations being the source of equal treasure for their people. This is now going dangerously beyond the self-parodying territory of Flanders and Swann’s Song of Patriotic Prejudice, into xenphobia, racism and violence. It has become a weapon in the culture war with which a venal and incompetent government sets us to tear at each other, our neighbours and the wider world beyond these islands.
Those things which are beautiful, quirky, brave and nourishing do not cease to exist north of Carlisle or west of the Dee. They are not diminished because they are found beyond the Irish Sea, the Channel or the world’s oceans. They exert a pull on our hearts because that is what our hearts – and our minds and souls – are made for. It is by acknowledging this commonality that we might find ourselves enabled to see unfamiliarity as a very local phenomenon which must take second place to something greater. What I value in my country does not require me to disparage the same emotions in others nor to consider the lands which gave rise to them as being somehow inferior.
There is a good deal wrong with the power structures of the UK. Much of this will eventually change. But whether or not Scotland gains its independence, whether or not Ireland, north and south is reunited, whether or not genuine devolution and regional parliaments are achieved in England, we have to learn to embrace diversity and show a welcoming generosity to all who wish to live here. We have to pursue justice and equality for all if we are not to become a “right little, tight little island” festering in pettiness and generating still more division.
‘Speaking for England’ is not easy. I am aware of the growing burden of shame. But speak we must. This is not to gloss over all that is wrong (and arguably getting worse), but rather to have faith in what is lovely and lovable about this strange little country. It is an appeal to those who do love it to explore why without feeling ashamed, to share those reasons and to combine in breaking the poisonous link between patriotism and nationalism.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen