Soon St George’s Day will come, and thence will promptly pass unceremoniously by. The feast day of England’s patron saint is an occasion marked by a paucity of pomp and barely any traditions. This is excepting, of course, the annual array of newspaper columns fascinating over the endemic ‘crisis of Englishness’, another installment of the wild-eyed fumble in the dark for some cultural definition for the English people. The Guardian has already got a flippant piece in early, offering a scathing profile of so-called ‘Deep England’ packed with pastoral tones and bucolic imagery.
However, this year, instead of stammering out half-baked nonsense imbued with a never-realm of boating on the Thames, jam-stalls at village fêtes and earthy, commonsensical pontificators propping up pubs, we have been presented with an ultimate, very tangible, manifestation of Englishness: Brexit.
I promise that this article is not going to descend into Europhilic insolence, the stuff of which we ‘Remoaners’ are allegedly made. Instead, I ask you to consider the place that English culture – backed up by English political supremacy – has had in the British Isles within a long-term timeframe. This timeframe is best divide into three ages: the pre-Industrial (up until c. 1775), the Industrial (c. 1775- c. 1960) and the post-Industrial (c. 1960-).
The pre-Industrial age saw Englishness rise to political and cultural dominance. It was achieved through a domestic imperialism that was wont to use harsh measures indeed: The Highland Clearances, the suppression of other native languages and the forced transfer of landholdings to Anglo-Protestant gentleman and aristocrats, to name but three. The survival of other, previously-existing, socio-cultural structures became something of an act of resistance. In England, despite frequent upheavals, the gradual pace of demographic change meant that customs and cultural signifiers in England ebbed and flowed relatively organically save for the aberration of the Cromwellian Commonwealth. A relative lack of a sense of national statehood contributed to this model as identities in England rested at primarily local levels.
In the Industrial Age, three seismic paradigms converged: Industrialisation, Empire and Romanticism. Industrialisation rapidly shifted huge populations into artificial communities, extirpating them from the land, its seasonal rhythms and the huge corpus of custom and culture that was predicated thereon. Empire entrenched model of Anglo-centric Britishness as national projects were dominated by an elite educated according to English cultural standards, therefore conflating and synthesising Englishness with the overarching national character. Romanticism captured the hearts of these same elites in the corners of their nation most unlike their own, spurring an interest most famously in the Scottish wilderness and the mysticism of the Welsh landscape.
English-cum-Britishness was underpinned by Industrialisation and by Empire, buoying up a liberal, Whig narrative centred on Westminster politics and Protestant reforms that could conceive of no coming crisis. It was not a primary beneficiary of the Romanticism around which cultural identities in Scotland, Wales and Ireland coalesced as they became even more ingrained with narratives of long-borne resistance against and difference from an overlord. Ironically, this overlord was in turn was willing to indulge in many of those narratives. When the likes of Cecil Sharpe started to assiduously document English folk custom in the 1890s- notably reviving the then moribund practice of Morris Dancing after having witnessed a rare performance at Headington Quarry, Oxfordshire, in 1899- it was too late to crystallise definitive notions and signifiers of Englishness. The Scots had their tartan and ceilidhs and the Welsh had their language and singing. The English had Morris Dancing and a fuzzy, imperceptibly vague sense of attachment to the countryside, neither of which resonated effectively and widely with the urban classes and liberal industrialists.
Supplementary to that, the Scots and the Irish emigrated in droves, often in response to tragedy, disaster and tyranny, to the New World, and even there had to continue in their struggle for respectability and integration into the mainstream. ‘No Irish Need Apply’ warned the notorious job advertisements. The wide diaspora and the marginalisation felt wherever they went strengthened the affinity amongst especially the Irish for their cultural roots and for reaffirming their identity in opposition to their oppressors. This fed back into an international yet singular cultural experience for those who stayed behind in their homeland. The English, with less reason to leave and more immediate success when they did; did not develop the same cultural connections amongst themselves.
Fast-forward to the post-Industrial age, and this fractured sense of Englishness, bereft of unifying and easily transferrable and inclusive cultural signifiers such as a tartan or a language distinct from the national tongue has culminated in confusion and insecurity. The English find themselves with one foot in a mythic past that they cannot fully articulate. Is it rural? Is it Christian? Is it liberal? Is it white? How does it differ from Britishness? Their other foot is in the reality in which globalisation, atomisation and postcolonialism calls for a firm and progressive cultural response that nebulous Englishness just cannot muster. The child of immigrants to Glasgow will learn to ceilidh at school. He or she on the Lleyn Peninsular would be exposed to Welsh. There would be no need to be inherently anything or forgo any private practice in order to conform to the cultural norm.
How different it is in England, where Englishness may or may not depend on the colour of your skin and the deity to whom you pray. It all depends on the politics of the people you ask and how reactionary their instincts are.
So then came the EU referendum. It was an English affair driven by an English Tory Party, and England voted accordingly. The thirty constituencies in which the most people identified as ‘English’ all voted to leave, as did the Unionist parts of Ulster that identify strongly with the English-cum-Britishness of the nineteenth century and the heavily Anglicised parts of Wales that have been largely co-opted into a hegemony of cultural choas. On the other hand, Welsh-speaking Wales, nationalist Ireland and all of Scotland (which fared so well from Romanticism) voted to Remain. They were not scared of Europe, of internationalism, like the English were: they have endured cultural conflicts for centuries and had built bulwarks against it. They fear more a return to unquestioned English cultural dominance. They know who they are. In the face of real cultural challenge of globalisation, the English response was to erect harsh and political barriers.
Of course, areas of this broad narrative are far more complex than article can convey. Cultural struggles in Ireland in particular have hosted more mutual antagonism than words can perhaps describe. However, the fundamental truth remains: if your culture has never had to protectively define itself, then beware of a sharp jolt and potentially unpleasant political ‘solutions’ when a powerful test arises. The English and their Brexit will know that all too well this St George’s Day.