Englishness – final part: solutions.
The images below show residential quarters of three small British towns. It is possible to identify where they were taken?
The first image comes from northern Scotland, not far from Inverness; the second from southern East Anglia, and the third from East Devon. The straight-line distance between the first and the other two is about 460 miles each, while the second and third are about 200 miles apart.
But in many ways, they could almost be parts of the same place. Apart from some climate-related differences, there is really little to separate them – and in a way, I believe this is a profound expression of the identity crisis within Britain, England in particular.
As I discussed previously, Englishness is an elusive concept. While the Scots, Welsh and Irish have, if anything strengthened the celebrations of their national days in recent years, St George’s Day remains a Cinderella – or an embarrassment. There are many reasons for this, and the British are not the only nation to fight shy of such overt patriotism – but as anyone who has experienced national days in France or even reserved Switzerland will know, they can have a powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and ‘belonging’. People celebrate them because they choose to, not because they’re told to.
The purpose of the three images is to illustrate how little regard we have in this country for regional differences. It is true that the pictures were intentionally selected to show this; the more historic parts of the three towns do look rather different. But given how important ‘home’ is to people’s sense of identity, it is perhaps concerning that for a hundred years or more, we have increasingly expunged localness from people’s dwelling-places. And what we have replaced it with largely lacks character of any sort at all.
We don’t seem to be making much headway either: while more recent builds sometimes incorporate nods to local vernacular, they are rarely little more than stick-on additions to developers’ standard products. And the quality is so poor! The build and environment of the average British residential area more closely resembles what I have seen in some former eastern-bloc countries than most of our western European neighbours.
Such things might not seem the most obvious place to start when addressing a crisis of national identity – but a moment’s thought might show that the places where people live – where they most closely identify with – might be precisely the place to start. If we are to address this perceived deficiency, then no amount of flag-waving ceremonial can achieve the same impact as attending to the basics of ordinary ‘lived lives’.
We need to address the fact that the traditional nation-state may no longer be the most appropriate model for identity-loyalty. In fact, it may never have been. Prior to the nineteenth century, most communities had a much more local sense of themselves; before the coming of the railways, neither time nor currency was fully standardised.
What happened since may be seen as “progress”, but there is no guarantee that people’s fundamental psychological needs have kept up – particularly for those who have least access horizon-broadening education and travel, and the ability to benefit from it. (Even where I live, a mere 45 miles from London, there are still people who see those from the next village, three miles away, as ‘other’; it is easily done…)
The nation-state is arguably the product of a past era, whose purpose was not to serve its citizens, but to compete externally with other nation-states. To that end, it was necessary to construct a common sense of purpose and commitment within the population-workforce. That was particularly effectively done in the UK due to its hierarchical social structures, strong ruling class and the state’s longevity. History speaks for itself.
But the fact that we have these top-down national structures is no guarantee of the depth to which they really penetrate into people’s real identities. Identity is primarily a matter of personal experience; it is not really something that can be commanded. In the modern era, a more widely educated population has started to see nationalism for the construct that it is; groups of all kinds are demanding the right to define their own identities.
At a more local level, nationwide policies have eroded the local distinctiveness that perhaps resonates more fully with people in terms of their personal identity. The fact that one is almost obliged live in bland, identical houses the length of this nation – ones that show no respect whatsoever to the physical or cultural environments in which they are situated – can be seen as an important expression of that erasure.
A significant defining difference between the UK and much of the rest of Europe was the experience of 1939-45. The nations currently with the most stable social settlements seem largely to be those which were forced to re-build from the ground up in the post-war period. They had every incentive to create structures and mindsets that would not lead them back to their past – including the EU; they seem to have very largely succeeded.
In the UK, by comparison, the experience of “winning” the War led to the further entrenching of dated attitudes and structures that have become increasingly unfit for modern purpose. One of those was the enduring strength of the centralised nation-state. Other countries that tended in a similar way, for example France and Italy, have increasingly been forced to acknowledge that regionalism is necessary to accommodate popular demand.
But in the UK, the trend has been in precisely the opposite direction. There was no incentive to do otherwise while the nation’s entire structure was predicated on social hierarchy and the preservation of the elite classes. One of the reasons that the houses in those photographs are so dismal is that the living conditions of the “ordinary people” have simply not been seen as sufficiently important in the corridors of power for anyone to do much about it.
The same could be said for almost any aspect of this nation; this has led to the gross socioeconomic polarisation that we see today – and which in turn undoubtedly fed the disaffection that ironically caused much of the population to turn against an EU whose nearer member-states arguably represent models that could help us to solve some of these problems. It certainly applied to education – the want of which (in an intellectual as opposed to functional sense) also fed Brexit because much of the population was neither sufficiently engaged nor equipped to make the complex decision with which it was presented.
So it may be that we need to go “backward to the future”. The crisis in identity is in large part based in the fact that the one we already have was built for an earlier era, one where authoritarian imposition was sufficient to make people “buy in”. That identity – and almost all of the cultural icons that came to represent it – were based overwhelmingly on class hierarchy rather than anything more universal. The elite called all the shots; the middle tried to conform – and the rest were left to define themselves with the scant pickings that were left. It was based on competition for privilege, and top-down control, rather than genuine collaboration in a shared identity.
This mindset is still far more dominant in the British psyche today than many realise. Almost all aspects of British society and culture still hinge on social signalling and competitiveness, rather than any common sense of identity (the only sharing is within our internal tribes). What we eat, wear, inhabit or drive are more signals of social status than anything else. Any glance through the Sunday supplements will reveal endless role-models for status-seeking. All that has changed – if anything – is that money and material goods have come to assume a more visible aspect of that labelling, while ephemeral cultural goods such as art, literature and civic duty have declined.
In the process, people’s more instinctive identities, focused on much smaller areas, were overridden. The construction of identikit mass housing the length of the nation from the nineteenth century on was just one particularly visible example – superficially unifying, but only in an impoverished sense – and to an identity that they did not necessarily embrace.
In general, the concerns of government have not been the practical emancipation of the general populace. The Right has increasingly bulwarked the existing hierarchy, while the Left has mostly sought to replace one elite with another. What is really needed is for the concept of social elitism to be dispensed with altogether. This might seem naively idealistic – yet it is my repeated and persistent impression that social competition and exclusivity is simply a much less significant feature of society in places such as The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. It is not that they reject it: they don’t need to. It barely even figures. An acquaintance who moved to France with relatively little knowledge of that country recently observed to me how much more genuinely egalitarian it is than the UK – and despite the glorious revolution, France is hardly the best example. The need to climb the ladder is inversely proportional to conditions at its foot; it is those that have never been paid sufficient attention to in Britain.
By removing competitive elitism, the matter of individual and group identities can shift to being something more genuinely universal and inclusive. This is why, I believe, we get such as strong sense of collective culture and ‘identity’ when we visit countries where that is the case: their cultural capital of all sorts – both high and low – is not fragmented by class, but is “owned” by a much wider section of the populace. Food, art, fashion, décor, music and more are simply less obviously a matter of monopolisation by a small elite. That is not to say it doesn’t exist – think BCBG signalling in Paris for example – but it is not particularly socially-exclusive to go to the opera in Italy – because opera is “owned” by nearly everyone. Even in the world of fashion, designer clothing is more often sold on its quality and style; less-often on its “exclusivity”. Scandinavian countries, of course, take equality several stages further. And as a result, you also rarely see the inverse-snobbery of bling and chavism where extreme (or inverted) social climbing attempts to misappropriate things perceived to be outside its natural territory.
So the key to curing England’s identity crisis is, ironically to do “less England”. Given that so much of its traditional identity is saturated with the issues discussed above, we need to find a different basis on which to build. The most obvious thing to use is regionalism. Everyone has to live somewhere, and without recourse to gated communities, places are difficult to make exclusive. Places are generally things experienced (“cognitively owned”) by all. It could be made a lot more so if land ownership were not so overwhelmingly private… In effect, we need to break England up into its constituent regions – not only in an administrative and economic sense – but in a cultural one too – and give them to their people.
Baden-Württemberg in Germany is a land about 150 miles by 100; Bavaria is somewhat larger at about 200 by 150. But both are not radically different in size from the standard economic regions which already exist in Britain. (Scotland by area may already be too large as a single unit). The difference with länder in Germany, cantons in Switzerland, regions in Italy and France is that those all have a cultural and geographic identity as opposed to a purely administrative one, as is the low-key British norm. It is not a panacea: there are internal tensions, for example, between Baden and Württemberg and between Swiss cantons (not to mention the Belgian provinces…) – but it is also interesting that there was significant outcry in France at the recent re-consolidation of smaller-sized regions into larger blocs.
The question is how to do this – but the answer is not as difficult as it might seem; again we can take ideas from other countries. Those standard regions – or something like them – need to be explicitly identified and named in the public consciousness in a way that they currently are not. They need to be given their own regional governments and state capitals. They need to be given flags, signage – and perhaps even anthems. They need to have the power to vary local laws and taxes; to exert control over matters like planning and environmental protection. They need to be able to champion their distinctiveness in matters such as food, history, accents, customs, landscape, economy, architecture and transport. This last is significant: a way of binding a region is through creating the perception of regional integration. It works on the railways in some areas, such as Scotrail and Greater Anglia – but they need to strengthen the regional emphasis. These regions need to be given meaningful budgets in order to promote these things. They then need to send representatives to London.
It would all feel rather artificial at first, of course. There would no doubt be huge scepticism. But a concerted programme of gentle, benign state-building over a period of decades would start to change this – assisted by the generational churn. And over time, I believe people would start to acquire meaningful identities based on places rather than social status. Rivalries would probably emerge – as to some extent already exist – but that would probably be a good thing, so long as they were gentle. Existing identities in some parts of the country could be used as a basis – but they would need to shift from the rather defensive semi-defiance of today into something more wholly positive.
As this became established, people would start to feel pride and security in those identities; they would “own” the iconography that went with them in a more authentic, less defensive way than now – and they might hopefully perceive those who chose to migrate to their regions as welcome arrivals in a shared enterprise that was strong enough to assimilate them.
In the long run, I think this would also shift British perceptions of the rest of Europe too – not only because that is where many of those migrants might come from – but because we would feel that we could engage with the rest on a much more equal, proactive footing. It is worth noting that German länder retain direct representation at the EU in Brussels. On the fourth flag pole, along with the regional national and union flag, could fly the gold-stars-on-blue: something else that has never routinely happened in this country. At that stage, we might finally be ready to re-join.
But whether a nation that seems so culturally atrophied at all levels that it is terrified of voting for any change at all will ever manage to enact this, is a question of an entirely different magnitude.