England and Britain
English identity has been problematic, and England has been at least partially immersed in Britain, the UK and the descriptor ‘British’. The terms English and England have not always been so ‘shy’. In many contexts, these terms are commonplace and prominent. It is the name of a global language. It has certainly survived as a cultural term both in the sense of everyday ways of living and the sense of ‘superior’ cultural products—painting, literature and music. In Crick’s observation, ‘we talk of British parliamentary institutions but English literature’ (Crick 1995: 174). Hence we find references to English schools of art, music and the landscape, and the English landscape has a prominent place in the ‘idea of England’ (Taylor 1991; Lowenthal 1991). This is yet another example of Anthony Smith’s (1991) insistence that nations have a history and a geography, a host of memories and their memorials, and characteristic places and scenes: what he referred to inter alia as ‘flags, anthems, parades, coinage, capital cities, war memorials’ (Smith 1991: 77). Some of our reminders of the nation are what Billig (1995) has described as ‘banal’ and are found in an unremarkable way in our daily lives.
A distinction between the term English as cultural and British as civic or political, with Englishness representing a ‘way of life’ and Britain representing the state and citizenship, has been made by seasoned observers like Miller (1995) and Crick (1995). Crick argues that the idea of the English gentleman has not only suffused English social life and that of Britain but has also been a cultural export. It has been a significant part of the way the English-British people have been viewed from abroad. In all these senses we have no difficulty in knowing what English means. There is too a form of Englishness which does have a genuine political meaning and which is represented historically by critics of empire, especially in the later decades of the nineteenth century. This view was voiced by those, often described as Little Englanders (Bryant 2006: 188), who saw the empire as a dangerous and costly foreign adventure with too few rewards. The effort put into empire was seen to be at the expense of domestic growth and prosperity.
England was then a category called up in political debate as described by Sullivan (1983) in her account of the anti-imperial debate. The liberals who opposed empire did so because it was disadvantageous to England, and they spoke in those terms. As Sullivan writes (p. 602),
The liberals saw the colonies as such a disadvantage to England that they
were bound to question why they were maintained at all.
It was England’s empire, and the debate among Bentham, Mill and nineteenth-century liberals was to test whether it was a burden or benefit. This same period was a high point in the utterly unquestioned acceptance, among writers and political figures, of the language of race (Lorimer 1978; Christine Bolt 1971), and hence the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race often stood as a synonym for the English. John Stuart Mill, for instance, wrote unreservedly about civilised and uncivilised races, and none were more civilised, and steeped in the traditions of liberty, than the Anglo-Saxons (Varouxakis 1998). But the entity England and the term English were, in the enthusiasm for empire, enfolded within and partly submerged by the terms Britain and British. Through political integration within the Isles and the spread of empire, the people of Britain became Britons, and nowhere more so than in distinguishing themselves from their political— and religious—‘others’ in continental Europe (Colley 1992). How much this newly encouraged Britishness was a strong new identity or merely a thin veneer above the much older identities subsumed within it we can now, perhaps, begin to see.
The UK thus contained ‘English’ as well as Scottish and Welsh; it had contained Ireland, but when what was to become the (Republic of) Ireland became independent, the proper name for the whole became the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is the part excluding the last three words which can properly be described as British, although it is more widely used. In this situation the terms Welsh and Scottish were relatively unproblematic. Unlike the case of England, in the case of Scotland and Wales (and Ireland/Northern Ireland), it was never possible to take the part for the whole. But the multinational UK was, as Kumar describes, a political union which was in very great measure a project of the English (see previous discussion). This preceded its ‘external’ empire in India, Africa and the New World. And England being the major part, containing the capital London and (today) 85 % of the population of the whole, mistaking the part for the whole was commonly done, certainly in the everyday speech of English people, by foreigners, and even, as Crick points out, by learned historians. He points to a commentary on England’s ‘character and people’ where ‘the coastline has helped to shape... the history of the English nation’, and the decisive factor has been that ‘Britain is an island’ (Crick 1995: 170; Abell et al. 2006). This effortless shift from England to Britain and English to British has been a feature of this double identity in the mental frame of the English, and it remains so.
It was this ‘commanding’ position within the UK that played a part in the partial obscuring of England and English. For, as Kumar (2003) argues, the most populous and powerful country would have been ill advised to push their national claims. This would have disturbed the peace of this uneven union. In any case, England and the English had no cause to do so. Politically in the internal politics of the UK there was nothing to be English about, except that England and Englishness remained partially hidden or at least subsumed within Britishness itself. This continued to be the case until relatively recently, as we shall see: English identities could be expressed culturally, in sporting contests or in everyday talk, but rarely in a national or political sense. Thus English identity has been seen as suppressed or invisible or absent. But as Wellings (2012) astutely argues, English identity had not been submerged but simply merged— with Britishness. The confusion in everyday discourse, and sometimes beyond, between English and British was not just a matter of faulty understanding, arrogance or a common mistake but reflected an institutional blurring and blending. Indeed, Wellings (2012) would go further than this and argue that English nationalism was expressed through the defence of Britain, in particular, latterly against the ‘encroachments’ of the European Union. The liberties and institutions which were defended in the protection of Britishness were also English liberties and institutions. This conception of England-in-Britain or England-as-Britain is close to what Bryant (2006) calls Anglo-Britishness (on this, see also Chap. 5). Before turning to the political expression of English and British identities, let us first say more about the question of this partially submerged English consciousness.