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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Pondering nationality ...

For someone brought up believing himself to be "British" with a distinctly "English" set of roots, getting to grips with the actuality was quite an eye-opener once I moved to live in the UK. One very quickly became aware of the very clear lines and divisions of "class," though these are sometimes blurred, there are some very distinct "rules" one has to figure out. There are a lot of further sub-classes as well, one may belong to a "professional" group, yet be an outsider because you don't share the right school or perhaps the right social background with the power broker group who form the inner circle of such organisations. That is difficult enough to cope with, but then come the regional and local differences.

Outsiders tend to think of "England" as the whole of "mainland" Britain, which is the real name for the Island shared by the three nations, English, Welsh and Scottish. Not unnaturally, that rather annoys the Scots and the Welsh, particularly when "national" politicians do it from their ivory tower in Westminster. In the same way, living in London provides a microcosm of the larger problem - ask someone where they live in "London" and they will usually name the Borough, Hamlet, town or city they live in within the "Greater London" area. "London" is in fact the rather small "City" bound by the Tower of London, the Barbican and Blackfriars, an ancient and autonomous City whose wealth is founded in Trusts, Foundations and other archaic investments stretching back to the Saxon Kings. The "Greater London" area is made up of some 33 cities, boroughs, towns and hamlets. Then there is a further division - those who live "North of the River" and those who live "South of the Thames." It is, almost, a case of two totally separate cities.

Moving outside of London, again you find divisions and differences, initially, not so marked as the "Home Counties" tend to be dormitories for the Greater London conurbation, but was one moves further out, you do start to see different behaviours, architecture and attitudes. For the outsider, the most striking thing, is that in these thirteen counties (I include Middlesex, one of the most ancient but which has now vanished in all but name, swallowed by the beast that is Greater London) that one is most likely to hear someone describe themselves as "Englishmen." The further you go outside of this area the more likely you are to hear the assertion that someone is a "Brummigen" or a "Manchurian" or a Yorkshireman, a Geordie or any one of the many County or regional names. Even within these there are divisions. For instance, living in Gloucestershire (One of the smallest counties) those from South were very clear about it and those from the North the same. Quite where the distinction lay, I'm not sure, you can drive from north to south in under an hour. One thing to be clear on though, both north Gloucestershiremen and their southern brothers would get very annoyed if you suggested they were "Foresters." THough it is part of Gloucestershire (Sandwiched between Herefordshire and Wales) the Forest of Dean is considered to be a breed apart by everyone else!

As an ex-Minister once remarked, to the fury of the cognoscenti and other politicians, "What is an Englishman?" To be sure, I am no longer sure I know either. The definition I was taught was that it was someone born within the borders that separate England from Scotland and England from Wales or whose parentage came from within those borders. That is certainly how a Scotsman or a Welshman defines his "nationality," but not, apparently, the English. And perhaps this is the current problem the "English" face.

Politicians have, for years, encouraged these divisions. The population has never been a particularly mobile one - in the early years I lived on the "Sceptered Isle," I encountered people who had never been more than 10 miles from their birthplace and would no more contemplate moving to a new town or city in search of work, than they would consider moving to a different country or venturing to the moon. Though that has changed a little, it is still a very static population and that is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because they have a very powerful sense of 'place' but it is a weakness because it means that as industries have changed, closed or moved, the 'workers' have been left stranded - drawing benefits at everyone else's expense. Throw in a vast number of immigrants from an entirely different cultural background and the "English" culture is very quickly lost, submerged or pushed to the margins.

The discussions about Scottish Independence have provoked me into looking at what the differences are between North and South of Britain and it does seem to come down to the concept of "nationality." The Scots are almost as divided between "Lowland" and "Highland" (and a few others) as the English, yet they have a very clear sense of being "Scottish" no matter where they come from. The English seem to have lost this almost entirely. Certainly for years I was taught to think of myself as "British" which probably accurately describes my genetic make-up, but it doesn't really describe my nationality. I am a citizen of the "United Kingdom" but that isn't a nation, it's a political unit. My father's family roots are in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, we have little connection with anyone north of that until you find some Scottish links about 300 years back. Even with my maternal grandfather's family being Irish, all this really does is prove that we are a typically "British" family.

Though we think of ourselves as being "English" we are in fact clearly a mixture of all four "nations" and I think this is one reason why so many "English" people prefer to think of being "British." The sad thing is that this "mix" applies to the Welsh and Scottish as much as it does to the English, yet don't suggest either call themselves "British" or ask them to be proud of it.

To a very large extent this is the fault of generations of politicians. Those based in Westminster/Whitehall/Home Counties have never regarded anything outside of their interests and that small area as being of any importance. It was long my complaint that Whitehall in particular never looked outside of London when trying to address a "national" issue. "What does 'London' need? OK, that's what everyone gets." Not unnaturally, that has annoyed everyone outside Greater London and has led to enormous problems in some instances. It has also isolated communities and fostered a prejudice toward anything from 'London' or the 'Home Counties' in may people's eyes.

Funnily enough, the parallel between this fragmentation of the "English" and their forefathers, the Romano-British folk who were held together by the Roman Legions, is rather striking. As Rome's grip on reality weakened, the British Tribal Chiefs reasserted themselves and as soon as Rome withdrew, the civilisation Rome had imposed was rather quickly brushed aside by immigrants (the Angles and the Saxons) while the tribes squabbled ...

Sadly, unless someone can convince the "English" that there is (a) such a thing as an "English Nation" (And I don't mean the BNP vision!) and (b) that it is worth standing up for ... There is unlikely to be one in the not too distant future. Not a recognisably "English" one anyway.    

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