Tim Lott: I'm proud of my country – the land of Blake, Dickens, Orwell, and Ian Dury
Saturday, 28 January 2012
I have a white friend from a working-class background who would prefer to wave the St George's Cross than the Union Flag, who strongly supports Scottish independence and who is passionate in declaring his patriotism as specifically English, rather than generally British.
Is he an English Defence League member, a supporter of Ukip, a skinhead thug or simply a Tory? None of the above. In fact, he has never voted anything but Labour. He believes in secularism and the multicultural society. He is a lifelong republican and values literature and the arts.
He is, in fact, not my friend at all. Not because I find his views offensive, but because he is me. For I suffer from the love that dares not speak its name – at least among polite left-liberal society. I love the English people, because I am from England made. I do not love Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland, though I hold nothing against them. I identify with the ancient nation of Shakespeare and Dickens and Orwell and, for that matter, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Specials, Zadie Smith and Steve McQueen. I draw my sense of self from the historical and present fact of England, not the political construction that is the United Kingdom.
I am not alone in this identification – 40 per cent of those polled in a new survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research this week sees Englishness as more important to them than Britishness; just 16 per cent takes the opposite view. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond argued in his Hugo Young lecture that Scottish independence would benefit England, allowing a revival of a sense of nationhood south of the border.
The IPPR survey comes as no surprise. I think my longing to enjoy a guilt-free sense of positive belonging to my own country is a sentiment whose time has come. This kind of thinking makes many of the left-liberal axis nervous, even though many great radical movements, among them Chartism, Methodism and early feminism, all grew out of specifically English traditions. But the left will have to face a fundamental human truth. We all ache to fuse ourselves with something above and beyond us, which we can take pride in and draw a sense of self-respect from, and that something for most of us, either avowedly or subliminally, is the nation we belong to.
The play Jerusalem, which had people queuing overnight for tickets, speaks loudly to this impulse – the sense of a "real" England, somewhat anarchic, dangerous, connected spiritually with the land. You can link it with Shakespeare's "blessed plot", Blake's "Jerusalem", Orwell's nation of fundamentally gentle tea-loving people with bad teeth, Larkin's melancholic northern towns. It is not right wing or left wing – it is an ancient feeling of belonging to an ancient land and its deeply rooted cultures and customs. This is not about Morris dancing and horse brasses. It is a deep, barely describable sense of a particular way of being.
If we take the decision that we are English and we are proud, instead of British and shamefaced, then what are we to love? We suffer poverty and inequality, racism, social disruption and much besides. All those problems likewise assail Scotland, plus a nasty dose of sectarianism, but they did not stand in the way of a Burns night party I attended this week which was enormous fun, and a specific, joyous celebration of a particular country. How I would love a Larkin night, or a Shakespeare night. But it is not in our tradition. Is colonial guilt the barrier? Plenty of nations, including the US, France and Spain, manage to take a pride in who they are without indulging in that particular historio-cultural cringe.
Once you subtract any political /historical/ military/scientific "pride" – which is more the ambit of the right wing, such as Wellington, Churchill, Brunel, Stephenson, Drake, kings and queens, Nelson and so on – I think what's left over is the England that I, at least, can take pride in. This residue encompasses a nation of extraordinary and disproportionate creative and radical intelligence. And, crucially, this is not "just" history, rooted in Victoriana and the Empire. It persists today and flourishes more than ever.
I am thinking of the endless roll call of great English cultural figures, many from the grassroots rather than the glittering spires. Richard Thompson and the scores of brilliant English folk musicians. A Harold Pinter play, a Mike Leigh film, a Kinks record, a Tony Harrison poem, a David Hockney painting. This tiny nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the mighty United States in our world-class contributions to the arts.
We on the left are conditioned not to see these achievements in the foreground. They appear as background fuzz. We see only pomp and circumstance. This is not my England; this is an England imposed by Tory romantics, who have had an open field in the face of liberal hesitation. Quite apart from its large-scale creativity, the real England is a grassroots mindset – one that sticks its finger up at the world (now most perversely apparent in so-called "chavs", once the proud and bloody-minded English working class). It is a mindset that is indignant and individual and honest and satirical and transcends northernness or southernness. It is non-sectarian. It is creative and vibrant and untamed.
If we can cut free from the constitutional absurdity and unfairness of Scotland – how it irks me that English children have to pay university tuition fees there, but not EU citizens; how I resent their free prescriptions and their cynical MPs' votes on English affairs – all we need to do is to re-imagine ourselves to become great again, but great in a different way from before.
We could inflect the design of the St George's Cross to reclaim it from Tory England. We could make Blake's "Jerusalem" the national anthem and place Ian Dury's remains in Poets' Corner. We could build a George Orwell memorial garden in front of Buckingham Palace.
I am aware that all these figures are white, but a new Englishness, while embracing wholeheartedly the multicultural society, would not be about "equal representation" for all ethnicities and cultures. It is about something more subtle that all are finally subsumed in and accommodated by. Then, at last, we could make a start of turning this most imaginative and clever and individualistic and inclusive and artistic and rebellious country into a place for all to embrace and no longer recoil from. We would no longer be arrogant, insecure, alone and backward-looking.
Britain would be gone, and we would be England, new again. We would be good, not Great, and proud, not ashamed or indifferent. Most importantly of all, that pride would be here and now and alive, no longer echoed through the distorting chambers of the past.
Tim Lott's new novel, 'Under the Same Stars', is published by Simon and Schuster on 1 April