In a 'green and pleasant land,' English nationalism stirs
LONDON — It was only a slip of the tongue, but it invited instant ridicule.
When a German official welcomed English World Cup fans to Stuttgart last weekend with the words "Hello, United Kingdom," the crowd let out a collective groan.
Some were quick to yell out, in rather rudeterms, that the team playing was England, not the UK. Others merely shrugged it off. After all, people have been confusing England, Britain, and the UK for centuries.
That may be about to change. For decades if not longer, the English have been quite content to think of themselves as British, the leading partners in a union first formed 300 years ago and cemented into the United Kingdom in 1800.
But now it seems that a dormant English nationalism may be astir.
England's steady progress at the World Cup has generated a buzz of pride in a nation that hardly exists any more. Fans have flocked to Germany in unprecedented numbers. As England heads into its quarterfinal match with Portugal Saturday, the country is awash with English red-and-white St. George flags – draped from windows, painted on faces, flapping atop cars and vans, pinned up in the windows of launderettes and chicken-n-rib joints, even lording it over Downing Street. But this phenomenon, some suggest, may be more than a quadrennial rallying for success on the soccer pitch.
"These aren't just football [soccer] fans driving around with their St. George flags," enthuses Edmund Whitehouse, assistant editor at This England, a quaint quarterly publication that claims to be 'an ambassador for everything English.' "We have had a reawakening of what our nation is all about." In his eyes, that includes family values, Christian values, tolerance, free speech, common sense – "everything that is good about England."
England is essentially Europe's largest stateless nation – 50 million people with no parliament and few national emblems. While much has been done to help minorities in Britain express their cultures, the English have largely felt awkward celebrating theirs.
George Orwell noticed it 70 years ago when he wrote that "England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality." As a result, while British nationalism has flourished in certain regions at certain times, the English have meandered to a point where they have only the vaguest sense of nationhood.
There is no national dress, no national song. (The English footballers must sing the British anthem before matches.) The national day, April 23 – named for the patron saint of England, St. George – is an utter non-event compared with July 4 in the US, March 17 in Ireland, and July 14 in France. A decade ago, a World Cup run would have been feted with British Union jacks, not St. George flags.
But there is evidence of a change in attitudes. Research into 'Britishness' by the publicly-funded Commission for Racial Equality last fall found that white English people overwhelmingly perceived themselves to be English first and British second.
And a recent row about England's constitutional position within the UK revealed further strong sentiment in support of English political rights. The devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has given both their own parliaments and governments that rule on local matters.
English nationalists argue that this is constitutionally unfair: Dozens of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs sit in the British parliament – some even in the cabinet – making decisions about England. (The next British prime minister may even be a Scot if, as many expect, Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair.) English MPs do not have the same say over affairs in Scotland and Wales.
A recent survey found that 23 percent of people wanted a separate parliament for England and 43 percent believed only English MPs should be allowed to vote on English issues in parliament.
"England must have its parliament returned to it," says Steven Uncles, who was standing as a candidate for the British parliament in a by-election on Thursday for a small party, the English Democrats. "Ten years ago, I was happy to be British really. But ever since Scotland and Wales got devolution, I want England to have the same."
(For those still confused, Britain includes Scotland, Wales, and England; the UK includes Britain plus Northern Ireland.)
Mr. Uncles says that Englishness "got somewhat lost while we were being Great Britain" and calls for a revival of traditional values: "fair play, decency, being part of a society where you contribute.
"To love your country is a natural thing; to act as if you want to be embarrassed about it, especially when it has done so many good things in the world, is wrong," he adds.
This leads to another favorite gripe of English nationalists: that the state encourages minorities to celebrate their culture but frowns on the majority English population cherishing its own culture.
Robin Tilbrook, who helped found English Democrats four years ago, criticized a decision by London authorities to spend £100,000 ($1,827) on a St. Patrick's Day parade because, he says, not enough was done to mark St. George's Day. "There is an element of official discouragement there, a degree of political correctness."
But when it comes to speaking about who they represent, English nationalists are less coherent. The England football team is supported by immigrants and second- and third-generation immigrants as well as the indigenous people. So who are the English?
Mr. Tilbrook says his party agitates for anyone living in England. His notion of Englishness is akin to American notions of "Americanness" – that you can be from any ethnic background and still wrap yourself in the flag. Others aren't so sure. The Commission for Racial Equality survey found that immigrants from Asia and the West Indies did not identify themselves as English, which they took to mean indigenous white people.
Whitehouse tends to agree. His magazine laments the demise of the "green and pleasant land" echoed in English literature and art through the ages, and harks back to an almost mythical golden age of deference, village cricket, cucumber sandwiches, and stiff upper lips. It's a landscape familiar to older English generations, but not necessarily to newcomers.
"The new people coming in don't have the same experiences as the English," he says. In fact, there are far more readers of his magazine in far-flung corners of the old empire, in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, than among British immigrants. "In some ways these expatriates are more English than the English."
The new English nationalists are still a small movement. This England boasts a circulationof only 150,000. The English Democrats secured around 130,000 votes at the 2004 European elections. If England loses to Portugal Saturday, a lot of the St. George flags may disappear. But questions of who the English are, who should govern them, will not.