Teatime and Robin Hood: English Identity Crisis

As devolution nears for United Kingdom, some English wonder, 'Who are we?'

A troubling theory is circulating in England's Sherwood Forest: Robin Hood may have been a Scot.

The suggestion that the green-clad bandit who robbed the rich to help the poor actually wore a kilt and spoke with a north-of-the-border burr, seems calculated to deepen what is already beginning to look like an English identity crisis.

While nationalistic Scots and Welsh impatiently wait to vote next year to elect their own parliaments under the Blair government's policy of devolution, English men and women have begun to believe that they too will soon need a separate legislature.

Launching a separate English parliament would pose quite a problem for constitutionalists, however. There is already a Parliament at Westminster, in London, and it has represented the entire United Kingdom for more than 200 years.

Nevertheless, an organization calling itself Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP) was launched Oct. 5. Its aim is "to help restore confidence and self-respect to the people of England."

With his theories about Robin Hood, Stephen Knight, professor of English literature at the University of Wales, is doing little to restore either.

He suggests that centuries ago the people of Nottinghamshire, where Sherwood Forest is located, modeled their mythic hero on William Wallace, the Scots patriot whose deeds were celebrated in the film "Braveheart."

"It looks as though they took a Scottish story and adapted it," Professor Knight claims. "Robin Hood was probably Rabbie Hood."

Knight says he is "comfortable with the idea of destabilizing an English myth." The inhabitants of "Merrie England" aren't comfortable at all.

For quite a while there's been a growing feeling south of the Scottish border that it's time the English began stamping their feet and asserting their own national identity.

Three years ago Christopher Nickerson, a London architect, launched the English National Party (ENP). Establishing separate legislatures in Edinburgh and Cardiff, he said, would put England in "a highly compromised position." Mr. Nickerson forecast that "a few years from now, we in England will go it alone, with our own parliament."

At the time, he sounded like a voice crying in the wilderness. Even today he admits the ENP has "only a modest membership." But the CEP appears to have better prospects. It is already beginning to bend important political ears, previously deaf to the need CEP chairman Tony Linsell dropped in on the annual Conservative and Labour Party conferences in October and lobbied party leaders and local delegates. He says he found "a growing understanding" that parliaments in Scotland and Wales, and a legislative assembly in Northern Ireland, will leave England "without a voice."

After hearing Mr. Linsell's views, opposition Conservative leader William Hague told party delegates they should "consider the case for an English parliament."

At first glance, signs of insecurity on the part of the English seem odd. England has about four-fifths of the United Kingdom's population and accounts for 85 percent of its economy.

Occasionally an English member of Parliament will prompt charges of arrogance by speaking of "England" when in fact he or she means the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. These days any such blunder is certain to be howled down by Scots or Welsh members of the House of Commons who know all about the difference.

And there's another puzzle. Alleged English arrogance doesn't seem to fit with another perceived national characteristic: a strong (and legendary) tendency toward understatement and self-deprecation. The English simply don't like to advertise themselves.

Novelist A.S. Byatt, asked to edit The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, says she consulted the index of a collection of essays on British culture. She found 55 references to the Scots, 28 to the Irish, 27 to the Welsh, and only three to the English.

Part of the problem, according to Jeremy Paxman, author of "The English," is that the people of England have curious ideas about their own identity. Whereas Scots and Welsh tend to be clear on who and what they are, Mr. Paxman says the English are nostalgic about "living in an Arcadia that does not really exist."

The imagined English Arcadia, he argues, consists of huge tracts of countryside dotted with idyllic villages where ancient ladies, after taking tea at the vicarage, pedal their bicycles down country lanes while gnarled yokels lean on farm gates, nibbling pieces of straw. In reality, Paxman notes, only 2 percent of English people are engaged in farming, and England is the most urbanized nation in Europe.

DO you allow the UK to unglue itself, and leave the English, Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish to run their own parliamentary shows? Or do you keep a diminished Westminster Parliament and a truncated central government in London, and give the constituent parts of the old UK the right to run strictly national affairs? Suddenly, in an era of political devolution such questions are no longer hypothetical.

Veteran Labour member of Parliament Tam Dalyell (himself a Scot) notes that once Scotland and Wales have fully devolved parliaments of their own, plus the right to continue to send MPs to Westminster, the English will be at a severe disadvantage.

"It will mean Scots and Welsh MPs being able to vote on financial matters affecting England," Dalyell points out, "without English MPs being able to vote on financial matters affecting Scotland and Wales."

That, in essence, is what is beginning to dawn on English people not quite sure who they really are, and perhaps for too long used to believing that England and Britain are one and the same thing.

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