Plan of page
- No Middle Way
- The Meaning of Englishness
- National Identity
- A new Constitution for all of the United Kingdom
This is a paper by Prof Stephen Bush based on an Address to the Schools’ Industrial Liaison Committee at Oundle School in May 1990. It was later published by Prosyma Research Ltd as part of a series on Britain’s Future “Independence or Extinction” in the same year (ISBN 0 9517475 1 7).
To read the text, click on the link NoMidWay.
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Proposing the Toast “England and St George”
Mere Golf and Country Club
Annual Dinner of Society of St George, Gtr Manchester
24 April 1998
The meaning of Englishness
It is a very great honour for me to be asked to address your society, on this its most important occasion, the commemoration of England’s National Day and the Feast Day of its Patron Saint, St George. I greatly appreciate the presence of your National Chairman, Bill Firth, who writes so eloquently in the Spring issue of your journal.
Like all of you I am conscious of the rising tide of anxiety about the future of our nation, England. I believe that we do in fact face real threats and I have taken this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the meaning of Englishness.
Some 12 years ago a journalist, John Gaskell, asked rhetorically in the Sunday Telegraph “who are the English?” His meaning was clear: we had disappeared into the melting pot of the word “British”. Other nations in the United Kingdom could proclaim their identities while enjoying the privilege of Britishness, but we, the English, could not.
Fortunately a sympathetic letters editor allowed me to reply to Gaskell and I think it is perhaps pertinent to my theme to recall what I said:
“The English are the race after whom England is known. They were first mentioned (as the Anglii) by Tacitus in AD98. They are the subject of History of the English Church and People by Bede, written around AD700 – the greatest historical work written anywhere in Christendom in the 1000 years after Tacitus, and ordered to be translated into Old English by Alfred the Great himself. They are known the world over in every language as the natural owners of the land England.
There are about 42 million of the historic English people living in England (out of about 50 million now living in England). There are probably twice this number of people of English descent in the other Anglo-Saxon countries.
Place of birth has nothing to do with being English. The Duke of Wellington, when asked if the fact of his having been born in Ireland didn’t make him an Irishman, replied to his questioner: ‘If you had been born in a stable, would that have made you a donkey?’ “
Many people wrote and telephoned me about that letter, revealing the depth of unhappiness about what was happening to our native land. Typical and touching was the letter from Mrs J Fothergill of Kent, who wrote: “As a very ordinary Englishwoman, but nevertheless very proud to be so, may I take this opportunity of saying ‘Thank you’ for stating so succinctly the definition of true Englishness. I shall cut out your letter and carry it in my wallet.”
In his book Histoire d’Angleterre, history of England, first published in the 1930s, the French writer and historian, André Maurois, opens the concluding chapter of his book with the sentences:
“The history of England is one of Mankind’s outstanding successes. It is instructive to probe the secret of a destiny as fortunate and impressive as that of ancient Rome.”
Let us tonight probe a little England’s secrets so that we may better see those enduring strengths (and weaknesses) which we can pass on to the rising generation.
First of all there is the continuity of the English Nation and its Kingship – a fact unique in history. Queen Elizabeth II is the 34th great-grandchild of Alfred the Great, 36 generations on average of almost 30 years apart, the borders of her English Realm, the counties even, barely changed for over 1,000 years until Mr Heath’s wretched “reforms” of the 1970s.
Besides the land, there is the language, English, with its unsurpassed literature dwarfing that of any other. It started as the language of perhaps a million people in Bede’s time and has changed continuously ever since.
Its literature started early. The great 3,000 line poem, Beowulf, written in the 7th century is the oldest, by several hundred years, work of literature of any of the European vernacular languages, much older than the Norse sagas for instance. Beowulf is the hero who slays Grendel, a dreadful beast tyrannising the local people. It is in fact an extraordinarily close parallel with the myth of St George, slaying the dragon, a myth which grew up in the 8th or 9th centuries in Palestine among other places.
Nations are like people – they are people of course, but more than people. They have their ups and downs, but it is vital for mental health to keep them in proportion.
England and the English have suffered in the last 30 years or so from an audacious attempt at national deconstruction. We the people, whom more people owe life and liberty to than any other, have been subject to a torrent of denigration, our children denied a knowledge of their heritage.
It is not in the English nature to proclaim our virtues and vaunt our achievements, but with so much in the media shrieking our faults, we must as a national duty tackle this problem head-on. Things have got to the point where a recent poll revealed that a majority of children under 15 thought the Germans had won the last war, and even left-wing writers like Melanie Phillips commented last year that the multicultural policies of certain Labour councils had left English children with no sense of national identity.
So what are our achievements as a Nation and culture and what are the enduring qualities which we should expound so that the same tree can put forth new branches in the years to come.
Of course, we like many nations, including our sister nations in the United Kingdom, can list thousands of achievements – battles won, books written, buildings built, machines invented, music composed – and so on. We could all make our own lengthy lists.
But tonight I want to suggest there are four achievements of our people – which our children should recognise – which are of world-shaping scale and without which the world would simply be quite different.
- The English Language – now spoken by virtually every educated person on Earth and the universal language of business, technology and travel.
- The Industrial Revolution – which after the invention of agriculture somewhere in Asia Minor in the 9th century BC – has wrought the largest single change in the human condition – ever. And it started right here in Gtr Manchester 200-250 years ago with a whole series of stunning innovations.
- The Scientific Revolution in which the greatest name is Isaac Newton, whose Laws and Calculus provide not only the basis of design of every machine, building, vehicle here on Earth, but the means by which Man landed on the Moon and sends satellites bouncing round the solar system.
- Finally there is the Empire, initially English – then British, which by a fine symmetry started in 1497 with Cabot claiming Newfoundland for Henry VII and ending 500 years later with the handover of Hong Kong.
But think what it has done! Fifty odd states in the UN including the most powerful, the second most prosperous, the second largest. The ideal of parliamentary democracy, much abused it is true – even in this country – but still a standard to judge by. And perhaps even more important – the Rule of Law – which came early to the native peoples of the Empire as our first and greatest gift.
“Be you ever so high – the Law is above you” has applied uniquely in England to Monarchs as well as subjects, as Alfred’s testament makes clear. Surely that concept is a stroke of genius in human affairs.
Are there special qualities in our nation which have shaped these achievements? Are they accidents of geography – a compact island territory – comparatively free from the invasions which have so beset out continental neighbours? I say no, or rather no entirely.
If we look at other nations we can appreciate their virtues and their faults on average. There is a great surge these days against what is called stereotyping. Of course not every Dutchman is, shall we say, careful with his money, nor every French woman a great cook, nor every German a meticulous craftsman – but there are enough of them to give a distinct flavour or character to their nations.
I would like to single out three characteristics of our nation, which have I believe, both helped us to greatness in the past and which are of enduring value – if ignored in part today. In doing this I am relying not so much on my own view as those of foreigners or newcomers – many of whom see our nation more clearly than some of our own people do. Of the three features of our national character one is intellectual, one is practical, one is moral.
Intellectually – I think an outstanding characteristic is insight – from Harvey’s concept of blood circulation, to Darwin’s theory of evolution, to the discovery of the DNA double helix – we are talking about shafts of inspiration matched only by Einstein’s insight into relativity.
Practically – from William of Ockham in the 13th century, through Francis Bacon, from Empire to Commonwealth – we work from Practice to Theory, not the other way round – a huge distinction from the continental Roman tradition which underpins the European Union and its manic drive for uniformity.
Morally – I think our most distinguishing trait is fortitude, not the dumb endurance of a slave but hanging on, dying for a principle – for a nation. And here again we see the most amazing continuity. The famous lines from the Old English poem The battle of Maldon in 993 – the thanes fighting on –
“Spirit the firmer, heart the bolder, courage the greater, the more our strength wonnes”
finds distinct echo in the message sent by the War Cabinet to Brigadier Nicholson in another desperate battle, Calais in 1940, nearly 1,000 years later:
“You must continue to fight to the end. No evacuation will take place.”
Who dare says that the world will not be in need of these great qualities in the future, or that they will not be England’s to display.
We have our battle to fight, not with bullets, but with words. We have an objective too. The decision to form a Scottish Parliament is taken. No amount of deception will disturb the point that as envisaged this will be hugely discriminating against England. I believe that only a Parliament restored to England will do, in a proper Federal United Kingdom – ultimately independent of the EU – rejoined to the rest of the world.
The disparity in size among the nations of the UK is not a problem, only an excuse. I believe that a movement for a Parliament for England would be hugely popular. It would awaken interest in things English like nothing else. It need not weaken the UK – but at the end of the day it is England we must preserve.
We also have our dragons to fight – three in fact:
· Denigration of our past – as that great Englishman, the late Enoch Powell, said on this occasion 34 years ago
· Defeatism about our future
· Deception about our present.
These are not words for every day and every occasion, but on St George’s morrow, in the company of Englishmen and Englishwomen, I give you the toast:
“England and St George”.