Just what does it mean to be English? Is there a peculiarly English identity? Academics and filmmakers will gather this week to thrash out this thorny question.
While other nations of the British Isles – Wales, Scotland and Ireland – have little difficulty with their own identities, a crisis of Britishness is, according to the Independent, “prompting growing numbers of people to redefine themselves as ‘English’, raising troubling questions about national identity and the extremes of home-grown Islamic radicals and the far right.”
The paper looks at what Englishness has meant to some notable people. George Orwell, for instance, thought it was “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes.” The American-born poet T. S. Eliot said it “lay in the Henley regatta, Wensleydale cheese and the music of Elgar.”
The gathering of academics and filmmakers will be held in the Midlands city of Derby, “to explore English identity at ID Fest, a new film festival exploring English identity,” says the paper.
It quotes Jeffrey Richards, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, as saying: “There is a crisis of Britishness. Because of things like devolution, the EU and the crises in parliament – and, in the past, the monarchy – some people have felt the need for a separate identity from Britishness.
“The English have never really had to assert their identity, as they are the senior party in the UK,” Richards adds.
“But,” says the Independent’s Rachel Shields, “the problem of defining the national identity of a country of more than 51 million people is complicated by mass immigration, which has made England one of the most multicultural countries in the world.”
She goes on to quote Robert Colls, professor of English history at Leicester University, who said: “It’s the elephant in the room of national identity. England is much more tolerant, and open to difference. On the other hand . . . major changes in the nation-state have left many wondering in what sense they are living in the same country.”
The report ends by looking at Englishness through the eyes of representatives of the other nations:
The Scotsman David Davidson, Politician
“I’m not sure there is such a thing as Englishness, it varies so much. Scots don’t walk through Glasgow in a kilt, on the whole, and the English no longer walk through London in funny hats.”
The Welshman Rob Brydon, Comic
“Scots say, ‘The English can take our land, but never take our freedom.’ The Welsh say: ‘You’ve taken our land: don’t forget our freedom before you go. Thanks for coming!’ ”
The Irishman Dara O Briain, Comic
“London is hosting the Olympics, yet you all talk about how terrible the country is . . . and then there’s that giggly, Carry On attitude to sex, that is unique. But you don’t realise any of this.”