Taking tea at four, strawberries and cream, Wimbledon on a hot summer’s day, Christmas carols round the tree, street parties for a Queen’s Jubilee: the images of England are often nostalgic and middle class. To some, England, our England, is summed up in the poems of Rupert Brooke, and turned into childhood mystery in the sympathetic portrait of the Shire in The Hobbit. England is The Wind in the Willows, kindness to animals, appreciation of nature’s rich and gentle abundance in a rain swept temperature island. It is Alice in Wonderland, tales that recognise children are on their own important journey in their own right. We are seafarers and stay at home islanders, world traders who value our independence.
To others, there is a more muscular side to Englishness. Are we not the nation that pioneered liberty? Did not the English Parliament gain the upper hand well before the Bastille was stormed? Can we not see in Shakespeare’s blessed plot the sturdy outlines of freedom and nationhood? Did we not inspire an Empire and then transform it into a Commonwealth? Have we not helped save Europe from the twin tyrannies of fascism and communism?
To me Englishness is a living protean creation. We are not done yet. There is a modern side to England which is warm and tolerant, which can wrap itself around the fugitive from tyranny, the overseas adventurer with money and the island dweller brought up in a fast changing world. Whilst England still has some of its old class structure, modern England is open to the talents and critical of snobbery.
Perhaps at its heart Englishness is anti-clerical. The English value traditions and the establishment, but only at the price of ridiculing that same power. We may allow some to stand in authority over us, because we prefer order to chaos. We also intend to tease and challenge them, safe in the knowledge that the English elect their rulers and overturn them when necessary.
The English were above all Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like the Dutch and some Germans they challenged the Catholic Church and defenestrated Catholic power. Unlike the continent, England had a bloodless sixteenth century religious revolution, led by the King and cemented by the transfer of wealth from the Monasteries to the energetic and successful. For many decades English thought was governed by its reaction to the Catholic powers. Only England could have bishops but no Pope, all secured under a constitutional monarch who answered to Parliament.
The English were monarchists who intended to control their King. Royals were always the object of scatological pamphlets and cartoons, and were regularly changed or brought to account by others who formed the political nation. Today Parliament gets the treatment once meted out to monarchs.
The English like playing games. They have given many to the world. The world has taken to football with passion and ability. Cricket remains the preserve of a smaller group of nations where it acts as a magic circle for a set of values. The English accept we should play up and play the game. The rules in sport, however recondite, should be respected. That should never impede or detract from the full force of sporting conflict.
England is strong enough to keep her identity without a national Parliament, and with her identity and power partly shared with the rest of the United Kingdom. As Scotland has made more moves to assert its own identity, so more have waved English flags and have thought more lovingly of tea at four.
Is that the time? I must find a kettle.
John Redwood is Conservative MP for Wokingham and chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee. He will be among the speakers at England, My England: A Festival of Englishness organised by IPPR and British Future on Saturday 19th October at the London College of Communications. Tickets and information here.