Friday, 8 June 2012

Home: the idea of England

The Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Bingley
What is the answer to the question that Channel 4 put to Ed Miliband - "in what way are you English?"

Like Ed Miliband, I can give the answer that I was born in England and have lived here all my life. But that doesn't really answer the question - as Ed Miliband discovered! Nor does the talk of vague 'values' cut the mustard - Ed Miliband talked of stoicism and the term "mustn't grumble" but that is no more a definition of Englishness than saying that the Irish like a song. It's true but not sufficiently distinguishing.

The problem is that, if you have to try and explain what it means to be English - especially as a politician being interviewed - you fall into the trap that it has any rational explanation. There is not set of characteristics, values or features that define Englishness - as a moments thought would tell you. The grizzled ex-miner from Sunderland has little in common with the shiny-faced public school boy from Winchester except that both will likely tell you they're proud to be English. The farmer's wife from Devon shares little with the girl of the tube but both will say they're English.

It is in here that we might find the tricksy definition that Ed Miliband was seeking - England and Englishness is defined by its importance to us, we the English make England. Just as the neighbourhood in which we live - village, suburb, street - is important to us, just as the place we're from is important, the nation is important. We are comfortable with the idea of England and it needs no explanation. It's the sense that a little charm can make your throat tighten and your eyes moisten - not a jingoistic pride but a feeling of rightness, comfort, of being at home:

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

For sure, England is about tradition, heritage, old ale and new cider. Absolutely, England is about the towns and the roads, the shared history pounded into those places by our ancestors. Of course England is about achievements, things built and seas sailed. But England is more than that, it is our place of comfort, our familiar, our home. It is not Britain -that is for monarchs, prime ministers, it is a thing of empires or governments and a grand thing too. England is where our boots mark the soil, it is the thing that makes our hearts sing. It is home.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It really was car-crash TV watching little Ed M trying to define his version of Englishness in a way which would not alienate his base-load support in Scotland, Wales or the immigrant vote. Hilarious - except that the bumbling idiot harbours ambitions to be PM - scary !