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Friday, 8 March 2013

English Identity?

What constitutes “English identity”? I personally don’t believe in specifying a list of what things constitute English identity because there’s bound to be much disagreement – even amongst patriots. I don’t have “necessary and sufficient conditions”, as philosophers call it, for the creation of English identity. Nonetheless, there needs to be specific and distinctly English phenomena from history, religion, literature, culture and so on which form part of that identity. What’s included and excluded will depend on circumstances. The Left and left-liberals assume that there is no such thing as English identity anymore simply because there’s disagreement as to what should constitute that identity. But there would have been such disagreements in the 1950s, 1940s, 1840s and 1540s too. Sometimes there was more uniformity. Sometimes less conformity. More conformity, say, in the 1950s. Less conformity, say, during the Reformation or even in the early 19th century.

Since the 1950s, and perhaps before, there has, at times, been a sort-of consensus on English identity. Or at least on what should be taught about England, its identity and its past in schools.

For instance such things as “the canon of English literature”, the “Whig interpretation of history”, the liturgy of the Church of England, and historical events such as Trafalgar, Waterloo have often been advanced. As I have said, of course there will be disputes about what exactly goes into the pot. But at least English things of importance will go into the pot and they can be decided upon. So there’s no naivety here at all. For example, what’s to be included in the canon of English literature? Someone or some group could decide that Keats “is in” and Wordsworth “is out”. So what? Let the students look up Wordsworth themselves. If Waterloo is in, why not also, say, the English participation in the Crimean War? Again, if one is chosen the other is not necessarily disregarded. And yes I’m sure there will be historians who say that Waterloo is of course far more important than the Crimean War for English history and identity… and vice versa. The point is, the very act of choosing one important event, or two or more, means that at least English students are putting their toes in the English water.

And who’s to say that the “history of the English working class” will automatically be neglected as leftist and liberal educationalists have it? Why not study both the history of the working class and major political events? (Or am I being naïve?) Of course there are far fewer documents about working class life and history and I also assume that major events, as such, must play less of a major role in such accounts. I presume it will be more a case of sociology or anthropology than history, strictly speaking.

Above and beyond strict history, there are many other common denominators. For a start, there’s the language itself – English. It would be a start to make sure every English kid could write good English – that is, be able to spell and understand grammar. (Not perfect spelling and grammar but enough, at least, to be understood.)

Along with that there is the Christian religion. Even English atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, accept the importance of Christianity on our culture and indeed see many positive things about that tradition. (Dawkins apparently “loves” the King James Bible.) Atheists can even accept that Christian traditions have contributed to the rise of democracy and free thought in the West as well as in England itself. (This is not to say, of course, that Christianity, or at least Christian institutions, haven’t also worked against democracy and free thought during the last two thousand years. It’s complicated.) Thus it can be said that today that even though few people go to church, very many people in England share what can accurately be called “Christian values”. (Along with certain non-Christian values, of course.) 

Following on from this there is a shared respect for our common law and a common morality. (Again. It would be ridiculous to say that there are no disagreements on such matters – even fierce disagreements!) In addition, the English have a deep and shared concern for justice (however specified), and, above all, for the freedom of speech. 

On a slightly lesser scale, there’s also our shared individualism. (It’s not as strong as American individualism but it’s much stronger than German or French individualism.) Tied in with that is our empiricist philosophical and political traditions. Along with that empiricism is its corollary, at least to some extent, our healthy - but not destructive - scepticism. 

Our search for democracy and freedom has been a long one and it certainly hasn’t been a smooth ride. However, the incredible thing is that this search for democracy and freedom can be traced back to at least the 13th century. And if we factor in the influence of Greek and Roman philosophy, alongside our Judeo-Christian heritage, these too have broadened the minds of the English people.

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