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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 May 2018

Book review: Jeremy Black's history of England asks what it means to be English in Britain today

The lack of English nationalist clamour in public is a measure of the country’s strength, not a weakness

Jeremy Black's new novel looks at Modern English nationalism.
Jeremy Black's new novel looks at Modern English nationalism.

Eighty thousand people marched through the streets of Glasgow last week. Brandishing saltires, they demanded independence from Britain. The reactions to the rally ranged from dismissive – “there was a Scottish independence referendum in 2014, your side lost, move on” – to supportive. Witnessing it, I imagined a similar procession of English nationalists. What kind of reactions would that elicit? It is safe to assume the epithet “racist” would feature prominently in any commentary on an English nationalist demonstration.

Yet, strangely, Scottish nationalism never seems to invite such obloquy. Scottish separatism has been ennobled in public discourse as a virtuous quest for self-determination, as though the Scots were unworldly victims of history – or Irish – and not the headsmen and beneficiaries of brutal colonial missions of plunder (“Rich in the gems of India’s gaudy zone/ And plunder piled from kingdoms not their own …” to quote Thomas Campbell).

But semantics have served Scotland well: England, used interchangeably with Britain, is associated exclusively with the crimes of Empire, while Scotland, whose services were indispensable to what was a joint imperial enterprise in India, is granted a free pardon.

Brexit has certainly provoked an inchoate desire in some passionate supporters of Europe for revenge against England – that boorish fount of leave sentiment – and the proudly anti-nationalist votaries of border-transcending European integration now champion Scottish nationalism and new borders in Britain. The mutilation of a 300-year-old union – one of the most successful, perhaps even the most successful of all, politico-cultural marriages in history – is now a progressive cause.

Into this atmosphere of sanctimony, self-pity and accusation, Jeremy Black tosses his hand grenade of a book. There is a certain impishness to the timing of its publication. Just when it is most fashionable to blame England for every ill that stalks Britain, Black, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, comes along with a history that charts the millennial nationalist yearnings of the people who make up Britain’s majority. Perhaps he’s goading the enlightened, prodding them to reveal their lack of principle by sneering at one form of nationalism while indulging another.

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Modern English nationalism (or, more accurately, proto-nationalism) rests on two major pillars. One is rooted in history, and Black does a marvellous job of excavating every trace of Englishness – “an identity, a consciousness” – from the past, beginning with the reign of Alfred of Wessex in the 9th century. The recovery of the “deep history” of English identity is accompanied by an insightful investigation into the rise and decline of “Britishness”.

There is a tinge of melancholy in Black’s writing here. But the book grows lively as Black, discarding academic strictures, progressively morphs into an engaging commentator. The second pillar of English nationalism is reaction. England created the modern world, but the English, numbering more than 50 million today, are still a people without a state of their own. The Scottish independence referendum of 2014 compelled England for the first time in this century to reckon with the prospect of Britain’s abrupt dissolution. That experience – the closeness of the result – provided a fillip to English nationalism.

And Tory politicians in England, seizing the opportunity, began paying the Scottish nationalists, whom they had just opposed in the independence plebiscite, the compliment of imitation. As the former British prime minister Gordon Brown, a fierce opponent of Scottish nationalism, observed, “instead of playing the British unity card” to discredit Scottish separatism and bolster the union, the Conservative Party under his successor, David Cameron, “decided to play ... the English nationalism card” to win votes in England.

Black’s book will appeal most of all to those who have recently awakened to their English identity. It is difficult to fault, in the face of Scottish nationalism, the proponents of its English variant. But, as the saying goes, only those who are confident in their identity can rise above it. The relative absence of nationalist clamour in the English public square is a measure of the strength, not the weakness, of Englishness. There will always be an England, but if the English do not resolutely defend Britain against the self-seeking blows of its homegrown merchants of Balkanisation – against its Jinnahs and its Jefferson Davises – something immeasurably great will irretrievably be lost.