Why I can’t go home to England any more

August 22, 2010

I went home recently. Even though I have lived in California for 20 years what I think of as home is the north of England, the place where I was born and raised and where my parents still live.

Beyond that broad geographic description I’m finding it oddly awkward to explain where I have just visited.

Officially, the place I went home to is the United Kingdom. I was informed of this by immigration at Heathrow, which now goes by the name of the UK Border Agency. I had written ‘England’ as the country of my birth on the landing card. It was crossed out with impatience by the Border agent, who then wrote in ‘UK’.

Admittedly, my pen hovered for a while before I wrote England. I thought of myself as British before I became an American citizen (sorry, a citizen of the United States of America). But then having to write ‘Great Britain’ as my country of birth felt a little, well…un-British. I was never too sure about the United Kingdom.  To us up there in the north of England it was as remote as Narnia. But the Land of UK was where I used to belong, so I am told.

This England...

Like the USA, the UK suffers from having no convenient adjective to describe the country or its people. The best thing that can be said for “British” is that it is not quite as misleading as “American” but it is, nevertheless, the established term for “relating to the UK”. I was right to think of myself as a former  “British citizen”, although this causes endless confusion and a fair amount of ill-will when applied to the people of Northern Ireland. They are British citizens, and so “British” in one sense (although they can also be citizens of the Republic of Ireland if they wish, as many do). As they are not from Great Britain, so they are not “British” in that sense (i.e. as distinct from Irish).

There is no satisfactory noun for “British person”, either. “Briton” is too formal, “Brit” too informal, and “Britisher” just foreign. All are best avoided.

A person living in England today is part of 11 entities. Apart from England, there is England and Wales, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom and Islands, the British Isles, the Common Travel Area, the European Territories of the United Kingdom, The European Union, the United Kingdom and Colonies, and The Commonwealth.

Ask them what country they live in and surveys show that more will answer ‘Britain’, which is taken to mean ‘United Kingdom’.

And what of England – “this royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle; this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”?

Sadly, there is surprisingly little to say about it officially, according to the UK Border Agency,  other than it contains about 80% of the population of the UK and is therefore overwhelmingly dominant as an important “administrative unit”. Shakespeare would weep.

It could explain the surprising resurgent popularity of the English flag bearing the cross of St. George, which can be seen fluttering in equal numbers to the Union Flag on the buildings of London today.

Aggressive expressions of national self-awareness by Wales and Scotland  — which take their most solid form in the new devolved political arrangements within the United Kingdom  — and the waning of a shared British national identity, seem to have stirred the souls of Englishmen.

Arthur, Merlin – wake up. It may be time.


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