England is a nation that often seems confused and adrift.
Uncertain of its role since the end of empire, the rise of European Community and the increasingly aggressive nationalist sentiment among the constituent nations of the United Kingdom have placed a huge question mark over that piece of the jigsaw puzzle called England.
There is no such uncertainty in Wales and Scotland. National sentiment runs high. They may be part of the United Kingdom but they are most definitely not English, and then British only grudgingly. Devolution of government from London has given them their own political assemblies. The Scottish and Welsh govern their own affairs and fly their national flags without shame or irony. They have distinct cultures and traditions. They know who they are.
England is a very different story. Englishness has long been conflated with Britishness. Confusingly, historians often used the word “England’ to mean ‘Britain’. If asked, an Englishman would probably tell you he is a Brit. Not so the Scots and the Welsh; they are most definitely Scottish and Welsh.
Political and cultural disconnection of Scotland and Wales from what is Britain has left England with an identity void. There is no English political assembly as there is for Scotland and Wales. The notion of Englishness itself has been mocked and scorned. Attempts have been made to ban England’s banner, the flag of St George, on the grounds that it is racist and might offend Muslims because of St George’s association with the Crusades.
But things seem to be changing, at least on the anecdotal evidence of a brief visit home.
Always a reluctant participant in the concept of a bureaucratic European ideal represented by the EU, the Eurozone debt crisis is eroding what little support remains for Europe. A climate of economic austerity and a rising concern for sustainability seem to have spurred the English to rediscover England.
The flag of St George is more spontaneously visible than ever on the English landscape. It flies modestly but assertively above churches, homes, pubs, factories and public buildings, signaling a new sense of confidence and pride in Englishness and all that is English. It is not politically bombastic or boastful, but quiet and joyous.
The new Englishness is about rich localness and the pleasure of all that England can offer: food, beer, sport, fashion, literature, theater, history and the magnificent native tongue which has become the lingua franca of the world. It has almost everything…except space.
It’s just too bloody crowded. And then there’s the weather…