Socialist Worker

‘English’ literature and flag waving experts

New Labour’s rhetoric about Britishness is backed up by the way English literature is taught, writes Michael Rosen

Issue No. 2034

 (Pic: Tim Sanders/

(Pic: Tim Sanders/

After a sequence of speeches about the so-called dangers of segregated communities and the wearing of the veil, a picture is emerging of New Labour going into the next election.

It will proclaim itself as the true representative of one-nation Britain, bashing minorities at home who don’t follow this British line and bashing countries abroad who don’t follow the US line.

This may seem a far cry from what goes on in the classrooms of universities and sixth forms. But a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) reminded me how the kind of rhetoric Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are going in for is supported and sustained by conversations and study in the cultural sphere.

So, for example, the main way in which literature is studied in Britain is as “English Literature”.

This used to mean a rigid ring-fencing of books written by English, Scots, Welsh and Irish writers – all called “English”.

Nowadays, with pick-and-mix courses, it’s much more likely that people will end up with something much less rigid with American, African, Caribbean or post-colonial literature being available. But there remains a problem – the narrative of a national English literature remains intact.

It’s off the back of narratives like this that national politicians like Brown and Blair can trumpet their programmes.

The Englishness of English literature is usually sold to us as a chronologically arranged conveyor-belt of glories starting out with the Anglo-Saxons and on to Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.

This embeds all ideas of Englishness into something deep and long lasting as opposed to all these Johnny-come-latelies.

Or indeed, as Blair threatened recently, if the come-latelies want to stay, then they had better buy these ideas too.

This wouldn’t be so bad in itself if it weren’t connected with the supposed unchanging and wonderful characteristics of the English people.

Derek Pearsall in the TLS article gathered together the many descriptions used by critics about Chaucer’s books and characters that are used to prove his and the English people’s unique world superiority. They are shrewd, commonsensical, moral, ironic, against fanaticism, scornful of humbug, bluff, open, manly, well-balanced, genial and normal.

There are many problems with this sort of tosh. First, it dumps on to Chaucer and his works all the characteristics that a critic thinks are how they would like to think of themselves.

In fact, Chaucer not only shows us plenty of people who are greedy, hypocritical, fanatical and the like but there’s no evidence for saying that Chaucer was some kind of honest, commonsensical chap himself.

Then there’s the pointlessness of “essentialism”, where writers think they can lump together a whole nation or cultural group of people and say what this people’s “real” or “essential” characteristics are.

On top of this there’s a nonsense about saying that Chaucer’s works are “English” anyway. In his day, an English nation hadn’t been invented and there’s no evidence within, say, The Canterbury Tales that anyone thought or behaved nationalistically.

What’s more, one of the brilliant aspects of this particular book is that the tales themselves are reworkings of stories that have their origins in France and Italy and probably in Arab tales.

So what happens is that critics, like politicians, like to project backwards and outwards from themselves their own preoccupations with nation. They demand of a writer like Chaucer, (or in the case of Brown and Blair, a whole society), something old, unchanging and attached to what are seen as desirable and good characteristics.

Nearly always, these kinds of nationalistic outpourings rise to a peak when the writers have a reason to distinguish the nation from the threat of “the other”.

The nationalism of Tudor times, that appears on occasions in Shakespeare, is very much a consequence of the Tudor regimes’ competition with Spain and France in conquering the world of trade.

It’s no coincidence that New Labour’s nationalism happens while it joins in with the US’s competition with everyone else for oil, thereby coming into conflict mostly with Muslims.

Some people have lingering loyalties to New Labour and say to themselves, well, a bit of national tub-thumping may be a bit crude but if it keeps the Tories out, it’s OK – and anyway, we need things to unite us all, don’t we?

What’s missed here is that there are other unities (familiar to the Labour Party of a 100 years ago) that could be celebrated, the most important of which is the demand for true equality.

And that isn’t the equality that says we should all have an equal chance to exploit other people.

New Labour has turned its back on that and so, empty-minded, with no programme of justice and fairness to offer, it waves the flag. Tucked away in our various corners (in my case, in the world of literature), it’s interesting to see how often this flag waving is supported by critics and experts.

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Sat 20 Jan 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2034
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