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What is so special about the English?

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Issue 1680

Myths behind national pride

What is so special about the English?

By Hassan Mahamdallie

JACK STRAW’S comment on a Radio 4 programme that the English were “potentially very aggressive” set the Tory press raving in defence of “the English”. Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer, author of a sympathetic book on racist demagogue Enoch Powell, wrote a column asking, “Why Does New Labour Hate The English?” He said people should be proud to be English and that there was nothing wrong with celebrating an English national identity.

This identity, Heffer asserted, included “a reputation internationally for fair play, tolerance and decency”.

Black commentator Darcus Howe describes what he sees as white English people’s lack of identity in his TV series, White Tribe. What is this “English” national identity? Who are “the English?” There is no basis for an “English race” or for races of any sort. Quite simply we are one species of animal, Homo sapiens, whether we live in Darlington or Darjeeling.

Of course people may look differently, speak another language or have local customs, but that does not add up to a separate “race”. There is no scientific basis for social traits being inherited, whether aggression, fair play, a reserved nature, a wish to win at cricket or a liking for bowler hats.

These “national characteristics” are really interpretations by historians or by politicians and the powerful to justify their acts. English nationalism is a tool for the ruling class to try to bind the poor to the rich on the basis that they have some sort of shared identity. It is no accident that the rise of English nationalism and “Great Britishness” coincided with the rise of capitalism and the British Empire.

This involved violence, exploitation, slavery, the overrunning of vast parts of the globe, plunder, the rule of force and the reaping of huge profits. At the height of the British Empire, the “British”, which included the Welsh and Scottish, were supposedly “born to rule”. The people whose territories they had conquered (at the point of a gun) were seen as “naturally” inferior and in need of being ruled. When right wing commentators say that today English nationalism is in crisis, they are pushing their view of Britain at the centre of a “great” empire that is dead and gone. But the “English” race itself does not exist. Where you are born is an accident of birth and nothing more.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY the British Isles has experienced huge waves of occupation and immigration. Over 2,000 years ago the land was overrun by Celtic tribes, called the “Brythons” or “Brittanys”, who had migrated from east and north of the Mediterranean Sea. They were followed by the Romans in the 1st century AD, who named the island “Britannia”. For 300 years Britain’s “identity” was that of a Roman colony. The Angles and the Saxons invaded from across the North Sea when the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD. There was no concept of England at all for the next 500 years. Instead the territory was divided up between rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These were challenged by Norsemen, who were originally from Denmark and Norway. Then the Normans invaded in 1066.

All these peoples brought their different cultures and languages, and mixed with the existing population. For the majority of time none thought of themselves as making up an English nation. Books by “English” authors were as likely to be written in Latin, French or German as the “native tongue”. As late as the 18th century the English language was still fluid. It had imprecise grammar and different spellings for the same words.

ENGLISH NATIONALISTS often talk about the “British” royal family as being the pinnacle of national culture, continuity and tradition. Yet for virtually all its history the British Isles has been ruled by “foreigners” most of whom would not have been able to communicate with their subjects because they did not speak the same language. Henry II’s long reign was mostly spent in France, where he considered the important part of his kingdom to be. His successor, Richard I, did not speak English.

George I, who became king in 1714, neither spoke, understood nor read English, being a German prince from Hanover. Even England’s patron saint, George, was probably of Turkish origin. Continued immigration makes a nonsense of any racist notion of “purity”. Britain’s history as a slaving nation means that today one in five British people has a direct African ancestor according to geneticist Steve Jones. He has used census figures from two centuries to calculate that 11 million white “British” people have African blood relations. The excellent recent series The Slave Trade found “white English” families in suburbia who were at turns shocked and fascinated to find out they had African ancestors.

For example, a “white” bank manager from Market Drayton found out that he was directly related to a black African slave who had worked for 18th century literary figure Dr Johnson. George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, played by the very fair skinned Helen Mirren in the film The Madness of King George, was in fact dark skinned. Charlotte was directly descended from the illegitimate son of an African mistress in the Portuguese royal house. Her doctor described her as having a “true mulatto face”.

THERE ARE circumstances, however, when pride in who you are is an expression not of domination but of being downtrodden. When black people, women or gay people fight back against oppression and say they are proud of who they are, they are fighting against the dominant ideas in society. It is a reaction to a society that tries to deny them their humanity or a history worth recalling. “Black Power” in 1960s America, for example, was a way of keeping dignity in a world of colour bars, denial of civil rights and racist violence. Even so, there is nothing special about anyone’s skin colour – black, white or brown.

In South Africa today black politicians and businessmen cynically use the colour of their skin to kid the black poor that they are really on “their side”. When a black businessman asks you to “buy black” it is not because of solidarity but because he wants to make a profit. But the fact remains that “the English” are not oppressed by any stretch of the imagination in British society. Whether it is employment, housing, health or education, if you are black you are more likely to get a raw deal.

That is not to say that ordinary whites get “a good deal”. But the people to blame are those at the top of society (who are invariably white), not people who originate from a different country. Today we are a much more integrated society than we have ever been before. Young people, especially, increasingly appreciate a lifestyle and culture which cuts across artificial boundaries of nationality.

In big cities people from all nationalities and skin colours live and work side by side. To replace an English nationalist view of ourselves for a working class international view is a good thing. To swap allegiance to the queen and doffing your cap to the guvnor for internationalism and workers’ unity is a good deal. It does not leave us with “no history and culture” as the right wing would have it. It leaves us with an enriched culture and deeper understanding of history.

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