[This article was written for ‘What England Means to me’ in November 2007. To read more article on the subject of ‘Englishness’ please visit www.whatenglandmeanstome.co.uk
I first discovered I was English the day I met a Scottish Nationalist (in Darjeeling of all places, but I digress) and while I am sure beneath her sour veneer she was genuinely a nice person, she seemed to take great pleasure out of telling me just how ashamed I should be of my race – given what my forefathers had done to her forefathers.
It seemed there was little doubt in her mind that one of my ancestors had been complicit in the butchering of Scottish innocents and the eradication of much of Scotland’s native language and customs.
Quite an accusation I thought, and hardly something I should be expected to agree with; but even so I felt it would be easy enough to distance myself from the macabre events of yore; for I, like her, was British rather than English; and to that end we were united fellow-countrymen (or countrypersons) – and isn’t this weather we’re having simply awful?
Anyway, to say I was simply “English” would be to ignore a number of irrefutable facts: one, my father was a born and raised Scotsman from Clydebank; two, I had drank real single malt whisky on the odd occasion; and well, three, isn’t that Ewan McGregor a talented chap?
But this didn’t wash with the true Scot, since with neither a “Mc”, “Mac” nor “O” preceding my name how could I pretend to be anything but English? Unless my name was “Jones” of course (which it isn’t).
“Good question” I thought; but all the same why couldn’t she accept my classification as British and be done with it? What was wrong with that?
No-one seemed to begrudge James Bond for saying that he’s British. The British Empire was never questioned over its nationality. Why should I have to defend the nomenclature? Britain, Great Britain, Cool Britannia, was something to be proud of wasn’t it? Not universally it seems; the mere suggestion that we were of the same ilk seemed to disgust the McNationalist.
Granted, the troubles in Northern-Ireland have had an influence on the way “Britishness” is regarded. As too has the catalogue of atrocities that the British meted out during the darker days of the Empire. So one can accept, particularly in the days of globalisation, devolution and petty nationalism, that a prejudicial regard for “Britishness” as a byword for imperialist arrogance has become somewhat inevitable.
But Americans don’t feel the need to drop the self-reference “American” to placate those offended by the word, why should I drop “British”? I was brought up in England, yes, but that is little more than a geographic reference, and if we’re going to get specific about race – it doesn’t change the fact of my lineage.
On my passport it says “British Citizen”, so I’m British – end of story.
End of story for me perhaps but with a few drinks inside her the Nationalist decided to change tack – and began to insult me. A clever move on her part, as not only did this save her the trouble of having to construct an argument, it also persuaded me in a very short space of time that I should disassociate myself from Scots people without delay. Our meeting concluded shortly afterwards when I made the sensible move of leaving the room, and a trail of expletives behind me.
Coincidentally, she told me that her English teacher at school was Irvine Welsh – which might certainly explain her colourful language.
I cannot understand the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Nationalist’s craving for their nations to be restored to a state as defined, racially and culturally, prior to Anglicisation; quite simply because England cannot possibly be defined in the same way. To suggest that “true” Englishness, and England, pre-dates the Norman Conquest would be ridiculous. Which just demonstrates why nationalism is so ridiculous; it is based entirely upon a spurious moment in history for a given geographic area. Nations change, people change, cultures change.
I live in France now, I carry a British passport and I tell people that I’m English, if only for the fact that England is where I have spent the majority of my life – so far. I speak French, pay French taxes and send my children to a French school. So there’s a chance that in thirty years time I’ll be telling people that I’m French, should things stay this way.
When they’re old enough, my children will probably describe themselves as “European” to those who ask; no doubt referencing their Anglo-Irish lineage and Alsatian-French upbringing; but I suspect this explanation will not necessarily satisfy all those who enquire.