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Society, Words

Looking for a new England


For this Scots-Irish-Sri Lankan Londoner, Englishness is a state of mind that lets him drop the bloody hyphens

Paul Mason does not want to be English, he told us in the Guardian recently. Well, I do. I’ve had enough of being required to be British instead of English.

Britishness is a qualified status to me, an unlovable token given to people classified "British-Asian" on their paperwork.That bloody hyphen, a literal dividing line to put further distance between what I am and what others think I am or should be.

I didn’t always think that way. In the 80s I was overheard calling myself “a freeborn Englishman” by a white man so enraged by my presumption that he punched me. My teenage political activity began in anti-racism, with the Southall riot, Rock against Racism and the Brick Lane standoffs. I became a journalist concerned by the need to add ethnic minority representation to the UK media.

"You won’t ever convince me that the Raj was a good thing"

I’m English, a Londoner of mixed Scots-Irish-Sri Lankan parentage. You won’t ever convince me that the Raj was a good thing. I totally emphasised with poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s bemusement at the idea that that he might actually welcome the idea of an offer of the Order of the British Empire.

And like more than a few English-born folk, I was nervous about the way the Scots and Welsh devolution and independence polls effectively kept voting for me to be English, without me getting a say in the matter.

But did this mean I wanted to stay British? No. I wanted to feel as physically confident in my English skin as I was intellectually, emotionally. So I did what all rootless Englishmen do. I left England for a while.I travelled the world meeting interesting people, interviewing them, getting them out of jail, dodging rocket attacks, spending evenings around fires with them. They embraced the Englishman in me, in a way that my fellow English seemed reluctant to.

They said I had those cartoon qualities of the Englishman they liked: good-humoured, patient, hardworkingand focused in a crisis. They were often decolonised children of the British Empire. They were completely convinced that a lot of things will go wrong if you put an Englishman in charge, but equally sure that few things will get worse if you have one working side by side with you.

Paul Mason’s is among the soundest judgements in British journalism. I get his argument. There are whole swathes of “Englishness” that are as alien to him as they are to me. Beyond sport, as he says, “there is almost no requirement whatsoever for an English person to self-identify as English”.

That was because, he says, “what it means to be English is completely subordinate to class, region, ethnicity and local culture.” Well, yes. But we came up with a solution for that, one that has made the British famous and notorious in equal measures. Multiculturalism.

"Multiculturalism that works both ways"

I’m not talking about the corrupted version created by Labour in the 80s to corral minorities so their numbers could be managed to white leftists’ political advantage. Or the Conservative equivalent, co-opting minorities’ values as their own, then dividing them into “good” and “bad” ethnics depending on their willingness to absorb policies like sponges.

I’m talking about the kind of multiculturalism that works both ways, one that recognises “class, region, ethnicity and local culture” as differentialising – just not divisive. Chelsea toffs and retired Cannock Chase miners may appear as alien to me as their politics, but how do I look to them?

I hope the same as they do to me. Different, interesting, slightly incomprehensible. Worthy of that lovely American word, ‘Storied’. Bearing history. Who needs to create a new identity for the English? What’s so awful about the one we have? Its old, scrappy diversity has been its own inimitable style for centuries.

After all, we all tolerate Boris Johnson, the bumbling toff. Smiley Face. Yet Boris was first to grasp the idea that we need to think seriously about managing the real or de-facto federalisation of Great Britain.

The tenor of the debate between SNP Scotland and Tory England, plus the legislative problems of abolishing the Human Rights Act, the febrile right-wing media, and the likelihood that Scotland will vote no and England yes to quitting the EU, puts the future of Britain as a geopolitical entity in question.

Personally, I think England could manage without the lonely burden of Britishness. It’s inexplicable to me why the ethos of Britain’s Empire has been translated into an English liability, when everyone has to struggle with its legacy.

Honestly, I saw the lives of too many stolid Jocks, wry Geordies and Kent ex-public schoolboys wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to help their country “punch above its weight” in the global arena. As if we had either reason or need to do so. If England and Scotland split, and the sun finally goes down on Britain as we know it, a lot of useless historical geopolitical baggage will go with it.

A place called England

But however it goes, Paul Mason is right. The scale of the SNP’s victory in Scotland compels us to start focusing on a place called England.

He thinks the unitary force is English itself. “This global language, whose base layer is a medieval mixture of Latin and German, has acted like a sponge, drawing foreign cultural influences so deep into our brains that they have taken root in our identity.” True.

I think the real promise of the SNP model of nationalism is that wants to beconcerned not with what or who you are, but with what you will do and can be.

It is “nationalist” in a radically new sense for Britain – not so much nationalist as communitarian. It strives for populist, but inclusive nationalism, based on open community and citizen engagement, moreso than territorialism, fixed identities and selective exclusion.Good in different ways for Scots and English alike.

There’s no need to feel burdened by what Paul Mason describes as “yet another layer of bogus identity politics”. Just take the identity you carry as you walk about England. That’s all the Englishness you need.

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist and online producer, developing investigative journalism and creative advocacy projects in conflict zones and repressive states. Formerly the deputy CEO of Index on Censorship and before that, managing editor of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, he has reported from conflicts in Bosnia, Palestine, Afghanistan & Iraq.

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