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Artillery Row

The enigma of Englishness

The English have debated their national nature for centuries

On the day of England’s very own patron saint, I hope that you manage to celebrate with tea and cricket beneath clouded grey skies. Certainly, it may seem at times that with the substitution of cricket for football — depending on the conscience of the individual — this quaint little formula is all that is required in order to demonstrate one’s credentials as a bonafide Englishman. 

Indeed, it has become a common habit for certain complacency-crusted social democrats to use this day to sneer about how St George was himself a “Turkish immigrant”. Without getting too entangled in the historical illiteracy of that claim, I would like to say that this sort of thinking is not a product of the drive for inclusion that recent decades of demographic change has demanded of us; though it has unquestionably inflamed it. The truth is that the English have been having this debate about who we are for many centuries. On this very day, 104 years ago, the great Rudyard Kipling gave an address at the Royal Society of St George and sought to find the elusive answer to the question: Who are the English?

Kipling’s speech is a sprawling epic, colourfully detailing the lived consciousness of a people from the departure of their Roman overlords to the age of the wounds seared into them by the Great War. In the third paragraph, Kipling remarks:

Some of our severest critics, who, are of our own household, have said that there never was such a thing as the English Race — that it is at best the intolerably insolent outcome of ancient invasions and immigrations.

The first point that should be addressed is that of the context in which Kipling employs the word “race.” In this circumstance it is being used in its 19th Century context, in expressing the existence of a particular ethnic group within a particular nation, in contrast to our more contemporary, Americanised definition. 

Beyond this, it is curious just how in sync the “severest critics” of Kipling’s times are with those of our own. “We are a nation of immigrants” and “Diversity is our strength” are now ubiquitous slogans in the multicultural and multiracial landscape of modern England. Yet there exists evidence that such notions were prevalent even at a time when English society was far more homogeneous. The ideological ancestors of this theory existed many centuries before even Kipling, as he goes on to show, reciting a passage from Daniel Defoe’s poem The True-born Englishman:

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

In speech an irony, in fact a fiction,

A metaphor intended to express,

A man a-kin to all the universe.

Defoe wrote the poem in the late 17th Century as a means of ridiculing what he perceived as the xenophobic reaction to King William III’s accession to the English throne, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was Defoe’s observation that an Englishman has no true grounds to refuse having a Dutchman on our throne, as those who criticise it may well have had a Huguenot father or a Viking ancestor. It all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

Naturally, Kipling does not contest the inescapable fact that a great profusion of peoples from various nations have settled on our shores at different points in our national history. Yet he suggests that within Defoe’s framing of the Englishman as, “a man akin to all the universe” that Defoe, “slips into a blessing where he meant a curse.” Rudyard Kipling is not praising the brilliance and singularity of the English people upon grounds of ethnic purity but rather as he would put it: 

… like a built-up gun barrel, all one temper though welded of many different materials, and he has strong powers of resistance.

The English are an ethnic group, though our heritage is mixed. What’s more, the fact of the matter is that we as the English exist amongst the continuous civilisation of our ancestors. The Viking onslaught pushed Alfred the Great back to the marshes of Somerset and although the Vikings are a part of our national story — and became a part of us — it is Alfred that we identify with. He was of us: for us. The Normans conquered us and we were held in their dominion but eventually our kings spoke English again. Undoubtedly, our Christian heritage was formed beneath the foreign jurisprudence of the Holy See, but eventually it too evolved an idiosyncratic character, parochial to the habits and customs of the English men and women of our country: quite distinct from the more Presbyterian character of our Scottish neighbours. 

In what I would consider one of his most astute passages of speech, Kipling remarks:

Roman, Dane, Norman, Papist, Cromwellian, Stuart, Hollander, Hanoverian, Upper Class, Middle Class, Democracy, each in turn through a thousand years experimented on him and tried to make him to their own liking.

The story of the English people has not been marked by our decline as an organic society — subjected to various conquests and immigrations until we became an undefinable mass. Rather our tale is one of great perseverance and prudence, in assimilating such newcomers into our whole. To be English — or to possess any other local or national identity — is not simply a matter of self-assertion: it must also have some level of reciprocal agreement from the other members of that group. Both are required to form that identity. When William the Conqueror came from France, crushed the Anglo-Saxon lords and committed to harrying the North, he was a foreign tyrant. When, many centuries later, his descendant, Henry V, marshalled the English and Welsh longbowmen upon the mud of Agincourt, he was no longer foreign. He was of England and the Englishmen who fought beside him that day considered him of their own in turn. 

The English identity has always had an incorporative aspect to it but it has also had standards of acceptance. For fidelity towards our national story: our heroes; our great deeds and simple quirks. To suggest as Defoe did all those centuries ago that: “A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction” is to tell a half-truth. To suggest that the English are not native to our country is deeply disingenuous. Despite India enduring centuries of foreign exposure to the Mongols, Turks, Persians and British, we would not scratch our heads and question the existence of Indians. 

We are of the old world and when we look to our past we as the English have nowhere else to turn other than, as Kipling expressed it: “the loss and wastage of a whole generation” upon Flanders Fields, or to the mills manned by the working-class heroes of Victorian England. We can reflect upon the seamanship of our great voyagers and the valour of our noblest knights, until we reach back to our humblest huts of the 9th Century. For that is when we English first decided to take St George to be our champion. The question of who we are and what it means to be English, is inescapably English in itself. What matters is that we continue to ask it. For the day that those who live in England cease to care about asking is the day we can be sure that the English truly no longer exist. 

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