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Looking For a New England

With devolved assemblies now in place in Scotland and Wales, is Britain poised for gradual break-up? Or is it to become the prototype federal government of the twenty-first century? Don Watson, in this article reprinted from British Council News, reports on a British Council conference that pointed two very different ways ahead for England.

Anglo-Saxons have got something that no other racial type has according to pop star Billy Bragg. 'We have a hyphen,' he says. 'We should be tremendously proud of that hyphen. And when racists start to speak about Englishness and racial purity, we should ram it down their throats, because it's a symbol that there has always been diversity.'

Bragg was speaking at the culmination of the British Council's 'Looking in England' conference at the University of Warwick, held in December 1999. The founding principle of the event was that, with devolution taking pace in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a huge vacuum in the debate about the future of Britain - and that the hole is the shape of England. The conference logo depicted a man peering down into a deep crater, whose outline was England's boundary.

These issues, says the British Council Literature Department's Nick Wadham-Smith, who organised the conference, make British Studies one of the most fertile academic areas of these rapidly changing times. In an articulate and well-argued, if occasionally melodramatic, contribution, Bragg made the case that if the notion of Englishness is not to become the property of the extreme right, then those who were born there have to begin to celebrate a positive image of Englishness. Not the England of bulldogs and British National Party marches, or even the nostalgic images evoked by former Prime Minister John Major of warm beer and cricket matches on the village green, but the England where Western dance music and the traditional music of UK Asians can combust to create Bhangra. The England where black football players like Sol Campbell and Paul Ince line up alongside Tony Adams and Alan Shearer for the national team.

'We have tiptoed around the concept of England for far too long,' said Bragg. 'And into the vacuum have come the xenophobes and the racists. We should not give an inch of this territory. We must begin to develop an inclusive English identity.' The argument over a single European currency, he contested, will be 'the battle for the soul of the English people'. If an English identity which encapsulates diversity is not established, then the notion of a 'little England', isolated from Europe and afraid of the outsider, is likely to win out. 'Their jackboot is coming,' he warned, eschewing the famed English tendency to understatement.

Part of the process of reclaiming Englishness, he claimed, has already begun. 'During the European Football Championships, I was in a pub which had a flag of St George (the red cross on the white background) behind the bar. If you had seen that five years ago, you would have assumed there was a right-wing meeting going on. Now you just assume they are supporting the national football team.' It was, it has to be pointed out, the flag of St George that was waved at Lansdowne Road, Dublin when right-wing hooligans, posing as football supporters, caused a match between England and Ireland to be abandoned. So the battle to disassociate the flag from its fascist overtones is far from won.

It is, however, significant that genuine English football supporters now rally behind the flag of St George and not, as they previously did, the Union Jack - which is of course the combined flag of the British nation. This it seems is a sign that the English are beginning to make a distinction between England and Britain.

The Scots have for the last century been increasingly aware of the difference between Scotland and Britain. Many of the Welsh have made similar distinctions, while differences over the distinction between Northern Ireland and Britain are the underlying cause of numerous deaths.

Bragg, who one can't help but think is destined to follow the Glenda Jackson route from the world of entertainment into politics, is relatively dismissive of Britain as a concept. 'The last time Britain had a meaning was in 1940,' he argues. Britain means most, he goes on to say, to those who have a memory of the time when the nations of these isles were united against a common enemy. By implication, as these days pass more and more from living memory to folk memory, the cement which holds the Union together begins to crumble. A sobering thought for a British Council, perhaps. And Bragg was not the only one at the conference to pursue such an argument.

Anthony Barnett, a founder member of Charter 88, the campaign for the modernisation and renewal of the UK's democratic institutions, argued that the old constitutional estate is ready to expire. A sun burns brightest just before extinction, he said, and Tony Blair is the last, charismatic explosion of Britishness. But a constitutional change in England, analogous to the one currently taking place in Scotland, is inevitable. According to Barnett, the only route into Europe for England is to disregard Britishness. 'The next twelve to fifteen years will see a political difference between Cardiff, Westminster and Edinburgh,' he predicted with great confidence.

Don't, however; sound the death knell of the Union just yet, because there was another distinct strand to the debate. Lola Young, Director of the new Black Culture and History Archive Project, like Bragg, put the emphasis on diversity. But it was very much on British, rather than English, diversity. For the black population, she argued, Britain is a more appealing concept than England. 'We are happy to identify to some extent with the term Black British We do not have the same sense of identification with the term Black English.'

Britain, she argued, has always been a multicultural society. Talk of the black presence in Britain is often restricted to black people who were invited to Britain from the 1950s to bolster up the post-war workforce. However there is in Britain an invisible black presence. Census information from the eighteenth century identifies a black population of some thousands. By the nineteenth century this had become dispersed throughout the general population.

This strikes a chord with some of the arguments presented by another contributor to the conference, Simon Partridge. Partridge points out that the nations of these isles are not quite as distinct as some of their inhabitants would like to think. According to Partridge's paper The British Union State: imperial hangover or flexible citizens' home? (available on www.catalyst-trust.co.uk) more than 740,000 Scottish-born people live in England, equivalent to sixteen per cent of the current population of Scotland. Around five per cent of all those born in Ireland live in London, which is demographically the most multicultural city in Europe. Apart from some separatist nationalists,' he writes, 'many people, perhaps most, in these islands now have a multiple or hyphenated sense of identity.' Partridge is optimistic about the Irish peace process, and its promise of increased co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. 'In time,' he suggests, 'a new word may emerge to cover this politico-cultural sharing, akin to Nordic, Scandinavian or Iberian; areas, paradoxically, in which there are greater linguistic and cultural differences.'

The future always hangs on a question mark. Whether the contributors to this debate believed that the concept of Britain would wither away or reinvent itself, they all seemed to agree that in this respect the future is suspended from a hyphen.

A full version of the Report and Proceedings from the 'Looking into England' conference is available from www.britishcouncil.org/studies


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