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Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 23:51 GMT


The English: Europe's lost tribe

Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman who were each asked to sum-up their nationality in a few words?

The Irishman effused about literature and his countrymen's fortitude, while the Scotsman raised his voice to name-check William Wallace and Rabbie Burns.

Waiting his turn, the Englishman scratched his head and wondered ... and wondered ... and wondered.

It's no joke

Thankfully it's not a joke. Sadly, for any patriot who lives north of Land's End, south of Carlisle and east of Chester, it's probably true.

Baroness Thatcher's appointment this week to the governing council of the Royal Society of St George - a fellowship dedicated to "England and Englishness"- prompts the question, what is it to be English?

It's not that England lacks history, tradition or heroes - it positively oozes them. The problem is that many English people are simply confused about their nationality.

[ image: Ever seen an English one?]
Ever seen an English one?
Writing recently in the Sunday Times, historian Norman Davies recounted how a fellow traveller spoke of his "English passport" - no such document exists - and how a Polish friend received a letter addressed "...Edinburgh, Scotland, England".

"One meets it everyday," he says. "The majority of English people still behave as if 'English' and 'British' are synonymous."

Professor Stephen Knight agrees. He attributes much of the misunderstanding to bad schooling.

"The history of the British Isles is very little taught," says Prof. Knight, who lectures in English Literature at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

"How many know that in the 5th and 6th centuries Scotland was invaded by Irish-speaking people? The word 'Scot' is actually a Latin word for 'Irish'."

Repression by the English has brought about a desire among Scots, Welsh and Irish to learn more about their heritage and distinguish themselves from the broader British identity.

[ image: Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond wants a separate Scottish state]
Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond wants a separate Scottish state
But English identity is more of a "fiction" he says, explaining his theory that the mythic hero Robin Hood was modelled on the Scottish patriot William Wallace and originally called "Rabbie Hood".

He continues on this iconoclastic bent. "If King Arthur existed he spent his time riding around, slaying Anglo Saxons."

And although harbouring national identity is not necessarily a good thing, Prof Knight says it has become important in order to fill the void of conviction created by a decline in religious beliefs.

"Of course most nations have this false consciousness about who they are. I say that for the Scottish as well as the English. It is a construct."

More than a backward glance

The BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, sees it as a trait particularly acute among the English.

Author of the recent book The English, he voices the common criticism that the English too readily buy into a nostalgic vision of the country - cricket on the village green and ladies in floral skirts riding pedal cycles.

[ image: A pint of identity please barman]
A pint of identity please barman
Again, Prof. Knight agrees. "In Australia, where I have spent quite some time, they are obsessed with the future. They want to forget the past whereas the English want to live in it," he says.

"The historical nature of false consciousness makes it very hard to re-tune. But in England it's a stronger conflict than other European countries."

The country's multi-million pound tourism industry only reinforces this Olde England image.

But some observers believe the tide is about to turn for English confidence, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ready themselves for devolved power from Westminster.

As founder of the little-known English National Party, Christopher Nickerson predicts a surge of interest in English self-consciousness over the coming 12 months.

"Our aim is the equivalent of the Welsh and Scottish national parties, on the assumption that England has as much right to be independent as they do," says Mr Nickerson.

[ image: Model patriot? Charles de Gaulle]
Model patriot? Charles de Gaulle
Defining himself as nationalist in the vein of France's General De Gaulle, he expresses disappointment "there has not been a more robust response" to growing Scottish nationalism.

But this will change, he says, predicting England will "go it alone" from the United Kingdom within a few years.

He was excited by the profusion of St George's Cross flags sported by England fans at the Euro 96 football tournament and thinks future historians will see this as a defining spell for English nationalism.

"It used to be when England played Scotland that the Scots would turn up with their white and blue flags and England supporters would wave the Union Jack."

However, Bill Firth, who, as Chairman of the Royal Society of St George helped launched this debate, seems indifferent to England's purported identity crisis.

[ image: England fans at Euro 96]
England fans at Euro 96
"I don't have to check who I am as I go out of the door every morning of my life," he says. His brand of patriotism comes with a small "p".

Englishness is about being "proud, confident and comfortable" with who you are - attributes that derive from "1,000 years of English history".

And he vehemently rejects the purely nostalgic view, preferring to embrace a more dynamic vision driven by multiculturalism.

It's the sort of confidence most English are unable to muster, preferring as they do to wonder, and wonder some more, about warm beer and morris dancing.

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