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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 17:35 GMT
Nation or state?
Patriotic buttons

By Lisa Jardine

The battles in Belgium to form a government and questions over Britishness illuminate issues of identity.

Does size matter when it comes to nation-states? Within the European Union, are ethnic or religious communities viable as "nations", even if their economy cannot survive independently of their neighbours?

These are questions Belgians are asking themselves at the moment with increasing urgency.

Lisa Jardine
Nothing provokes a more indignant crop of responses than one in which I use the word 'English' rather than 'British'

Belgium is in the throes of one of the biggest political crises since it was established as an independent sovereign state in 1831. On 1 December, Yves Leterme, leader of the Flemish Christian-Democrats, and the man charged since elections in June of this year with setting up a coalition government in Belgium, gave up trying to do so, and handed his resignation as potential prime minister to the Belgian king, Albert II.

The king has given the outgoing first minister Guy Verhofstadt responsibility for brokering some kind of a resolution - so far entirely unsuccessfully. In the meantime Verhofstadt has interim extended powers to settle pressing political matters, like the country's 2008 budget.

The issue dividing the four main Belgian political parties is how much autonomy is to be given to the regions. The fear is that a disproportionate amount of power will be concentrated in the northern part of the country, Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Linguistic fracture

The French-speaking Walloons, and a smallish cohort of German-speakers, in the economically less prosperous south, are afraid that devolution will lead to Belgium breaking up along its linguistic faultlines, leaving the Walloons isolated and economically vulnerable.

Anyone who visits Belgium is quickly aware of the linguistic fracture that runs through the country. Dutch and French speakers watch different TV stations, read different newspapers, and attend different universities.

Shakespeare Folio edition
Was Shakespeare English or British?

Even the political parties divide into Dutch- and French-speaking. Leterme is a Christian Democrat, but the list of conditions he drew up for a coalition government, were rejected outright by the French-speaking Christian Democrats.

When my graduate students change trains in Brussels on our way to our annual field trip to the Plantin-Moretus printing museum in Antwerp, they are usually relieved to discover that Brussels is French-speaking.

As we board the train for Antwerp - or "Anvers" as it is marked on the Brussels departures board - I have to warn them not to try to communicate in French once we get there. Far better to speak English than to risk a tirade of nationalistic anger by accosting a Flemish-speaker in the tongue he associates with the Walloons.

These current tensions between Flanders and Wallonia as constituent parts of Belgium, have focused my mind on a matter that has arisen on a number of occasions since I began Point of View. Regulars will know that I take their responses week by week - in the form of phone calls, emails and letters - rather seriously.

British splutters

But just occasionally e-mails and letters are, I have to say, quite intemperate. And nothing provokes a more indignant crop of responses than one in which I use the word "English" rather than "British" when talking about some feature of the history of the United Kingdom.

The matter has come up whenever I have spoken about a period in Britain's past before the Act of Union of 1707. When I referred to the early mariner and explorer in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, as "English", for instance, and when I described how, as his fellow-explorer Sir Henry Hudson set out from St Katherine's Docks to sail the twelve miles down the Thames to Gravesend, from where he set out in search of the Northwest Passage, it was "England" that dwindled into the distance behind him.

For me, who lives where on the face of the globe, is not much more than a historical snapshot

"British" and "Britain" spluttered a chorus of correspondents. But no. As far as I'm concerned, I'm afraid not. Even when Queen Elizabeth I was honoured with all her manifold titles and territorial claims, as in the dedication to Edmund Spenser's 1596 epic poem in English, The Faerie Queene, those titles ran as follows: "To the most high, mightie and magnificent Empresse... Elizabeth by the grace of God Queene of England, Fraunce and Ireland and of Virginia, Defender of the Faith."

To adopt the anachronistic "Britain" and "British" here, is, in my view, to confuse the historical record. We may be proud that such adventurers contributed historically to the prosperity and power of the country we know today as Britain, but we cannot require them to have belonged to a union before that union occurred.

Truth overwhelmed

We might want to emphasise the extent to which tales from the pasts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and indeed those from more distant lands like India, Africa and the Caribbean islands are woven threads in the fabric of Britain's national story. But in context these narrative ingredients in the final mix need, I believe, to retain their original national integrity.

If we insist, we risk allowing nationalism to overwhelm truth. In the 1990s, Typhoo tea ran a television advertisement designed to play patriotically upon the intrinsic "Britishness" of their brand of beverage.

To accompany soaring aerial shots of the British coastline, green fields and breathtaking scenery, a sonorous, Rada-trained actor recited old John of Gaunt's emotive speech in praise of his country, threatened by factional strife, from the beginning of Act 2 of Shakespeare's Richard II:

    This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,

    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this...

The next word should, of course, be "England". But this was not apparently an option for the advertising agency that thought up the advertisement, nor indeed for Typhoo tea. Instead the quotation ended: "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Britain."

I was not the only person, I feel sure, who experienced a frisson of genuine dismay at this unashamed misquoting of our national poet.

And yet - and here I return to the Belgian government's current impasse - my conviction that we ought to refer to Tudor England as just that, does not for one moment mean that I am in favour of dismantling the British Isles or the United Kingdom into its historically constituent parts.

The Grand Place/Grote Markt
Is this the Grand Place or the Grote Markt?

For me, who lives where on the face of the globe, is not much more than a historical snapshot. The location of communities in specific places and nations has almost always been the outcome of individual or mass migration, often enforced under pressure of politics or war.

In the mid-16th Century, the loose confederation of provinces and territories which make up the modern Netherlands and Belgium constituted one "country", under Spanish occupation. When Catholic Spain, under Philip II, consolidated its hold over the southern Low Countries in the second half of the 16th Century, and rebellion broke out in the North, Protestant Netherlanders fled northwards, to the protection of the princes of Orange.

Four hundred years later, Catholic, French-speaking Belgians remain largely concentrated south of Brussels, while Flemish-speaking Protestants predominate in the North.

Migration has also meant that many of those long settled in particular places, and whose loyalties and those of their families are firmly committed there, patently originate elsewhere. Today, once we get beyond the rhetoric of political parties, the idea that all those who live in Flanders think of themselves as "Flemish" rather than Belgian, or those in Scotland as "Scottish" before British, quickly dissolves into the natural diversity brought about by the constant movements of peoples.

Whenever my close Scottish friend, who has lived in London since the 1980s and raised her two children there, tells me that "eventually" she will go back to Scotland "where she belongs", I ask her whether "eventually" I am to go back to the Polish Shtetl my father's family left at the beginning of the 20th Century? British I was born, and British I wish to remain.

Not in any spirit of nationalistic fervour, but as a fully signed up member of the community of fair-minded individuals of every background, creed and ethnicity, who find themselves living, working and paying taxes in this "green and pleasant land".

Though, come to think of it, in William Blake's rousing anthem, it is "England's green and pleasant land", isn't it?

Send us your comments using the form below.

Yes!! Well said. I am a member of The Hartley Companie, a group or medieval reenactors who, strangely, re-enact battles from the Wars of the Roses, 1455 - 1487, (and known then as the Wars of the Cousins) and I can affirm that we meet a huge amount of PC-ery at venues all over the country. One of the most flagrant is being pulled up when we refer to 'England' at this time, and told we should be saying Britain. We get tried of saying that England was the name of the nation - and still is. Britain is a contraction of the political/geographic name 'Great Britain' and refers to the group of islands, one of which contains the nation state of England.
Peter Keen, Chichester England

You are of course completely correct in distinguishing between the English Queen Elizabeth the First and her various explorers who set out in her name and British/Britain. The Union of the Crowns only came to pass after the death of Elizabeth and the throne passing to James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. For this reason the current queen is actually Queen Elizabeth the first of Scotland!!
Alexander Bisset, Scotland (Aberdeen)

Nice points up until the last four paragraphs. Surely the history that's been outlined, especially in relation to the low countries, shows that there have always been tensions between different groups within the same political units? Exactly the opposite of them "quickly dissolv[ing]". Then equating a Scottish friend's desire to retire where she came from, with your own parental roots isn't the same thing at all. If the friend had said she'd expected her children to return to where they belong, then it would make sense. Lots of people move to London because that's the main economic centre, but don't intend to spend their whole life there. Similarly, equating "Britain" with a green and pleasant land that is actually "England" is the attitude that annoys non-English people. And the very same attitude you were trying to distance yourself from in early part of the article. It just highlights confusion about English national identity, where england and british are conflated. westminster is seen as an english parliament, and british culture is seen as english culture.
John Drummond, Edinburgh, Northern Britain

I take your point on England, but it should be remembered that, in earlier times, 'England' really meant 'England and Wales', as the two became legally one entity in Tudor times.
Craig, Bridgend

Thank you for informing about my country. I do believe however that due to missing historical data (what about AFTER Spanish occupation?, what about the industrial revolution in Belgium, what about the 20th century) your readers might get a distorted view of Flanders. If you would have investigated that period, you would need to conclude that dutch speakers have been considered second rated since 1830: dutch was not an official language, was 'inappropriate' for universities and schools, for administration, for the army (also in WW2), politics,... Dutch was only recognized as an official language in 1898 but it took until 1930 to get a real recognition of the language. As you can see, the 'language struggle' is not a detail in our history. I think if your readers would be better informed on this issue, they would surely understand WHY Flemish people are 'not amused' when foreigners and Walloons insist in speaking French in Flanders. They would understand why Brussels is a Flemish city, and why Flanders wants more autonomy. History has shown that we Flemish people occupied for hundreds of years are open minded and always look for a compromise rather than conflict, but as in every democracy the vote of the majority must rule.
Roel verschatse, oviedo/Spain

"I have to warn them not to try to communicate in French once we get there. Far better to speak English than to risk a tirade of nationalistic anger" As a Flemish person, I find this highly exagerated. Belgium is far from the caricatural image spread by the media. Most Flemish people do not want to split up Belgium, but simply want more authority on policies that are entirely diffent on both sides of the language barrier. And as far as religion is concerned, Belgium is largely Catholic (both French- and Dutch-speaking. The Dutch-speaking protestants fled North, (North as in The Netherlands). Mr. Leterme is member of a Catholic party. And finally, please, Flemish people speak DUTCH. Nobody says the Walloons speak Walloon. Belgium's three official languages are: Dutch, French and German.
L, Flanders

If Prof Jardine is going to set such store in historical accuracy, she would do well to remember that William Blake did not write a "rousing anthem". The phrase "England's green and pleasant land" derives from his Preface to Milton, often called "Jerusalem", which is not an anthem but merely a poem; it was the composer Hubert Parry who wrote the music that transformed it into a "rousing anthem".

Nationalism is a fact, pplitically it is a tool, an emotionally it is what defines who we are. I am British and proud of the history and tradition and culture that implies. I am Scottish and ditto. Do I get upset when referred to as English ? - yes I suppose I do. But not from a racially bigotted perspective. I get angry at the lack of respect and knowledge this implies. The Media are the worst offenders - why? Simply because they should know better - it is the British Broadcasting Corporation. A little thought would make a huge difference. Weather forecasting, to ignore the tiresome sport tribalism, is a fine example of lazy reporting - I?ve often heard that there will be rain in the north of the country to find poor Lancashire and Yorkshire getting a deluge while from Dumfries north its sunny!
Simon Cunningham, Glasgow, Scotland

Great piece and I wish the Belgians all the best in settling their current dispute. But we are Scottish and three centuries of artificial political union will not change that. The UK is a state. Scotland is a nation and therefore my nationality.
Scott Parker, Glasgow


Your assertion that "the idea that all those who live in Flanders think of themselves as "Flemish" rather than Belgian, or those in Scotland as "Scottish" before British, quickly dissolves into the natural diversity brought about by the constant movements of peoples" is, I feel a little off the mark. I concur that in historical terms you are perfectly correct to refer to Sir Humphrey Gilbert as 'English', but do then extend the same courtesy to those of us born in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. I consider myself Welsh first, British second.
Hannah, Oxford, UK

Why can't people think of themselves as part of humanity instead of worrying about nationalities and barriers? - Here's to the future when it WILL be all one world ....
Jennifer Gaff, Lyons; France

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