Who is England?
I’m sitting in Bracknell’s Caffe Nero, overlooking a small courtyard that spans the space between the town’s department store and the ring road. Across the square is an old tudor house, not long ago a pub; now boarded up – another casualty of England’s communal drinking crisis. The crisis is we don’t drink together any more – at least not casually in pubs. On the streets and in city nightclubs young and old can be found blathered and blottoed. But the day of the quiet ale by a country fire is dying. Too many of us drink wine at home instead.
Outside, a bunch of teenagers splash each other with water from a feature, a huge stone sphere that appears to float on the dais that supports it. Just the slightest touch sends it spinning, a metaphor perhaps for this town: a great concrete weight with no sense of itself. Bracknell like England is a truly postmodern phenomenon, rootless, individualised and drowning.
But also fighting for new life. Behind the ex-pub lies a staggering mound of bricks, the remnants of the town’s North-side, now rubble contained by a high blue fence. This is regeneration at work; an entire high street in ruins waiting for the phoenix of impressive high glass storefronts to emerge. Like suburban centres up and down England, economic troubles have slowed the pace of change. But change is coming, sparkling new shopping meccas to fuel the recovery. As the strapline from BBC comedy The Wrong Mans proclaimed: “Bracknell is dead. Long live Bracknell!”
This little town square, like many places from Bournemouth to Berwick, contains an awkward question about who is England. Except for boutique urban ‘lanes’, the sort you find in Brighton or Bristol, the day of the independent shop is done. Most of the foot traffic passing through this square heads to McDonalds, just as in the rest of the town it heads to the other brand-name chain stores that have McDonaldised England. Behind the golden arches rises an imposing office block, once home to tech-giants like Hewlett Packard, before they joined their peers on out-of-town business parks. The economic revolution of the Thames Valley corridor is almost entirely American, as are the consumer-led new town centres.
The irony is not lost, of course; the colonisation of England by a former colony. With every disillusioned trudge underneath my window-seat – and there are many of those – ordinary folk tread out the implicit knowledge that we had it coming. And that there’s not much to be done but trudge on.
This is part of the deep psyche of England: a has-been that once catalysed the world, now left-behind and rudderless. In a globalised world, where the future lies in the Global South and East, even America is on the way out. In a world where the average age is just 23, we are a society of the old; decaying, dying and, most importantly, past-it.
Yet just as the old refuse to gracefully accept obsolescence, so we English have other ideas. Reactions in recent years have taken an interesting range of forms. In one marginal but vocal corner, ugly ‘white’ nationalism has reasserted a ethnic view of Englishness – the English Defence League and British National Party catching the headlines. Recently a more respectably racist phenomenon has emerged in the form of UKIP, a new political party challenging Britain to non-participation in Europe (and by extension closed borders to all the nasty foreigners). The fact there is no such thing as ethnic Englishness has not proved too much of a problem to these myth-makers; according to this crowd, if the something essential in white working-class culture is hard to define, we at least know for sure that it is not black or brown – and is definitely not Muslim.
At the coming European elections an alarming chunk of non-racist English people will also vote UKIP, because the party – and especially its leader, Nigel Farage – have successfully tapped into that squirmish question, who is England. A simple – though deeply flawed – argument posits that the majority of British laws are now made in Brussels. To vote UKIP, they claim, is to take back Britain. But what they mean is England. UKIP has no support in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Under the guise of law-making is a battle for England’s soul.
This question of English independence increasingly exorcises the English Right, and deeper, more conservative roots run far under the surface. In order to woo back Tory deserters from UKIP, Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, has declared several times over the last few weeks that Britain is a Christian country. The predictable media battle ensued with the Left citing recent research that demonstrates the percentage of the population identifying as Christian has fallen below 50%. What everyone seems to have missed is that the main driver of English church growth over the last decade has been immigration, from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
On the Left of English politics the Green Party – a self-confessed ‘internationalist’ movement – represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Fighting for strong European participation, commitment to foreign aid and reconciliation, the party attracts those whose sense of Englishness is tied up with a sense of obligation, who believe there was a time in which we took from the world; now it is time to pay our debts. This has increasing traction within the Left-leaning intelligentsia, but not much beyond that. For most people the question of who is England is itself outmoded and irrelevant. As a well-educated, middle-class, Left-wing friend of mine recently said over the question of Englishness, “Meh”.
So does it in fact matter? In a globalised world, with ever-increasing flows of people, finance and ideas between countries and cultures, does national identity even makes sense? Does England need to mean anything more than a set of administrative borders?
I think it does. If for no other reason that the administrative choices we make within those borders inevitably reflects the story of who we are. Over the last four years the Coalition government has pursued a relentless agenda of administrative deconstruction, fuelled by the story of the ‘Big Society’ (a story, incidentally, that David Cameron claimed the other day started with Jesus). It is a story in which people look out for each other so effectively that the State doesn’t need to provide many services – and of course doesn’t need to tax people much either.
It’s a nice story – or at least the bit about people looking out for each other. Our garden fences are higher, our children less safe for all the same reasons that pubs are closing; we prefer to drink alone, and eat alone and die alone. The Big Society is a story that resists our atomisation and loneliness. It’s an important challenge to our story of who is England.
But the bit about tax cuts and austerity spending translates into a story that we can’t afford the poor or vulnerable. Around a million people now have to make some use of foodbanks, child malnutrition cases have doubled in the last four years, and there are countless cases of people with disabilities having their vital benefit payments cut because they have been wrongly assessed as ‘fit to work’. At the last count, the richest 10% of Londoners had 273 times more wealth than the poorest 10%, a situation that can only be achieved by a national story that tolerates – even welcomes – gross inequality.
The question who is England asks us to tell our story. Yet we are not a single-story nation; if we were this identity crisis would not exist. It is the fact we contain so many different cultures – some old, some new, some mutually beneficial, some antagonistic – that makes England so interesting. The future of England is not in the power of the past, those days are long over. But there is perhaps a future in providing a place – a rooted place with soil and hills and trees and towns – in which people of radical difference can encounter one another, and without any supremacist story to unite them, simply listen to each other and learn, however painfully, to live together.
Back down in the courtyard below a group of tiny children stare awestruck at the giant stone sphere. That they have the power to move such a massive object is a source of wonder. And as the falling stream of water offers to cleanse the town so there is a future beyond the past that is yet unknown. What the children know, we have yet to realise: the power is in our hands.