Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
“You love being English, right?” A throwaway comment, rather than a statement or question. And one to which I didn’t respond, apart perhaps from: “Do I?” Yet that wasn’t because I don’t. I just wasn’t sure why (even though I’m quite traditional, and declaredly conservative) this might be so evident.
To some, loving your country is an embarrassing, slightly dirty idea. To others, it’s a given, more important than anything – something to die for. Entente could be reached, however, over a need to think this through, whilst we’re considering our place in Europe, and potential influxes of incomers.
What’s so great about living in England? About being English? Maybe we can identify the hallowed ‘national values’ that we’re supposed to be promoting to newbies when we’re not too busy painting their doors. Well, according to my quick vox pop, English people love the following:
England’s four clear seasons; that its animals don’t kill you; entire conversations consisting of the words ‘thanks’ or ‘sorry’; the lack of guns; eccentrics – “like this chap”; prudish outward natures closeting closed-door sexual deviances; the hills and the dales; a tradition of punching above one’s weight; test matches and bright yellow Wisdens; and Americans swooning at the accent.
I definitely agree with most of those. (I’m not really into cricket. Unless it involves atypical sunshine, and a stash of Times crosswords and nice wine. Which – on reflection – doesn’t actually count as liking cricket, at all.) But none of them gets to the heart of why I might indeed love being English.
In fact, they don’t even definitively explain why I’m ‘glad’ to be English. This stems from an awareness of how fortunate I am to have been born, grow up, and currently live here. There are few places in which I’d be as content for a prolonged period. Some bits of the east coast of America, fine; several favourite European cities, maybe; Tel Aviv, probably. Thinking of the obvious stuff I like about England, however – its history, culture, education system, food, etc – I know that if I held any of many other nationalities, I’d feel similarly about their relative stuff, too. So why should this matter? Does it?
Most likely, it’s not ‘being English’ that I truly love. Not in a nationalistic, jingoistic, or even patriotic sense, anyway. It’s more that I really like the idea of the nation state. And that I happen to live in a comparatively good example of that – somewhat typified by it being the country that ‘invented’ the concept (sorry, France).
Now, wait a minute, you’re saying – or jumping up and down and yelling – England isn’t a nation state, you fool! Ok, ok. Yes, in the previous paragraphs, I’ve used ‘England’ to refer to a separate yet integral part of the nation state of Britain. But, you see, one of those classic English things we love is insular arrogance. And that’s clearly why we unthinkingly equate ‘English’ with ‘British’. So, for the rest of this piece, in my head, I’ll carry on doing that, but, to appease you (another classic), I’ll write ‘British’ from now on. Sorry, it’s just my Englishness coming out. Thanks.
Right, nation state. I’ve said it before, but I’m a fan of the social contract: individuals tacitly abdicating small amounts of liberty to gain necessary corporate security from a state. Practically, freedom probably isn’t always the most important thing, but it’s hard to think of anything more so, in principle. That doesn’t mean I’m convinced that everything I do is the result of completely reasoned conscious choice – or that it’s possible for us all to be totally free. But a good state should facilitate extensive personal autonomy. Crucial to this is the accountability (to use the word de jour) that seems most credible in a workable democracy, like ours.
That’s why I’m opposed to large-scale multinational federalism. I can’t conceive how any realisation of this could possibly be accountable to everyone it supposedly represented; the countries over which it supervened would be too disparate in their political and economic identities. An established nation state – tied together by its development – is also artificial and idealistic, but, in the best instances, can support its citizens in a genuinely representative fashion.
So, although I like more about Britain than I do other places, it wouldn’t necessarily matter to me which state was ‘mine’, or what its quintessential features were, as long as these made it a good state: an invited protector, not a suppressor of individuality. Indeed, it’s difficult to explicate ‘British values’ partly because our system (still just about) allows people to hold their own views – and act upon them, when this doesn’t actively harm others.
Yet integration is sensible. Not because the ‘values’ a society has come to espouse must inherently be better than those of the places from which its new members have moved. Rather, because being able to speak your home’s official language(s), and understand and partake in its (sometimes odd) traditions promotes collaboration and unity, and makes incomers less likely to fight against their adopted society from within. Essential to this – if you’re lucky enough to reside in a ‘good’ country – is liking it.
But how deep should this run? What about love (always hard for an Englisher), or national pride? On first thought, being proud of where you live seems irrelevant, indulgent, and anthropomorphic. However, a capacity to feel pride implies a sense of belonging, and the recognition of a meaningful connection. It suggests you believe in something. That you’re committed to it, and want it to maintain its strengths and confront its weaknesses.
The theoretical is all very well, but, to believe in the nation state, it really helps to find one in which to believe. And that’s why I love being English – I think.