Saturday, 14 March 2015

Response to article about 'Englishness', on a theme of Ukip

I just read an article from The Guardian about English identity. It was a bit long-winded and went overboard on the metaphors, but it made some interesting observations about how England is struggling with its identity. The article is called 'England's uncertain future' (, and although the author has written it with a keen awareness and knowledge of English history, my gut reaction was 'When has any nation's future been certain?'. Anyway, I dropped the pedantry and decided to write my own thoughts on at least some part of the topic of 'Englishness' in the light of current events, media and politics.

So...I'll start with Ukip, ah lovely Ukip. Actually, I'll continue and finish with Ukip too. For the party's name, I've opted for the first-letter capitalised instead of the full-blown acronym so as not to attract too much attention shouting the party name everywhere. The BBC can do that for me.

With such a multicultural country like the UK, and the undeniable rise in numbers of non-British people  living here (why is there no separate demonym for the UK? United Kingom-ish sounds a bit odd I suppose), I can entirely understand why Ukip have increased prominence in recent years; in other words, I entirely understand why the media have given Ukip increased prominence in recent years. A lot of people - generally those who for various reasons have not had the opportunity or desire to know and understand lives and cultures different to their own - feel uncomfortable. They may see a woman wearing a niqab, and feel 'freaked out' by the sight of it. Why wouldn't they? They may hear someone on the metro chatting in what could be Romanian, and feel uneasy. Of course they would. Multiply these experiences by a hundred, spread them out over a few years, and it's no surprise that people may feel that their Englishness or Britishness is under threat.

Most of those people who feel like this are quite innocent, and their knee-jerk reactionary feelings are often forgiveable. People fear or at least distrust the unknown or unfamiliar. This truth lies at the heart of Ukip's growing success. The media just provide the vehicle, and tank it up when there's a lull in the news.

In many people's eyes, Ukip are coming to the rescue. Just as you were beginning to lament the good old days when yet another unpronouncable surname is before yours at the doctor's, here comes a political party brought up on the same values as you. None of these disconnected toffs like Cameron, or any other policitian for that matter - they're all liars and they're all just the same. No, Ukip's different. Look at that bloke with the pint and fag - he doesn't even mind whether I rhyme 'Farage' with northern 'garage' or not! What a chief, a proper Brit. He's got my vote.

Why would you blame someone for voting for him or his party's candidates, when the notion of Englishness or Britishness is blurry and may soon be drowned out?

The problem is, it's all based on falsehood. The falsehood that English or British values and culture are under threat. Even the unvisited premise that there is such thing as 'British values', as distinguished from other countries', is false. Do Germans not 'love their neighbour'? Does an Iraqi man not believe that he should help someone in need? If you could measure what values are most prevalent in Britain, you'd find the same in practically any other country, if the citizens told you honestly. (I add that last bit because of the lack of democracy in the world, where it's so often the rulers/ruling class of foreign countries who depart from these basic human values in the name of staying in power.) So, any differences between the values of your average Brit and someone from another country are small and inconsequential.

What's more, you'll find huge variation of individuals' personal values in any country of the world, regardless of how strong the national identity is. The USA is famous for its pride, but you have some Americans frequenting brothels and other Americans living a life of celibacy. If Britain did have a democratically-produced constitution written, you could probably translate it into Mandarin and get most of China's population to find it pretty agreeable (provided the ruling Communist party didn't hear about it!).

So, the first reason why Ukip sympathisers think the UK is under threat from people who don't share their British values, is because, thanks to foreign leaders and how their countries are portrayed, these Ukip-voter-to-be think that many immigrants have rather different values.

The second, more blatant reason, is differences in culture and traditions. Brits and Englishpeople have just as distinct and celebrated a culture as any other nationals or ethnicities, and exchange doesn't mean erosion. Farage, like me, loves a pint down the pub and a chin-wag, putting the world to rights. He probably likes a bit of darts like I do. The thing is, my mate from Gdansk loves darts too, and he's bloody good. Another friend from Poland told me that he's a big fan of fry-ups. My Polish wife likes chicken tikka masala (now there's a cultural mix-up if ever there was one!).

The point is here, movement of people has always caused cultural changes, additions and deletions (no I'm not going to try to follow a DNA analogy). Folk who have lived for generations with unchanging cultures and traditions have always felt threatened when something new has come along. I bet the Anglo-saxons after 1066 thought 'these bloody French' - although that sentiment hasn't changed much! The difference between old cultural imperialism (Brits should know) and the changing cultural landscape in Britain today is that, in the latter, no-one really loses: you keep yours, I keep mine, but I might dabble in yours, and you can dabble in mine. God knows we welcome American imports, and that's the closest thing we have to 'losing our culture and identity'. Strangely, I never heard Farage lament the conversion of countless premises (probably plenty of ex-pubs) into Starbuckses, but make it a Polski Sklep and he'll give you a rant about it.

Once you accept that your own culture and traditions are not threatened, and you are confident and proud of them (if pride is something you want), then you'll have the self-security to allow foreign cultures to live next door. If you distrust the foreigner next door, like Ukip's divisive agenda wants you to, then your own self-security is immediately challenged - you're on tenterhooks. But if you start with the assumption that the foreigner next door probably has the same values as you, and loves his/her food just as much as you love yours, you have nothing to fear. You can be secure in your own way of life, and get on with it. Ukip don't like the notion of that existence, because they themselves have the fears and insecurity mentioned above. That's why, ironically, they're anti-British.

I'm British and I like and do lots of British things. I also like and do lots of 'foreign' things. I'm drinking an Erdinger Dunkel. Just because I'm not against immigration, generally left-leaning and really hope we don't leave the EU, does not mean I "exhibit a strange national self-loathing" as I read somewhere. On the contrary, it's because I'm confident and secure in my values, morals and many parts of my culture that I like my country, and I'm frustrated whenever Rooney cocks up for England. I'm also angry about many things British people have done throughout history, and how Britain's reputation can negatively impact what non-Brits see of me when I'm abroad. But the coin has two sides, and I would be lying if I said that I have never had a foreign person warm to me because I'm British, and not enjoyed it a little bit. Though I still explain to them how I like Queen but not the Queen, but that's another story.

I come from Europe, the UK, Britain, England, Lancashire, Longridge, Stonebridge and Lee Street. Those associations each have good sides and bad sides. Whether there's another 50,000 EU migrants living around me or not, it won't stop me enjoying a pint and a bit of darts. Robert Burns, a foreign Scot but fellow European, put it nicely with 'We're all Jock Tamson's bairns'. The only current threat and embarrassment to my national identity and sense of 'Englishness' or 'Britishness' is Ukip.