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I picked this title up from Isabel Hardman in Monday’s Times in an article seeking to explain how the Labour vote in Oldham had survived Jeremy Corbyn. Wednesday’s Times had another columnist Alice Thomson trying to define Britishness, albeit reluctantly. Although not always expressed as such, the question is being asked in two separate contexts: the secularisation of the indigenous British on the one hand and the wish to find a statement of national identity that can be applied to more recent immigrants on the other. Inevitably, this second context is today dominated by Islamic considerations. Forty years ago the issue would have been seen in black and white terms. But now, black and white cultures are understood not to be that different, both containing a love of blues music, football and cricket, a liberal attitude at least towards heterosexual sex and perhaps a residual affection for Christianity.
I’m seventy years old. I feel like I’m one of the last Victorians and am one of the first baby boomers. I remember well my Victorian grandparents and liked them. I used to sell deck chair tickets for brass band concerts in a Lancashire seaside town as a vacation job and there was nothing cold or austere about those folk born in the 1880s who came along to hear that hauntingly mournful sound. They would talk to me about space travel and ask about the concert taking place in the Hall behind the bandstand that evening, a Merseybeat band usually.
In 1964, aged just 19, I was delighted when Harold Wilson became prime minister, and in 1966 I even canvassed for Labour in an adjacent village. I always like Harold, his northernness being part of what I meant by Englishness. I’ve not voted for Labour much since 1979, when I was in no doubt about south-coast Sunny Jim in preference to Mrs T. After then, a party that preferred metropolitan entryists to Denis Healey wasn’t for me. I admit to a regional aspect to this but not being able to hack the single-issue politics of demonstrations, marches, spokespeople and lobby groups, is perhaps also related to being a mix of villager and townie in background, never urban. I have a conceit I cannot rid myself of, the English as yeomen, living their lives in private but available when the nation needs them.
Alice Thomson talked about Britishness. I am one sixteenth Welsh, fifteen sixteenths English as discovered by genealogy. Since 1600 and therefore probably from 600, my roots are either northern or from Worcestershire. My Y chromosome is fittingly from Yorkshire, just over the boundary line in Heptonstall, but this doesn’t prevent me from indulging in friendly rivalry with the ugly buggers from the dry side of the Pennines. There’s no Irish or Scottish in me, much as I enjoy lilting Celtic music with accompanying tales. The only time I side with Scots is on New Year’s Eve, and I have every year since the BBC started that wretched programme containing no vestige of culture from the ice rink at Somerset House with fireworks over the Thames. I’ll tell my east-ender wife how I’d prefer Andy Stewart singing, “Donald. Where’s your troosers?”’
I am mainly what’s called anglo-saxon, that mix of Germanic tribes settling with those who had come to virgin Britain earlier when there was still a land bridge with Europe. In my youth, that was what was meant by English, although after 1066 the ruling class were not English in this sense. My male ancestors probably didn’t get the vote until 1918, not a lot earlier than the women. I’m chippy to that extent.
I was christened as an Anglican in a church mentioned in the Domesday Book. Nearly all the big events of our family, the births, marriages and deaths have taken place in a church. I find hope and comfort in the Christian message of God being with us, that humans can become God, that victory is in defeat and that only at the end of time will God be all in all. I am happy to view the three aspects of God as less than Almighty before then. For me, a lesser God is a greater God.
In more recent times, I’ve read the less reductionist philosophers espouse the notion that personhood is the story we tell ourselves about our life. In my novel “Where’s Sailor Jack?” I toy with the notion that the story we become is somehow in us from the start, another quaint conceit I can’t shake off. Even having the idea though shows how deep is my sense of personhood as a Lancastrian, middle of the road Christian, fortunate beyond belief but not a member of the ruling class.
The first person I talked to in my life who didn’t have a white skin was a high-born Hindu from Calcutta when I went in 1964 to University at Oxford. This was at a time of white social mobility. From being born in a village in 1945 as the war ended, and brought up in a terraced house with an outside lavatory to going to the most prestigious and snobby University in the country if not the world 19 years later is testament both to what the Labour Party enabled and to the Christian conscience of paternal Toryism. Did I have in me then that a multi-cultural Britain would be established within another half century? I certainly can’t recall it. The nearest I got was singing “We Shall Overcome” along with Joan Baez.
There isn’t just one England. I imagine that both Isabel and Alice are from the home counties, while being thoughtful and well-meaning women. In the unlikely event they were to read this, they’d probably find it somewhat anachronistic.To the extent that they’re county set rather than metropolitan, there could be the odd view they’d recognise. But then we all are anachronisms by the time we’re seventy. Like my Victorian bandstand chums I would talk to the young people about the today’s equivalent of the space programme and rock music, if Simon Cowell hadn’t bought up the rights. I think that’s my Labour Englishness at work.
So I’d be in trouble both on secularisation and on immigration if my upbringing, religion or whatever didn’t tell me that you can’t force anyone into belief and you should treat your neighbour as yourself.