Warm beer brings out the worst

The Making of English National Identity
June 4, 2004

Jeffrey Richards welcomes the latest effort to locate the roots of Englishness.

There seems to be no diminution in the flow of books seeking to define Englishness or Britishness, and to explore what is widely perceived as a crisis of national identity, precipitated by the decline or disappearance of the pillars of Britishness (the empire, Protestantism, parliamentary democracy), which has coincided with the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and Britain's reluctant membership of the European Union.

The latest writer to enter this intellectual minefield is sociologist Krishan Kumar. In this lively, stimulating and readable book - Jundeniably an important contribution to the debate - he seeks to trace the making of English national identity. He begins by theorising national identity and does so in such a way that he can only conclude that there was no English identity until the 19th century. He adopts the distinction made by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke between political nations and cultural nations.

The political nation, the "state nation", is imposed from the top down as in France, Spain and Britain, where centralising monarchies accomplished the work of nation-building. The cultural nation is the "nation-state" proper. This is state-building from the bottom up. The cultural nation, Kumar argues, represents "the apotheosis of nationhood", the state created from a pre-existing nation bound by deep ties of history, language, literature and religion.

But he goes on to argue that neither political nation nor cultural nation can exist before there is a concept of them, and this does not develop before the 18th century in the case of the political nation and in the 19th in the case of the cultural. This theoretical model requires Kumar to dispose of all those historians who claim that English identity emerged in the Middle Ages, the 16th century or the 17th century.

He claims that the medieval and the Tudor world-views were both too local and too international to include an English national identity. By the 17th century, he argues, following the Union of the Crowns in 1603, it is a British identity that is being culturally promoted. Certainly what used to be seen as the English Civil War is now widely seen as a British phenomenon.

By the 18th century, he is on safer ground. He is able to endorse Linda Colley's pioneering interpretation in her book Britons (1992), which argues for the emergence of a British identity, based on a shared Protestantism, the acquisition of a vast overseas empire and international trading pre-eminence, a cherished tradition of parliamentary democracy and a succession of wars against France, which had the effect of consolidating the feeling of being British.

This causes Kumar to postulate an imperial nationalism to explain all the problems thrown up by the subject - "the puzzling fact that the English do not think they have nationalism, the confusions of English/British, the current difficulties in trying to define or redefine Englishness". A wider British imperial identity subsumed all the others and continued to do so until at least the 1960s. This is wholly plausible but hardly new. John MacKenzie and the Manchester school of imperial and cultural historians have been arguing this for years.

Kumar identifies the moment of Englishness as the 1890s and the Edwardian period, which saw the emergence of the Whig theory of English history, the pastoral vision of England, the development of the subject of English literature, the English folk music and folk dance revival, and the formulation of Anglo-Saxon racial theory. He dates it to this period because of his perception of a crisis of confidence in the empire, the decline of religion and the rise of cultural and ethnic nationalism in Europe.

But several of these "English" phenomena long predate the 1890s and are the product of a reaction against the perceived excesses of industrialisation and urbanisation. The whole British imperial identity also received a powerful boost in the Great War, and this sustained it for several more decades.

Most problematic is the dismissal of the idea of English national identity before the 19th century. If Colley's components of Britishness are acceptable, they have many parallels in the Middle Ages and the Tudor period - precisely those ties of history, literature, language and religion that constitute the cultural nation. The Hundred Years War between England and France sharpened a sense of national identity in both countries.

English emerged to replace French as the national language of England.

Edward the Confessor was canonised to provide England with a domestic national saint. A distinctive English history and English literature developed. The Magna Carta and the common law helped to define the nation.

A case can certainly be made for the Elizabethan period, with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the exploits of the Devon seadogs, the cult of Gloriana, the Church of England, Parliament, the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries ("Cry God for Harry, England and St George"). Kumar's objection that most people were illiterate is irrelevant, as the plays were performed rather than read.

In the matter of identity, the testimony of foreign observers is crucial.

There is abundant evidence that England and the English were seen as distinctive. The Venetian ambassador famously reported in 1497: "The English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think there are no other men than themselves and no other world but England."

A composite pen portrait of the English before the 19th century, drawn from the accounts of foreign visitors, sees them as violent, cruel, drunken, profane, foreigner-hating and self-loving. It was this identity Harold Perkin had in mind when he wrote in The Origins of Modern English Society (1969): "Between 1780 and 1850, the English ceased to be one of the most aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly, tender-minded, prudish and hypocritical."

What happened to them? The simple answer is the English became British, a new national character was derived from the components of the British identity. As that identity fragments, we are beginning to see the older, darker, nastier Englishness re-emerge from the shadows.

Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.

The Making of English National Identity

Author - Krishan Kumar
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 367
Price - £47.50 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 521 77188 9 and 77736 4

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