Gary Day

January 20, 2006

I sometimes worry that I'm not English because I don't have a shaven head, tattoos and a compulsion to punch people. Actually that last one is not true. I am just too much of a coward to indulge it. Nor have I perfected that mask-like middle-class face that drops only to reveal the human being behind it at the word "money". I haven't a clue what the upper class do, apart from stretch their vowels to breaking point and appear in absurd hats at Ascot. Maybe I shouldn't be thinking about English identity in these outmoded terms. Don't we live in a classless society? Only if you ignore the evidence of land ownership, inherited wealth, income inequality, declining social mobility and a huge divide between rich and poor in education. Well, it's a lot to take in, even if you do find it mentioned in the media.

Why am I even thinking about such matters? Because everyone else is, of course. I'm not an individual. I want to get on in life. Being different is another one of those fabled English characteristics that has evaporated in our corporate age.

The loss of Empire, the passing of Protestantism, the rise of mass culture, globalisation, immigration, devolution and not having won the World Cup since 1966 are just a few of the reasons why the English have become uncharacteristically introspective. Haven't you noticed all the books on Englishness or watched Little Britain ? Or seen those lists of the best and worst Britons?

Hugo de Burgh has. He runs Agora, a forum for the discussion of ideas. Traditionally we have left philosophical disputes to foreigners while we trimmed our herbaceous borders, but it's not only our eating habits that have changed since we joined the European Union. Airy questions about how you know you're alive become surprisingly relevant in the light of claims that "constitutionally and politically, England does not exist". So de Burgh brought together politicians, journalists and other luminaries to hear their thoughts on the subject. Among the guests were Lord Baker, Simon Hughes MP, David Walker of The Guardian and Mike Knowles, chairman of the Campaign for an English Parliament ( www.thecep.org.uk ).

There was talk of an impending constitutional crisis. All Scottish MPs can vote on English and Welsh legislation, but English and Welsh MPs cannot vote on the majority of Scottish legislation. Tam Dalyell pointed out this anomaly before devolution in 1997, and because he is the MP for West Lothian, it has become known as the West Lothian question - although the phrase goes back to Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill in 1886, which suggests that it's the political equivalent of my saying I will clear out the garden shed, only not today. Should there be a hung Parliament at the next election, it is possible that the Government will depend on Scottish MPs to pass certain laws and that, Lord Baker fulminated, is "inequitable".

The Barnett formula also came under fire. Named after Joel Barnett, chief secretary to the Treasury in Jim Callaghan's ministry, it is a means of calculating public spending to the regions according to their relative need. Mike Knowles claimed that "each Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish person [now] receives £1,300 per head more than any person in England for education, healthcare and social services". The Scottish Parliament receives 23 per cent more for investment in its universities than England does and everyone knows that Scottish students get free tuition. David Walker, a Scot, wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

The entire system is "irrational" and, since no one seems to have minded up to now, why change it? Where, he wanted to know, was the famed English tolerance for anomalies?

This was the cue for a discussion about national characteristics. The English were "modest, patient and just", said Baker. Just like in the golden years of Thatcherism. The former Secretary of State for Education declared Britain's glory days went even further back to when only 14 per cent of people had the vote. He laughed so we knew he was joking, humour being another English characteristic. The Scottish writer A. A. Gill conceded that the English think they're funny but it's really "anger in fancy dress". There's nothing new about the English relying on the Scots to tell them who they are. In the 18th century, when the idea of the nation state began to take shape, John Arbuthnot created the character of John Bull and James Thomson composed Rule Britannia .

Everyone agreed that there should be an English Parliament because lunch was looming. It would do, oh, wonderful things and allow us to be proud of our national identity. Perhaps making English literature compulsory could help here. It would be nice to be useful.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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