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  • Alastair Cavendish

An Englishman's Prison

David Lammy has received widespread praise this week for his response to a woman who called in to the Leninist Broadcasting Company to tell him that, because he is Black, he is not English. The woman in question was, to be as polite as Mr. Lammy managed to be, under the influence of some unfortunate ideas, and construed English identity as a matter of race. Mr. Lammy’s reply was gracious and temperate, and, as far as it went, entirely reasonable. However, the most interesting part of his response was glossed over in a rather unclear phrase when he said “my sensibilities are English.” What precisely does this mean?

The first point to make is that Mr. Lammy is perfectly right to say that Englishness is not, and never has been, a racial matter. This could not be said of the Scottish, the Welsh or the Irish, or of many European nationalities, in which race and nation have historically been more or less coterminous. The English do not have anything much in the way of a folk culture, or even a national costume. The great national epic, the Arthuriad, remains unwritten (unless you count the Idylls of the King, which remain unread), and the great national playwright set his best plays in Scotland, Denmark, and Italy. This is perhaps why politicians always come up with feeble responses like “tolerance” and “diversity” when asked to define English or British values, and why their idea of patriotism is to ensure that they put a huge union flag in a prominent position in the spare bedroom from which they conduct online interviews. Whatever English sensibilities turn out to be, it is difficult to see how they are expressed by flying large flags indoors.

Given the national penchant for anti-intellectualism, it is perhaps surprising that the principal English values are neither racial nor visceral, but cerebral and legal, based on nationhood rather than ethnicity. Democracy is sometimes cited as a central ideal in English culture, but the truth is that the Rule of Law was vital to English identity for centuries before the country had even a semblance of democratic government. In the middle of the thirteenth century, Henry de Bracton was already remarking to anyone who would listen that the king was below no man, but below God and the law, encapsulating at least the common understanding of the Magna Carta, signed a couple of decades earlier. Notions of personal freedom and hatred of tyranny have been central to English identity ever since. Consider Pitt the Elder, speaking in 1763:

"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter - all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!"

Discussions of these principles have tended to be derailed by the fact that England has often failed to live up to what Milton called “the known laws of ancient liberty”. There is an obvious hypocrisy in a country celebrating freedom within its borders while it enslaves those unfortunate enough to live outside them, as Britain so ostentatiously did throughout the eighteenth century. The slave trade is so appalling that no argument will stand against it, not the ubiquity of the practice, nor even the British role in ending it. No empire which has professed high principles has ever lived up to them. At the same time, it is worth noting that poets and singers express the ideals of the nation, while politicians use these ideals to hide the sordid reality. It is the work of reformers through the ages to bring the deeds of the nation closer to the principles espoused and expressed by its best elements, something which is only ever achieved slowly and painfully. Freedom and autonomy are ideals which must be fought for over and over again, each time the state and the slavers try to take them away.

What would Pitt the Elder think of lockdown? His specific point is that the King of England cannot enter your ruined tenement: an Englishman’s home is his castle. Any time the King of England shows up at your front door enquiring how many people are within and whether they are all social distancing, or wrapped in cling-film, or whatever the rule is this week, you are entitled to send him on his royal way with a figurative flea in his ear. Presumably, the Great Commoner would take a similarly dim view of a king who hovered outside your door salivating like a traffic warden, eager to impose a fine, or a king who made a practice of wandering round parks breaking up picnics, or beating up women on vigils. It is such mean-spirited actions that mark one out as lacking true patriotism and English sensibility.

One of the most acute commentators on what it means to be English was George Orwell, a man who was under no illusions about the depredations of Empire, having seen them at first hand, and considered them at length in essays and novels. For Orwell, one of the most striking qualities of “the English genius” is an emphasis on private life:

"We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker."

Orwell is always quick enough to charge the English with hypocrisy when merited, but he clearly sees the value in making a national virtue of minding one’s own business. The curtain-twitcher, the busybody, the quidnunc, the scandalmonger, the tattletale, the snooper, the grass, the snitch, the rubberneck, the fink… the sheer number of insulting terms for “the most hateful of all names in an English ear” proves the point. Informing on your neighbours is not an English thing to do, and this tradition of live and let live is a heritage as proud as, and closely connected to, the love of liberty and the insistence that the King of England should know his place. It ought to be clear, therefore, that when government ministers call for English men and women to go sneaking to the police with tales of neighbours breaking lockdown rules, they are being grotesquely unpatriotic. David Lammy may well have English sensibilities. Kit Malthouse has none.

A government that seeks to destroy the essential English values of freedom and privacy cannot be said to be acting patriotically. The current regime has introduced legislation to encourage children to spy on their parents, criminalised peaceful protest, and sought to make the Englishman’s home his prison rather than his castle. On the other hand, they have given a boost to the flag manufacturers. Since the principal qualification for manufacturing flags is the possession of plenty of cheap fabric and string, they may very well be getting these flags from the same places that made all the unusable personal protection equipment they bought. Watch out for Matt Hancock appearing in front of an upside-down Tricolour in the near future. Meanwhile, I’m afraid I cannot resist quoting George Orwell again, this time on the nature of English patriotism:

"In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the “Rule Britannia” stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rear-guard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction."

Peaceful protestors standing up for freedom are being patriotic. Conscientious footballers campaigning against children going hungry are being patriotic. Backbench members of parliament trying to prevent an epidemic of mental illness and suicide are being patriotic. Buying a flag from Amazon and flying it in your living room is the cheapest, tawdriest, most transparent imitation of patriotism, truly the last refuge of a scoundrel. The union flag has never been a symbol of patriotism to ordinary British people, and the person who is continually waving it is subject to the same type of suspicion as the man who is always talking about being a gentleman. Modesty, irony, and self-deprecating humour are all elements of English sensibility, which regards jingoism and nationalism as evidence of poor taste.

If you were to define an English sensibility of which one might be proud, I think love of freedom, minding one’s own business, and a modest, ironic outlook on life would be a good start. One more element must surely be a healthy suspicion, scepticism, and even dislike of politicians, bureaucracy, officialdom, and grandiose projects of social engineering. This is a quality which flourished particularly in the eighteenth-century, best shown, perhaps, by the ferocious political cartoons of the period. The same era that launched the careers of John Wilkes and William Pitt, gave rise to both the most fervent cultural expressions of English patriotism (“Rule, Britannia!”) and the most enlightened criticism of meddlesome politicians.

Modern politicians, of course, escape the implications of history by the simple means of knowing nothing about it. The current cabinet offers conclusive proof that it is possible to pass through some very estimable educational institutions and emerge with the delicate flower of one’s ignorance perfectly intact. This has been true for a good many years, of course. David Cameron was once asked on American television if he knew who wrote “Rule, Britannia!” perhaps the most characteristic eighteenth-century expression of patriotic sentiment, and replied that he thought it was Elgar.

The ignorance of politicians allows them to function as a constant source of bad ideas. One of these bad ideas is lockdown, which went against years of careful scientific planning and advice, to plunge the country into chaos and ruin. Another is racism. The woman who told David Lammy that a Black person cannot be English has been widely ridiculed and condemned, but where did she pick up this curious idea? Perhaps it came from her census form. The 2021 census allows one to choose from five categories and eighteen subcategories of ethnic groups, which are also listed on the government website. In this system, “English” is a subset of “White” but not of any other ethnic group. When the British government explicitly states in its official documents that Black people cannot be English, it seems like something of a distraction to vent one’s ire on a single old lady calling in to a radio show.

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