Until our recent discontents England had never succumbed to doctrinal nationalism. Absent from English history was the obsessiveness found in many countries across Europe about the recovery of authentic nationhood. Although the English have often been perturbed about the condition of England, they have rarely floated nationalist solutions to their problems. The slogan ‘English votes for English laws’ strikes a discordant note in the dominant melody of English history.
It’s not that the English have been immune to chauvinism or national mythologising. Since the later Middle Ages at least – and arguably for much longer – they have enjoyed a strong sense of national consciousness, but one more obviously tempered with complacency than tinged with nationalist grievance. After all, for much of modern history, England was, in the memorable phrase of Sellar and Yeatman, ‘Top Nation’: both an imperial power and the first industrial nation. Sellar and Yeatman’s comic masterpiece 1066 and All That (1930) poked fun at England’s not quite nationalism. But if it’s not nationalism, how should we describe England’s distinctive sense of self? Probably the most useful descriptor is Whiggism, after Herbert Butterfield’s incisive dissection in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) of the tendency ‘to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present’.
There is a further near coincidence. In 1929, Lewis Namier began the patient deconstruction of England’s constitutional myths in The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, which jettisoned a grand narrative of statesmanship and party principle, and put in its place the microscopic study of individual politicians, their interests, networks and connections. Clearly, from around 1930 the Whig mythology that had for centuries shaped the narratives of historians and informed debate about the character and purposes of English political life no longer sufficed for serious historians. It took aspiring statesmen a few decades longer to shed Whiggish tropes about our glorious heritage of liberty, especially after Britain’s lone stand against Hitler in 1940-41 when Butterfield himself succumbed to Whiggery in The Englishman and His History (1944). By the 1960s, however, the Whig interpretation had lost its potency, though no subsequent idea of Englishness has proved anything like as successful.
Rather than the understated influence of Whig historians Englishness is now a matter of the shrill nativism of a forgotten white working class, and the pained nostalgia of the elderly, who can remember a straight-faced version of our ‘island’ story. Even if England has never been an island, a vagueness about the contours of its political geography was for centuries a core ingredient of the nation’s identity, and remains a staple of neo-English resentment. A confusion about who the English are and how they relate to the rest of the British people remains evident in the oddly miscellaneous collection of party labels found among English nationalists: the English Defence League, the British National Party and Ukip. In addition, the Conservatives – or, more properly, the Conservative and Unionist Party – also have an English nationalist wing.
Few historians have thought seriously about the ‘where’ of English history, perhaps because it seems all too obvious. While archaeologists, such as Cyril Fox in The Personality of Britain (1932), were forced to confront the role of geography in the making of the island’s first communities, historians have tended – with the striking exception of the Scottish medievalist Dauvit Broun in Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain (2007) – to take its constituent nations at face value. Of course, historians of England have examined the Plantagenet empire in France and the global empire acquired in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they have rarely considered the implications of such extended territorial acquisitions for England itself. Only recently has the geographical question of England come more clearly into focus. George Molyneaux argues that it was only in the mid tenth century during the reign of Edgar (957/9-75) that an administratively coherent English polity came into being – but one whose northern boundary was the River Tees, not the Tyne or the Tweed. Nevertheless, the informal dominance of Anglo-Saxon kings extended much further. Athelstan in the early tenth century, whose direct rule was limited to the south of England and the west midlands, was recognised as king of Britain. More confusingly still, Molyneaux identifies an ironic precursor of the West Lothian Question: in the eighth century Bede described the church at Abercorn in West Lothian as being in the territory of the English.
England has never existed in isolation. According to Robert Tombs, it has existed as itself only for a couple of relatively brief periods in its long history, ‘between Alfred and Cnut, and again (though by then including Wales) under the Tudors’. It has more often existed as part of a larger multinational state or the core of an empire or the largest territory of a dynastic conglomerate.
Tombs understands the exasperations of a nation that for most of its supposed history, it now transpires, never was. Condemned for centuries to a vale of existential uncertainty, the English have seen their situation become decidedly worse in the past two decades. Since Scottish devolution, Tombs argues, ‘England has attained a special place in Europe: as the largest nation without its own political institutions.’ The Scots and the Welsh can, it seems, be themselves; the English alone are denied full democratic nationhood.
But what if England, Scotland and Wales are at bottom mere quirks of contingency? What if nations are not, as we tend to assume, enduring reminders of the stubborn realities of geography and ethnic settlement? In Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery the medievalist John Gillingham shows that biological and political accidents mattered as much as supposed natural frontiers in the making of nations. If Henry of Northumbria had not predeceased his father, King David I of Scotland, in 1152, Britain might have been divided at the Humber into two more equally sized political units, the kingdom of Greater Scotland (incorporating northern England) and the kingdom of Little England (made up of the midlands and south). Not until the 1230s did the Tweed-Solway line become the recognised frontier between England and Scotland.
Throughout almost the entire period from 1066 to 1453 the kings of England held ‘substantial territories in France’. Gillingham chides historians who assume that it was the ‘destiny’ of the English to dominate the British Isles, with the corollary that ‘kings of England who spent time in France were at best wasting their time, and at worst hindering the fulfilment of England’s historic task.’ Had the warrior-king Henry V been succeeded by someone with marginally more smeddum than the meek Henry VI, Gillingham reckons that ‘a dual Anglo-French monarchy’ might ‘have thrown a permanent political bridge across the Channel’.
Franco-English absorption might have occurred the other way round in the late 1210s had King John not died so soon after Magna Carta. His baronial opponents had thrown in their lot with Prince Louis of France, whose forces occupied most of eastern England, including London, at the time of John’s fortuitous death in October 1216. Thereafter, the symbol of legitimate rule, John’s heir, the nine-year-old Henry III, too young to share responsibility for his father’s misdeeds, drew support away from Louis. But it was a close thing. As Gillingham notes, ‘had John lived longer he might have managed to lose his whole kingdom’ to the future Louis VIII of France.
It is hard now to conceive the end result – an Anglo-French hybrid – as anything other than an unnatural monster, doomed to a short life. But, as Tombs argues, England was a self-consciously ‘creole’ nation. In the centuries after the Norman Conquest the ethnic Anglo-Saxons and their French-speaking conquerors found a way of becoming English, which more than half a millennium later provided the matter for the great novel of English ethnogenesis, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). It took a 19th-century Scot to contemplate 12th-century England; and Scott himself was probably using the Saxon-Norman encounter as a device for exploring Anglo-Scottish acculturation since the Union of 1707. The 12th-century Normans approached the creole question with a subtle indirection of their own. Medieval England’s most influential myth of national origins – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1136), which Tombs describes as a ‘common Anglo-British epic’ – was a post-Conquest treatment of an earlier phase of creolisation which celebrated the Celtic Britons as the forerunners of the Saxon-Norman English. Medieval England was plagued with baronial wars and rebellions, but ethnicity was rarely the cause of internal division in the medieval centuries when the Saxons and Normans blended as English.
The English language provides the best evidence for this Norman-Saxon fusion. At first, it seems, bilingualism and trilingualism (with Latin as the third language) prevailed among the conquerors. English persisted as a submerged subaltern language among the conquered with whom the conquerors needed to communicate. But it was not the Old English of their forebears. By 1300, as Tombs notes, the formalities of literary Anglo-Saxon had become, an ‘ydioma incognita’. Somehow the losers of 1066 absorbed the winners, rather than vice versa. In the centuries after the Conquest, Gillingham estimates, English acquired around 10,000 French loan words, which themselves made the language even more receptive to further borrowings. But the triumph of English was a protracted process. Not until the late 14th century did it become the tongue of an anglicised Norman elite; and only in the 15th century did it become the language of government business. Law French survived in the English courts until 1731, and still endures at the heart of the British constitution in the formula for the royal assent: ‘La reyne le veult.’
We might know how the English became English, but how did England become ‘Top Nation’? What gave the English competitive advantages – whether in warfare, commerce or constitutional stability – over other ‘lesser’ nations? Indeed, what are the characteristics that make the English ‘English’? Are they inherent properties of national character or largely a product of institutional arrangements? In The Origins of English Individualism (1978) the historical anthropologist Alan Macfarlane controversially questioned the notional transition in England from medieval feudalism to early modern capitalism. There was no evidence for a peasant society in 15th-century England, as far as Macfarlane could see; no evidence of extended multi-generational households; no evidence of a strong linkage between land and family; no evidence that kin and family trumped individual inclination. Rather, what Macfarlane detected was the early emergence of self-interested behaviour and the nuclear family. Certainly, something like individual property rights and a ‘market mentality’ are evident in England as far back as 1300, or possibly earlier. English rural society, Macfarlane argued, incubated ‘capitalist’ behaviours at least five hundred years before the coming of industrialisation. The commercial and industrial ‘revolutions’ thus seemed merely the later outgrowth of indigenous social patterns. Geoffrey Elton in The English (1992) agreed that England’s history was exceptional, and its distinctiveness centuries old, but thought the most compelling explanations for this were to be found in its system of government: the common law, relatively efficient administration and the firm smack of royal control – all of which were in place from about the tenth century. According to Elton, ‘the ultimate truth of the English people’s existence lay in that mixture of order enforced by authority with freedom exercised under authority which was not to be found anywhere else.’
This new ‘matter of England’ frames the admirably quizzical histories of the British world since 1660 by Jonathan Clark and Robert Skidelsky. Clark is terrier-like, an anti-Whig revisionist who worries at every unexamined assumption he encounters. (While he distances himself from Whig mythologies, his preface was written from Callaly Castle, Northumberland, which seems to advertise blue blood and broad acres, and to invoke the historiographical lineage of Whig grandees from which he so vociferously dissents.) Clark distrusts all narrative categories, and his conclusion is refreshingly Pyrrhonian: ‘At any point between 1660 and 1832, the future was wholly uncertain.’ Yet, like Macfarlane, he sees the roots of England’s industriousness as lying deep in the past. Clark argues that much of the astonishing growth in England’s incomes, output and population came in the centuries before full-scale industrialisation. France’s population grew by 79 per cent between 1550 and 1820; England’s over the same period rose by more than 280 per cent.
Skidelsky explores the peculiarities of the 20th-century British experience through a long lens. Given the ‘cataclysmic events’ the country confronted, why did it not succumb to extremism? Skidelsky tries to locate Britain’s shock absorbers. Was the absence of class war attributable to the ‘unique accommodative properties of the political system’? ‘Oligarchic democracy’ – under the control of an aristocratic but reformist Establishment – was the unchallenged norm until the 1950s. Or was tranquillity a by-product of the stolidly ‘pragmatic’ and ‘unintellectual’ character of the English people? After all, class war had not come as the Marxists predicted; instead, the highly urbanised English yearned after rural values. Skidelsky points to the bitterest of ironies, that the only successful general strike in British history was the Ulster Protestant workers’ strike of 1974.
Skidelsky’s story is reassuringly understated: Britain ‘started the century as Rome and ended it as Italy’, but nothing much happened along the way to jolt the English out of the familiar grooves of their domestic history. The state and civil society never imploded, or came close to it. The empire simply evaporated. Not that it had ever been a source of genuine strength. Rather, it had ‘sprawled across five continents like a gigantic jellyfish, lacking a central nervous system’. But the passing of empire ‘undermined the idea of a single political nation’, and left the English to rub along with their near neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the cramped confines of an English-dominated state that the English were oblivious of dominating. The current problem, as Skidelsky sees it, is that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all dwindled into ‘regional parties’.
The European Question compounds the mess. It’s hard to know which would be worse: Scottish withdrawal from Britain, or British secession from the European Union. Clark reminds us of the two competing grand narratives in English history: the Whig saga of ‘insular’ exceptionalism versus England’s sticky entanglement in European affairs, and alignment with Continental norms of government. In a coat-trailing conclusion Molyneaux challenges the exceptionalism which prevails in Anglo-Saxon historiography. Developments in tenth-century England were part of a set of wider European trends. England only seems exceptional when directly contrasted with West Frankia, or France. Indeed, Molyneaux taunts the Eurosceptics that English exceptionalism is rooted, ironically, in assumptions about ‘French typicality’.
Moreover English exceptionalism – the intelligent person’s rationale for Ukip – isn’t all that exceptional. In a highly influential paper published in 1965 John Hajnal argued that the demographic foundations of individualism, including first marriage at a late age – about 23 for women, 26 for men – and independent household formation, were part of a marriage pattern characteristic of north-west Europe. At the deepest level of sociology, it seems, what makes English society distinctive from the rest of the world is something we share with the French, Germans and Scandinavians. A cruder version of this notion was once a commonplace of Whig history. Seventeenth and 18th-century antiquaries reckoned that Tacitus’ Germania described the customs practised by the Ur-English, the ancient Germanic ancestors of their own Anglo-Saxon forebears. Long before the age of Nigel Farage, it was a proud not-quite-nationalist boast that the liberties of the English sprang from the forests of Germany.