Speaking the Nation: The search for a new national vocabulary

It’s hard sometimes to say ‘England’ even when you mean it, and mean to. The old political-linguistic correctness kicks in, and I find myself saying ‘British’ or ‘Brits’ to refer to my country or compatriots. This reflex reaction isn’t just a relic of upbringing and of a historic identification between England and Britain that is no longer valid. There remain very profound ways – psychological, ‘existential’, political and constitutional – in which England and Britain continue to be indivisible; some of which I’ve attempted to explore here and here, among others.

The problem, as we know, is that we live in an England that is without any formal constitutional status as a distinct nation: there’s no English parliament, crown or constitution; every institution that is ‘national’ is ‘British’, even those for which there are separate Scottish- and Welsh-national institutions. This is the case whether the remit of the ‘British’ body is truly UK-wide (as in the Armed Forces or the Monarchy itself), is limited to England (e.g. the NHS (in England) or the (English) Football Association), or is indiscriminately both (as in the UK Government and Parliament). This means that if we English wish to refer to anything ‘national’, we tend naturally to resort to the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ because all of ‘our’ national institutions – including the state itself – are technically called ‘British’ even if their authority extends only to the territory of England. And we English are indeed a rule-abiding and correct people, in the other sense of the latter word: we feel we should use words according to their ‘proper’, official meaning and scope, even if that denies England the linguistic means to assert its own identity and national pride. Another English trait: reserve and self-effacement.

If, however, we are going to affirm a separate identity and political status for England as a nation, we are going to have to overcome this tendency to hide our English light under the British bushel. In short, we’re going to have to invent a new vocabulary that expresses anything relating to national-level affairs or institutions as ‘English’ rather than British, even if for the present this is technically not correct: even if the proper formal term is ‘British’.

In the past, I’ve tended to think of this merely as a political tactic: as a way to counter the tendency by the government and official media to suppress the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ from discussions of matters that relate to England only by referring to England as ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’. However, I think it goes deeper than this: it’s about developing an English-national consciousness and pride. We can only be an English nation if we speak of our country with pride as England and name ourselves as English. At first, this may seem inappropriate, inaccurate and petty. But, in time, if the majority of English people re-capture that pride in being English that once expressed itself through an identification between England and mighty Great Britain, and now must be reasserted as pride in being English for its own sake, then it will be increasingly the official language of ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ that will come to seem incongruous and out of step with the (English) people. Eventually, this could be one factor among many – and a significant one at that – that pressurises the political establishment into recognising England as a nation and giving her a parliament of her own.

In this sense, what I am advocating comes down to talking as if an English nation – in the formal, constitutional sense – already existed, as a means of hastening its creation. In short, we have to start referring to, and thinking of, ‘the country’ as England even while it is still in a limbo between being Great Britain a distinct England; and, that way, an autonomous England is more likely to come into being. Specifically, I think we should include mention of ‘England’ or ‘English’ in two of the above-mentioned contexts in which ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ (implying ‘Britain’) are currently used: when it is really England only that is being talked about, and when the institutions or matters in question indeterminately relate to England and / or the whole of the UK. So, to return to my previous examples, whenever we talk about ‘the NHS’ in England, we should actually say ‘NHS England’ or the ‘English NHS’, paralleling the names for the NHS elsewhere in the UK, e.g. ‘NHS Scotland’ and ‘NHS Wales’. We should definitely also insist on calling ‘the FA’ the ‘English FA’.

Incidentally, I stumbled across a related case when I was looking for examples for where it would be appropriate to continue saying ‘British’. The British Medical Association (BMA) is now divided into four divisions, one of which explicitly states that it relates to England. So far so good. However, the organisation’s logo on the supposedly English page merely states ‘BMA’ while those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland read ‘BMA Scotland’, ‘BMA Wales’, etc. So we should call the BMA in its England-only responsibilities ‘BMA England’ and not just ‘BMA’.

The BMA itself might argue that its England-based organisation also co-ordinates issues that affect the whole of the UK and that therefore it is wrong to call it ‘BMA England’. This would make it an example of the second type of situation where I would still advocate inserting references to ‘England’: where an organisation has a combined England-only and UK-wide remit. The classic case is of course the Westminster government and parliament. I think we should start calling this the ‘English government’ and the ‘English parliament’ (even though technically they aren’t) in relation to all domestic matters, whether they are reserved, UK-wide issues (e.g. the economy) or devolved ones. The rationale for this is that if the establishment is trying to get away with calling everything ‘British’ even when it’s really exclusively English, or English as well as British, we should insist on calling ‘English’ anything that affects England at all, even if it also concerns the rest of the UK. This is an ‘England-inclusion’ approach to counter the government’s ‘England-exclusion’ tactics. Symbolically, this is also a way to demand that England be given a voice where it presently lacks one; and, by its very inappropriateness, this would help to highlight the anomaly that England is a nation without any formal nation status or political representation.

But should we really start talking, for instance, about ‘the English government’s mishandling of the English economy’? I think we should unless we quite explicitly do mean the economy of the UK as a whole, as opposed to that of ‘our / the country’ = England. Insisting on using ‘England’ and ‘English’ in this sort of context is a way to be clear and explicit in our own thinking and statements: when we say ‘the country’, what are we really thinking and concerned about; what is foremost in our minds – England (probably, in most instances) or the whole of the UK? If it is the former, then we should say so explicitly, even if presently there are no political institutions that are responsible for management of the English economy or ‘English national security’, etc. By foregrounding the fact we are thinking of England, which presently remains hidden in the background behind references to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’, we can help to ensure that, over time, the primary reference of ‘the country’ for English people becomes England.

Of course, we are all too painfully aware that the government is not an English government; but calling it one, and referring to its various ministers and departments as ‘English’ (especially ministries dealing with England-only matters such as health, education and transport), can be an effective and simple way to emphasise the point that England is the only UK nation that lacks any form of self-government. Referring to Gordon Brown as the (unelected) ‘English First Minister’ is particularly pleasing from a sarcastic point of view!

But what of the areas of civic life and the institutions that are genuinely UK-wide? I think we should try to avoid using ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ when referring to these, and call them ‘UK’ instead – unless the organisation’s formal name includes the B word, as in the ‘Royal British Legion’, for instance. Hence, we should say the ‘UK government’, the ‘UK Army’ or the ‘UK monarchy’. The point of deliberately suppressing the words ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ is that it militates against the continuing tendency for English people to identify England with ‘Britain’, which I discussed at the start of this post. Saying ‘UK’ instead of ‘Britain’ helps to dissociate ‘England’ from ‘Britain’. In this way, we can be clearer and more consistent in choosing to say ‘England’ when we mean it (i.e., as I’m arguing, for anything that relates to England even if it also relates to the rest of the UK), and choosing to say ‘UK’ when we genuinely do mean the whole of the UK – and not merging the two into the nebulous ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’. It’s this latter confusion that the UK government is relying on to continue denying the English people an English government, as the English people are not (yet) sufficiently conscious of the difference.

So let’s make that distinction in our language at least, and say England when we mean it, and not a ‘Britain’ that is no longer ‘our country’. Then maybe we’ll also get what we mean to: a self-governing and self-respecting England.

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7 Responses

  1. Amen to all you have written,(or is it wrote?) never mind I agree with you.

  2. I read a comment on a blog recently which said “I am .(name) and I am English” (I can’t remember the name only the nationality!) I was so impressed that I have hijacked it – as I think we all should.

    So I proudly declare that ‘I am PaganPride and I am English and Proud of it’

    And as for the BBC’s insistence that we should NOT be proud of being English because of “our imperial past” – I merely ask are they going to stand up in Paris and tell the French that they shouldn’t go on about French Pride after their colonial conquests? Are they going to demand that the word Spanish should be removed from use because of their Imperial past and misdeeds? Hmmm I thought not.

    Well what about having “land of Hope and Glory’ as our National Anthem (which I think is fantastic) – what’s that ? – we can’t have it because it’s racists with its ‘wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’ – well where’s the condemnation of Germany with its ‘Deutschland uber alles, uber alles in der weldt? (Germany over everyon in the world) – strangley silent on that one too!

    Sorry about the rant – but I am passionately English and loathe with grim detestation all those that would try and eradicate my country, my history and my pride – and I love this site!

    • Thanks, PaganPride. It always seems to work that it’s the English who are supposed to be ashamed of ‘our imperial past’; but I thought it was the British Empire. In fact, it was both English and British; but the point is that the ‘Britologists’, as I call them, try to claim the credit for all that was / is good about ‘this country’ for Britain, and blame all that is bad on England. This ironically ends up with their justifying continuing imperialist-type behaviour carried out in the name of Britain and her allies, such as the invasion of Iraq, the pointless Afghan misadventure and support for Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian centres in Gaza. I think an independent and / or self-governing England would be a lot less imperialistic than Britain – correction, the UK.

      By the way, I favour ‘Jerusalem’ as the English national anthem, which at least explicitly mentions England three times; whereas ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ doesn’t include the word ‘England’ but does refer to ‘thy Empire’. And incidentally, the modern words of the German national anthem don’t include ‘Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles’ but go “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit / Für das deutsche Vaterland!”: “Unity, justice and freedom / For the German fatherland”. I suppose you could criticise that, too, because of the Nazi overtones of ‘fatherland’, even though this is now an ode to a free, democratic and united Germany. But then, at the end of the day, some people will criticise any manifestation of patriotism – apart from British unionism, of course.

      David – English and proud of it!

  3. I agree with PaganPride – after all, Scotland and Wales were willing partners in “England’s” “imperial past”, much as they seek to deny it, and they have no problem with being proud of their nationalities and countries.

  4. Here’s the interesting thing from my perspective as an American – England, all things English, even all things British are collectively associated with a dying entity. Not only does the sun now set on the British empire, but an eternal night will soon fall on the British Isles themselves.

    Britain now practices cultural suicide. Like a massive Trojan Horse, a wave of anti-western immigrants have moved into Britain. They accept neither your culture, your political institutions nor your religion. They are determined to establish Sharia law. Hopefully, when Britain implodes from the inside, your horrible fate will serve as an example to other Western nations for any culture that is unwilling to stand and fight for the survival of its culture and traditions is sure to perish from the face of the Earth. Farewell Britania.

  5. […] last night’s offerings. I caught a snippet of the Channel 4 News report on what I am henceforth calling the ‘English government’s’ [= the UK government in its capacity as the unelected government for England] new […]

  6. […] last night’s offerings. I caught a snippet of the Channel 4 News report on what I am henceforth calling the ‘English government’s’ [= the UK government in its capacity as the unelected government for England] new […]

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