Are you “English” or “British”? “Nationalist or “Racist”? And why are people so scared about using the “correct” terms? In today’s quick blog I recount a personal story that may put it in to perspective.
Internet chat rooms and message boards are a fascinating place, full of colorful characters, obscure ideologies and alternative dogmas that rarely break through in to mainstream society. PalTalk – a community based Skype-like software is a treasure trove of craziness, debate (and argument). I’ve heard Americans try to explain why Obama is a secret Muslim to a crowd of anti-war chatters, who were criticizing his use of drones on…innocent Muslims. I’ve witnessed the case be made for a strict diet of only bananas by a hardcore animal rights advocate who urinates in plastic bottles in his own home. And I’ve had the pleasure of talking to crazy drunks that live on house boats who seem to stumble online for a chat after closing time.
As somebody who is anti-EU, mainly because I see it subverting democracy and centralizing power, broadly speaking I can see his point, however my arguments have always been about sovereignty and economics not culture. I don’t really identify with the nationalist rhetoric of the UKIP, BNP or the EDL, because my reason for being anti-EU is not born out of national pride. I don’t respect the bloody history of the English, I think the Royals should have their benefits cut, and “support ourrrr troops” I most certainly do not. At least not in the sense of supporting any of the wars that have taken place in my lifetime.
It’s hard really to define what “Englishness” even is. To some of my seniors it was a time when Jim Davidson was still allowed on the telly and the odd reference to “Pakis” was normal. Is it simply a generation game? (see what I did there), where values are changing and some people are desperately clinging on to the past? Or was the change orchestrated deliberately to coincide with New Labour’s mass immigration policies?
An incident that brought all this back to me involved my mother and a trip to the hospital the other week. A nurse with a clip-board asked her what nationality she was. Not really giving it a thought my mother responded “English”, to which the nurse replied… “is that what you consider yourself?”
Not really grasping what the nurse was getting at, my mum confusingly reiterated “errr yeah?”
“So you consider yourself English?”
This awkward conversation continued far longer than it should have. In hindsight we can assume the nurse was expecting her to say “British”, though she never prompted my mother that British was the correct term. It was only later at home that it dawned on her what had happened. “Did she think I was being a racist?”
“Do you think she wheeled me off to a different room where only the English are put?”
Though it was a joke, it’s an interesting question. Since there was no multiple choice or prompting, and a bizarre insistence about what my mum “considered herself”, it makes you wonder whether there isn’t some creepy data mining going on, about what people consider themselves.
To be honest I had to briefly Google the terms English and British when she got back, because I (and no doubt others) often use the phrases interchangeably. Of course English by its basic understanding simply means from England. In that sense my mother wasn’t incorrect. She was born in England, lives in England and has barely ever left England, even for a holiday.
The PC term however is British, because politically and in terms of empire, Scotland and Wales are with us as well. Northern Ireland got thrown in there later to make the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So we may also wonder why we don’t have to define ourselves as UKish.
The more you look in to all of these terms the more confusing it gets, especially when you look at the ideologies of the “far-right” parties that tend to use them. UKIP are the UK Independence Party, so we can assume they like having our close geographical neighbors along for the ride. They also obviously want the UK independent of Europe.
However Nigel Farage doesn’t have many nice things to say about the Scottish who want independence from the UK. In this regard he has been labeled an English nationalist, part of a bully-boy empire ruled from England. Yet he himself has also called them racist against the English.
This then moves us along to the BNP who preach about protecting the Native British, a term that is extremely hard to define, but in their eyes seems to involve anyone who has lived here for several generations, including black people and Asian shop owners. It seems anybody from Europe or further afield who has arrived here in recent years is in trouble.
The English Defence League use all the symbolism of Englishness – the St. George’s flag etc, though their only overt message seems to be to quell the spread of Islam, and they have a bizarre fascination with supporting Israel, not least because rich Jews funded them. The Englishness they adorn makes a bit more sense when you learn the EDL’s membership has a big football supporter crossover, and in football the focus is generally on singular countries.
Where this leaves my poor mother I have no idea. She and most other people in this country (Union, Empire?) are not concerned with any of this, yet it seems the fear of getting it wrong and the fear of racism results in awkward conversations in the hospital.
As for what I consider myself – in terms of forms, whatever the hell will get me the least hassle, but deep down I’ve never felt English, British, UKish or European. In fact anyone preoccupied with this annoys me. I find it extremely shallow to adopt a tribe based on nothing more than geographical location, skin color or an undefinable “culture”. I’m interested in somebody’s individual values and whether they’re a nice and decent person. Everything else is just a silly game we should have grew out of centuries ago.