We need a new Englishness

But Palamabron called down a Great Solemn Assembly,
That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to
Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken (Milton 8.46-8)

A couple of years ago, my father and I were having a conversation about the EU in which he asked me whether, when I was growing up, I had felt English or British or European. The answer for me was very simple.

When I was young, I was Catholic.

I had very little sense of national identity, to be honest, but an incredibly strong sense of an identity based on Roman Catholicism. I went to a Catholic school, most of the family I saw on a regular basis was Catholic (my mother and myself aside, not especially fervent it must be said), and all my friends were Catholic. At school, nearly everyone had some mixture of Irish, Polish, Italian or Czech – native English Catholics having become a rarity following several centuries of Protestantism.

When, much later, I fully abandoned that Catholicism, the sense of where I belonged only came slowly. I was, however, increasingly fascinated by what this country was, and when I began writing about “English” Blake I rather fell in love with his bizarre visions of the nation state, one in which the giant Albion, populated with bizarre druids and warring demi-gods, attempted to seal himself off from the rest of the world in eternal death but who, eventually, would awake, awake, awake into a new Englishness.

In plate 92 of Jerusalem, Blake writes:

What do I see? The Briton Saxon Roman Norman amalgamating
In my Furnaces into One Nation the English: & taking refuge
In the Loins of Albion. (1-3)

Whatever it is for Blake that defines Englishness, it is nothing to do with race. To be English is to be made up of many things, wave after wave of immigrant communities entering this country (and an island nation should embrace metaphors of the sea), and it would be simplicity itself to see a contemporary Blake adding Irish, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, Polish and any other multitude of identities that make up the One Nation. Throughout Blake’s writings, it is when Albion seeks to shut himself off from the world, from his emanation Jerusalem, that disaster strikes.

The hills of Judea are fallen with me into the deepest hell
Away from the Nations of the Earth, & from the Cities of the Nations…
How distant far from Albion! his hills & his valleys no more
Receive the feet of Jerusalem: they have cast me quite away:
And Albion is himself shrunk to a narrow rock in the midst of the sea!
The plains of Sussex & Surrey, their hills of flocks & herds
No more seek to Jerusalem nor to the sound of my Holy-ones.
The Fifty-two Counties of England are hardend against me
As if I was not their Mother, they despise me & cast me out (Jerusalem 79:8-21)

At the moment, the United Kingdom very much feels like a narrow rock shrunk in the middle of the sea. While many people have voted for Brexit for many reasons, it is a lie to believe that the campaign to leave has not been driven by two messages: to give a windfall of cash to the NHS (that’s going to happen in a crashing economy) and to take back control of our borders. To repeat, many voted for many reasons, but the past few days have revealed that racism – particularly Islamophobia and hostility to eastern Europeans – now feels emboldened by the 52% who voted to leave. It is not that half the population is racist, but that those who want Polish “vermin” to get out, call for foreigners to be repatriated, or argue that they aren’t racist because they’re not talking about “pakis”, now believe that 17 million people share their views.

As things fall apart we are slouching towards bigotry, a second coming that hardens us, shrinks our perceptions to a narrow chink. We need a new vision of Englishness. UKIP in all its glory seems to have set us on a stumbling path towards becoming the nation state of England – which may have been the intention of at least some of its members all along, once we’ve got rid of the Scots. However that may be, I’m damned if I’m going to let UKIP, Britain First or the English Defence League define what it is to be English. We need Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, and Humanist to amalgamate in the furnaces of the nation, forged with Heathens, Turks and Jews into the human form to build Jerusalem.

For a while after the referendum vote, I was overcome with anger and a paranoia that I dare not speak to my neighbours (unlike many Remain voters, the plethora of Leave badges and signs made it quite clear that I live in a part of England’s green and pleasant land that wanted no truck with the EU – a pretty fair swathe of the country, as it turned out). There is a sombre mood in the village where I live at the moment, no triumphalism, and I am sure that they are as shocked as I by the lack of common decency among some of those for whom Englishness is a byword for hate and violence. That’s not to excuse myself: anger and paranoia can be another form of xenophobia, a self-righteousness that I am right and you are wrong, and that for that reason alone I should hate you. That is not an England I wish to live in nor should I make it. I’ll fight bloody Brexit every step I can, because I honestly believe it is destroying my country and as a paradoxical Englishman I have a patriotic love for this chip off the old Eurasian block.

This, however, must always be a mental fight, not total war which despises everyone and everything which is other. I have my own fair share of the blame for ignoring those who have been left behind by globalisation in an economy that, for all its claims to be the fifth largest in the world, relies for that status on sheer bulk of numbers (thank you migrants!) as individual prosperity falters, stumbles and falls for the majority. We need to build a better country for all, not fight over an ever-diminishing stew as we kick out the foreigners. Those who do not defend the truth will now be compelled to defend a lie, but as that lie of hatred is clear and raw and ugly before us so it can be snared and caught and taken.

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