As nationalities proliferate, the English want their turn, says Rod Liddle — who considers himself British first. St George’s Day and ‘Englishness’ have been partially decontaminated, but we are no closer to a definition of what ‘England’ is — and quite right too
It is very easy for the majority Hungarian population in this most wild and beautiful quarter of Europe to define their essential Hungarian-ness: they are defined, principally, by what they are not. They are not Romanian, for a start — a rather backward people, they feel, a confused, hysterical, limping hybrid of two mutually exclusive racial types, the Slav and the Latin. Imagine an unsuccessful Neapolitan thug marrying a penniless whore from Novgorod and their issue would resemble something equating to your average Romanian. That, I ought to add, is how the dispossessed Hungarians see it. And the Hungarians are certainly not gypsies — a people whom they (and the Romanians, so far as I can tell) consider to be indolent, stupid and dishonest.
The Hungarian language, which is more closely related to Finnish than anything emanating from the Balkans or points further east, also marks them apart from their neighbours. As does, to a lesser degree, their cuisine, which is vigorously, irrepressibly unhealthy — consisting almost entirely of fried pork — and without the fresh whiff of the south which predominates in the restaurants of Constanta and Bucharest. There is their history, too, which has been at times a grand thing, around about the time of Franz Joseph, and at times a tragic thing. Then there is religion — primarily, they are not Orthodox, like the Romanians; but dig much further than this and we reach a problem because they are not exclusively Roman Catholic, either. There are sad pockets of Unitarian Magyars, persecuted by the popish majority, living alone in their Unitarian villages. There’s a complex and highly entertaining hierarchy of racial and religious loathing in this part of the world; there are Romanian villages, gypsy villages (which they’ve nicked from the departed Saxons and cheerfully ruined), Hungarian Catholic villages and blue-nose no-surrender Hungarian proddy villages. The differentials go way beyond race; but nonetheless, the Hungarians know they are not Romanian or, far worse, gypsy, and that seems to be good enough as the basis for a national identity around here.
This tiny pocket of the world, with its prowling wolves and bears and vaguely shocking profusion of horses and carts, may yet achieve autonomy from the supposedly alien Romanian regime which has ruled it for the past 60-odd years, and there is a mild independence movement pressing the case right now. And this is the other thing which helps the Transylvanian Hungarians define themselves: a sense of grievance and a concomitant aspiration, nurtured for decades under foreign rule. Now they look towards Brussels in hope; arriviste ‘Western’ Europeans who have, for good pragmatic reasons, no attachment to the notion of a nation state — something which will please the EU because it, too, thinks the nation state a redundant concept. Those boundaries which are familiar to all of us, and which on the Continent were drawn up almost arbitrarily before even the smell of cordite had departed from the collective European nostril, are winnowing away.
If the EU wishes to become a superstate then, of course, the nation state — its natural enemy — has to go. In its place comes a vast phalanx of somewhat ill-defined racial types, clamouring for recognition — from Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders and the two Galicias, from Transylvania, from Friesland, Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, ad infinitum. And lastly, not quite sure why they are there at all, or how they might be defined, that quietly clamouring horde from England. The English.
Do you have a St George’s flag to hand? They have become most fecund of late, and not just at football matches or tattooed upon the hollow skull of an NF skinhead. St George — and ‘Englishness’ — have been rescued from the far Right, so we are told. As Britain dissolves and across Europe an ever-growing number of hitherto unheard-of nationalities proclaim their identity and their pride, it has become sort of OK for us English to do the same. But I’m not sure the whole thing has been rescued from the far Right; braggadocio about one’s supposed racial type, and all the implied spite which sooner or later accompanies it, is no less objectionable when it comes from a Labour politician than when it comes from John Tyndall. We’ve all migrated to the Right.
This quintessentially tribal stuff, of people identifying with one another on the narrowest, the slenderest, the most atavistic and baseless of principles, was for a considerable while submerged beneath much bigger ideas. Communism, for example, in which — theoretically at least — racial allegiance was evidence merely of false consciousness, to be contained either by a grand ideal or brutality or both. The example of Yugoslavia suggests that, with a modicum of coercion, individuals can at least put their visceral loathing for those who speak a slightly different language, or a subtly different dialect, aside for a while. And when the grand ideal and the coercion is removed, those differences bubble up once again and, in extremis, out come the guns.
To a greater or lesser extent this was true of much of the Eastern bloc until 1989; but true of the West too. It is quite possible that, ten years from now, Belgium will not exist — something which, speaking callously perhaps, will not necessarily keep me awake all night. Except to wonder what it is that the Walloons and the Flems now hanker for that was not theirs all along, in a country whose boundaries were always ill-drawn, when they were drawn at all. Similarly, those who were once ‘Spanish’ but not Castillian. It is not for nothing that the Spanish national anthem has no words: it is, instead, a political necessity. The Basques, Catalans and Andalusians insist upon their right to determine their own affairs, though without knowing precisely what they mean by ‘own’. And all racially based nationalist movements, even those with whom we have initially unreserved sympathy because of one or another kind of oppression they have endured, end up victimising and discriminating against someone else, the people whom they consider themselves to be not.
Which brings us to what is meant by ‘English’, that race represented by a patron saint from Cappadocia or maybe Palestine, which converses in a modern derivative of low German, was created by an invasion from France and whose gene pool is hopelessly mingled with that of our Celtic neighbours and that of any number of influxes from France, from the Jewish diaspora, from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The claim from those Transylvanian Hungarians to ‘self’-determination seems to me philosophically and scientifically pretty thinnish; but having kept themselves to themselves, in separate villages with little commingling, at least they can say with some conviction that they are largely ‘not’ Romanian, for what good it might do them. We cannot in all conscience tell ourselves that we are not partly Scottish, or Welsh, or Irish; there is probably no pure born Englishman in the country, not even Nick Griffin.
And then take a look, elsewhere in this issue, at how the great and the good define Englishness. It could be a drunken feral lout stabbing you in the throat on a Saturday night; it could be, paradoxically, a tolerant mentality and a commitment to civility and politeness. Then there are the more ephemeral, romantic notions. How was it that John Major, mangling George Orwell, described Englishness? An old maid cycling to the pub in the rain having just dismissed the West Indies for 150 on a fi
ne wicket at the Oval, or something? Anyway, I would suggest that when it comes to defining Englishness nobody has the remotest clue. And that may be for the extremely good reason that it does not really exist any more, if it ever did. That is one explanation as to why every 23 April we have anguished debates about it all, without ever reaching a conclusion.
Worrying about Englishness is a comparatively recent phenomenon, a consequence of a multitude of other races across the Continent beating their breasts, from Cardiff to Barcelona, via Groningen, the Tyrol and Bratislava. We’ll have some of that, we say to ourselves, a little miffed — and why the hell shouldn’t we? If the Scots are able to proclaim themselves a homogeneous race which has suffered the yoke of English oppression for century after century, then surely we must exist? But the Scots are wrong, too. They don’t really exist either, except in the demented skirl of the bagpipe — a low moan of tribal stupidity and, in the end, nastiness.
This seems terribly unpatriotic of me and yet perversely I do consider myself a patriot. But when I examine precisely what it is to which I feel allegiance, I find that it is that bleak and discredited notion, the nation state: Great Britain. It is Britain, not England, with which I feel a shared identity and, try as I might, I cannot separate the southern province from the rest simply because we say ‘now’ instead of ‘noo’ or ‘noy’. Great Britain is — or was — one of those grand ideas I mentioned earlier, a geographically distinct entity consisting of various tribes held together through a shared ideology, loyalty and — as the Celts among you are quietly pointing out — a modicum of coercion, from time to time. It seemed to work — and in our collective unconscious as a nation, our ‘race’ memory, each part is indivisible from the whole. Forget language; English was dragged screaming a short distance from its Germanic roots only five centuries ago; even now, if you visit those low-slung Friesian islands, curling upwards from the north of Holland into Scandinavia, and you ask a local to speak his own language slowly, you will understand almost everything he has to say.
Politicians who favour a European super-state will tell you that the old ideal of the nation state led to one or two wars along the way. So it did; it is an imperfect construct. But just as with parliamentary democracy and capitalism, it is a flawed construct but the least of the various evils with which we have had to contend. There is not the slightest indication to suggest that super-states will be any less belligerent or oppressive than the nation state. At the other end of the scale, the division of Europe into ever tinier territories is a process which may well turn out to be infinite. Those Transylvanian Hungarians I mentioned at the start of this article do not remotely consider themselves subjects of Budapest. They are very different from the Hungarian Hungarians, you see. And even within Transylvania they consist of two competing ‘racial’ tribes beset by a whole bunch of other divisions which will, if autonomy is granted, come bubbling back up to the surface.
Let us see, in time, how relations between the east and west of Scotland progress once full independence is achieved; in England between the north and south, or between London and the rest. We have an endless propensity to loathe one another for our usually imagined differences, anything we can get our hands on to differentiate ourselves from other people. And the most pernicious means of so doing is by race: go ask the Jews about that, or the Hutus. As for Englishness, consider it an act of benevolent patriotism to let it remain for ever undefined.