To celebrate St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, The Spectator asked some leading public figures for their answers to this vexing question. Here are their sometimes uplifting, sometimes nostalgic replies
It’s the politeness that I miss — the civility that was at one time the Englishman’s (and woman’s) global trademark. I took it for granted as a child that men tipped their hats, stepped aside and held open doors for ladies. English people shook hands when they met (gently, not with the enthusiastic bone-crushing squeeze of today) and certainly never hugged or kissed on the cheeks someone they had just met. Englishness was always being considerate and courteous to other people, even if they’re ghastly, never airing one’s dirty linen in public (à la those tell-all shows where people moan and weep and tell the audience their most private thoughts and actions) and never, ever expecting to have any other rights than that of getting on and making your own fortune in the world by dint of your hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. Most of all, Englishness was an indomitable spirit that got us all through the war and the resolute and firm belief that England was the greatest country in the world evidenced by its heritage, culture and courage. Englishness was pride in our Union flag, and our monarchy, which was once the envy of the world. That’s what Englishness was, and is sadly no more.
That’s a very odd question! I always thought that Spectator journalists knew more about Tuscany than about provincial England.
England, for me, is London, my home for all my working life, bar periodic stints in America. The rest of England is for flying over, north to the land of my birth, west to New York, my second favourite city, south to the Côte D’Azur, my preference for a home in the country.
London is where England meets the world, to their mutual advantage. Tradition and tolerance, two great English virtues, have combined with foreign diversity, dynamism and exotica to create a 21st-century British city-state with the world as its hinterland, a place where you can become a Londoner even if you were not born one.
It is also mercifully free of the new English nationalism. Not that the English should be ashamed of feeling more nationalistic (even if my preference is for a more open, inclusive, forward-looking British nationalism). The Scots are to blame. A narrow, churlish, ungrateful, anti-English Scottish nationalism is afoot, making England wonder aloud for the first time why it is the only part of the United Kingdom still to believe in the British project. So now the English think harder about what it means to be just English rather than English and British. Mercifully, it is a process we Londoners will largely escape. But, eventually, we will all in these islands be the poorer for it.
England is extraordinary; part of a small island nation off northern Europe, which over centuries has had a remarkable influence, quite disproportionate to its size, over the rest of the world; some bad, but most unquestionably good. Of course, there’s plenty wrong, plenty that needs to be fixed. But there is something wondrous about this place.
England is its landscape, as much made by its people as it made them. And England is its language — rich, beautiful, unrivalled in its vocabulary and flexibility, and now the lingua franca of the globe.
Who are the people of England? From everywhere and from every religion. We always were. Angles, Saxons, Danes, French, eastern and central Europeans, Welsh, Scots, Irish, south Asians, West Indians, Africans, Huguenots, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews. Like its language, England has had an unparalleled capacity to absorb and still be England.
England is its Christian churches, living symbols of the power of faith; its institutions of democracy and justice. Above all, for me, England is its tolerance and humour unique in itself — confident mocking of what we hold dear. Yes. I am sentimental about England. I am proud to be of England.
England is peace, order and good-neighbourliness versus road rage, binge drinking, and knife crime. It is beautiful countryside versus developers and litter-louts. It is homogeneity versus multiculturalism. The good survives, but increasingly only in pockets.
Mohamed Al Fayed
For me there’s nothing more thrilling than flying in from the North Downs, and looking down at London’s skyline, made out in the splendour of the morning sunshine. London is busy and noisy, but for me, at that moment, it is magical because, from high above, it seems so quiet. It’s been my home for more than 40 years. I come to work in my store, and see every day the energy and open-mindedness of the younger generation. Plus they go to work on dreadful transport systems and still manage to smile.
My four children were born here, and they are each carving out a career for themselves which makes me proud. But perhaps one of the greatest gifts the English give to the world is their sense of humour. It’s unrivalled for its pithiness and wit. I’m often the target of it, but it doesn’t matter. I laugh along with everyone else.
England is: loose, confident, sceptical, secular, undoctrinaire, anti-intellectual, shrewd, sentimental, hard-headed, unselfconscious, enduring.
An island nation. Mud. Humour. Crowded trains. Love of animals. Pride in our military. Mother of all Parliaments. Tabloid newspapers. Don’t get ideas above your station. The north-south divide. Europe’s most beautiful coastline. Alcohol in town centres. Poor housing. The NHS. The BBC. Big Brother. Football, cricket, rugby. Quiet reserve or loud loutishness? Dominant in Britain, but lost in the world?
Like any country, England is a bundle of contradictions. But I’m proud, immensely proud, to be English — and British, and European too. One journalist recently described my view as ‘gently patriotic’. I’m happy with that. Because it would be unEnglish to be fanatically patriotic. We don’t do fanaticism. Moderation and restraint are great English, and British, qualities. Without them, I don’t believe we would be the tolerant nation we generally are. Tolerance and mutual respect are precious values at a time of heightened social, cultural and even religious tension. We should never allow the voices of prejudice, hysteria and shrill moral judgment to crowd out that famous English reserve.
Foreigners best judge a country. We are a Germanic people, and the Roman historian Tacitus saw Germans as independent-minded hard men, with even harder women, hard-fighting and hard-drinking, but indolent. Two millennia later, foreigners add two related clusters of traditional characteristics: reserve/class-awareness/stoicism/hypocrisy, and pragmatism/scepticism/irony/understatement.
Like many of my generation (born in 1939) I suspect that I have England branded through me, never to be quite eroded whatever failings, whatever crimes.
The second world war forged it. England was the best. Had to be, standing alone as we thought when we fought against a world power of evil and the Englishness of that boyhood into adolescence was welded into an enduring army of myths and convictions. From England the Chosen — ‘And did those feet...’ to the heroic — ‘Britons never never shall be slaves’.
The crucible of liberties. A language which became the world’s tongue.
No evidence to the contrary seems to undermine that boyhood deep-planted faith when fathers were at war that England is good. It is made quietly stronger by what seems a continuous barrage of criticism, however justified.
The worst state schools and the worst teeth in the developed world; the best literature and the best pop music. Perhaps there is a connection. Reserve and decorum matched by outbursts of hedonism and individual (though rarely collective) sedition. Music hall stretching from Dan Leno to the Sex Pistols; literature from Chaucer to Ian McEwan (could On Chesil Beach be more English?). Ealing comedies, The Long Good Friday, Withnail and I, Mike Leigh. Eccentricity from Edith Sitwell to the loony on the 277 bus. Above all — and thank God for this, more than anything — the irony. The English know that the gods will always laugh at those mad enough to try and impose order and system upon the world. No nation on earth mocks itself so often, so well, so necessarily. Think of Wodehouse, the Goons, Steptoe and Son, Sid James and Hancock, Peter Cook, the Pythons, Gervais. Smile, you lucky people: you’re English.