Debate: Englishness is defined by being born in England
The OxStu Comment Team
Proposition – Harry Noad
The English are, by law, a nation. We inhabit this ‘green and pleasant’ land, a peoples originally descended from the Anglo-Saxons of old. In a week where a Belgian teenager of Albanian descent and a twenty-one year old from Stevenage have sparked raucous debate over the definition of Englishness, we the English nation have become embroiled in arguments over something that really doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Personally, I’m sick to death of schticky lists discussing what defines the concept of Englishness. A recent article from the Beeb was no exception: Is it a confusion over national identity that makes us English? An inability to win a penalty shootout? A fondness for cricket?! Fewer than one in a thousand of us play the damn sport! There is no ‘English’ sense of humour or universally accepted Church of England; the organisation that takes the name could hardly claim to represent every English Christian, never mind English person.
So what is an English person? If I were to pluck a little old lady from her expensive townhouse in Chelsea and put her next to a rough-and-tumble pre-teen from Newcastle, what connection would they possibly share? She could be drinking her Earl Grey and he his can of Carlsberg, and it’d be immensely difficult to identify any mutual qualities… save one. Both were born on England’s shores. That’s where their similarities begin and end. There is no need to delve into complicated accounts of genesis and heritage, what makes the two English is their shared birthplace: England.
Of late, we have confused this purely factual concept of Englishness with national pride, a sense of attachment to David Beckham and real ale, and a list of Brownite-esque ‘values’ from democracy and multiculturalism to queuing and drinking. To feel connections such as these is not to ‘feel English’, and herein lies the confusion behind the thousands of vitriolic articles written in the wake of Jack Wilshere’s unpopular statements. To discover where we first lost sight of what Englishness really means, we have to harken back to the 19th century.
If we go back to the first recorded usage of the word, a William Taylor letter of 1804, we find reference to ‘the Englishness of several fairy-tales supposed to be French.’ Used in such a manner, the word clearly refers to nationality, and nothing else. The next reference, too, was even more telling. In an 1838 edition of the New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, an article refers to ‘the Englishness of everything about man, woman, and child born in the island’.
This is the true definition of ‘English’ – being born in England. That is the long and short of it, and should be the limit of the word. An English muffin originates in England, French bread was ‘born’ in France. Affiliating ‘Englishness’ with the swelling feeling of pride at seeing Dame Kelly Holmes cross the line or Steven Gerrard blast a long-range effort into the back of the net is missing the point, and giving far too much weight to a single word. National pride is appropriate for anybody who has even a minor connection to a country, but a claim to ‘Englishness’, ‘Frenchness’ or anything else is simply factually incorrect. The furore over ‘Englishness’ is completely unfounded, and the controversy surrounding Wilshere’s assertions tiresome. If you’re proud of your country, whether you were born there or not, then sing its praises and fly its flag. Don’t let an outdated and (more recently) desperately misconstrued concept stand in your way.
Opposition – Maryam Ahmed
Englishness is an absolute blighter of a concept to pin down. John Major was lampooned for being out of touch when he referenced an England of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs.” Norman Tebbit famously devised a ‘cricket test’ to gauge the Englishness of first and second-generation immigrants. Jeremy Paxman devoted an entire book to grappling with the idea of Englishness. Boris seems to think Englishness has something to do with the Victorian game of whiff-whaff. More recently, the EDL have all but hijacked the Cross of St George, and taken to spouting the most hateful tripe under the guise of Englishness. It’s a minefield. No wonder we, the English, are collectively so hesitant to define what Englishness actually means. Whilst a consensus on our national identity must be reached, the proposition that Englishness is dependent on having been born in England is far too simplistic to be credible.
Firstly, reducing an entire nation’s customs, culture, and heritage to a matter of geography and (worse still) bureaucracy seems thoroughly un-English and rather cowardly. By resorting to such a rigid and unimaginative definition of Englishness, the proposition has conveniently dodged the awkward but pressing questions facing modern English society. How to unite all those in England under a common banner, regardless of socio-economic background, ethnicity, or religion? How to preserve English culture whilst welcoming newcomers? How to promote social cohesion? How to instil a sense of English pride without verging on nationalism? Scrawling ‘England’ on a birth certificate addresses none of these concerns. In skirting around them with such a superficial definition of Englishness, we risk leaving a cultural vacuum which far-right extremist groups are only too happy to fill with their own ludicrous views on national identity. The proposition, therefore, is not merely naïve, it is dangerous and detrimental to English society.
Secondly, the traits and eccentricities which truly define Englishness are evidently not restricted to those born in England. A stiff upper lip, of course, ranks highly on the list. Lord Uxbridge barely batted an eyelid when his leg was blown off during the Battle of Waterloo, saying only “by God, Sir, I have lost my leg,” to which the Duke of Wellington replied “by God, Sir, so you have.” But this same stoicism is displayed in bucketloads by newcomers to England. Indeed, one might venture so far as to argue that our immigrant workers and sporting heroes have more grit and innate Englishness than any born and bred English benefits swindler. And if the English ought to cry God for England, Harry and Saint George, then surely the millions of Indians who volunteered to fight for Queen and country during World War II had plenty of English pluck. England expected every man to do his duty, and they certainly delivered. The proposition would negate the enormous contributions made by our hardworking newcomers and our war heroes, on the basis that they were born overseas.
Even our greatest hymns acknowledge that Englishness cannot, and will not, be defined in physical terms. Both “Jerusalem” and “I Vow to Thee my Country” associate England’s green and pleasant land with the lofty ideals of love, faithfulness and service. The latter refers to a country whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.” Englishness, in short, is a set of values and ideals, not at all restricted by one’s place of birth. If your correspondent were to follow in the footsteps of Norman Tebbit, she would propose the ‘airport test’: if you touch down at Heathrow and think “I’m home,” you’re home.