As Brexit looms, the nation's fraught identity is being continually interrogated. And, this week (if the tabloids are anything to go by), a BBC survey seemingly revealed a country in the throes of an out-and-out identity crisis. After surveying over 20,000 people, it found that only 45 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds are proud to be English, compared with 72 per cent of over-65’s.
Rather than noting that this drop in national pride may be down to an increasingly critical and objective look at English history as time passes, mouth-frothing and knee-jerking have been deemed the appropriate reactions.
“Humour, tradition and good manners” are the characteristics most associated with being English, according to the survey, but if the subsequent media response to it is anything to go by, so is wilful denial of facts in favour of coddling, patronising patriotism. The Sun, in particular, appears to be nursing a hit nerve, penning not one but two articles decrying unpatriotic millenials who don’t seek to boast of their nationality by smearing a cross on a white bedsheet with their own blood, as did their ancestors, apparently.
“In history we learn about the struggles of women, trade unionists, African Americans and Native Americans but there's no mention of the great sacrifice of our servicemen in recent wars,” political YouTuber Steven Edginton wrote for The Sun, in his immediately debunkable diatribe.
“When we do learn about conflict, we learn about the disaster at the Somme, the evils of the British Empire in India and the death and destruction of millions through the slave trade.”
“Why aren’t we taught that it was England who pioneered free trade, prosperity and democracy across the globe?” he added. Edington’s response, rather than engaging with and genuinely unpacking his less prideful peers’ unease, has been to flat-out lie about the content of British school curriculum. In reality, spates of pupils across the country still aren’t clued up on the horrors of colonialism – there is little room for it between the back-to-back history lessons on the Blitz.
According to the survey, half of respondents think England was better in the past – so, why are they so afraid to face it?
Cultural commentators like Akala, Kehinde Andrews, David Olusoga and Afua Hirsch are the ones that have brought the injustices of the past to the fore, not schools – and we’re frankly better off for facing it. If there is an increased (though in no way comprehensive) look at the UK’s relationship with slavery and the damage inflicted by the Empire in education – so what? We should spare an unfiltered, unflinching look at England’s past in order to preserve people’s pride?
Like so many, Edington is only at ease recalling parts of English history, not all of it, making him sound far more fragile than the “snowflakes” he continues to decry. According to the survey, half of respondents think England was better in the past – so, why are they so afraid to face it?
An equally defensive piece ran in the paper just two days after Edington’s op-ed. “In schools, pupils are taught to wring their hands in PC anguish over ‘Islamophobic’ comments made by Churchill,” it said. “Groupthink dictates that all teasing mockery – a staple of English humour – should be abolished for fear of offending minorities.”
For those of us who are minorities and born in England, our existence here comes with the caveat that we must permit piss-taking out of the other parts that comprise our identity. It is telling that friction lies with the term English, but not so much British, with the latter being more inclusive and the former increasingly exclusionary. It is even more telling that it is the “English” identity and flag that have been so effortlessly co-opted by bigots, and that “English” is something minorities feel they have no stake in. Bigots have ensured we feel unwelcome in ever identifying as English – a “white-only” epithet – and we have largely little desire to. “Black British” is a well-known identifier, while we’ve been made to feel “Black English” would be, in a sense, oxymoronic.
Sixty-one per cent of white people comfortably identify as English; ethnic minorities are far more hesitant at just 32 per cent. When the term British is used that figures rises to three-quarters. Among those who call themselves English as opposed to British, only a third say the country's diversity is an important part of their identity. With those who describe themselves as British instead of English, the figure is two-thirds.
All the BBC's figures show is what we already know to be true: over time, attitudes change and largely for the better. If you ask 18- to 24-year-olds whether the term “wog” is offensive, you’re likely to get a very different set of results compared to over 65's too. It’s also hard for some to feel pride when, in the face of a Brexit largely brought on by immigration fears – and a spike in hate crime since – it looks like the attitudes we hide from in history still lie dormant in many. One in six surveyed by the BBC believe England’s best days lie ahead. If this is the case, it certainly won’t be achieved by a continued “finger in ears and eyes” approach to history. It is no doubt better to face it head on, “warts and all” (as English politician Oliver Cromwell once said, for those who can only be appealed to through the words of historic, white Englishmen), to usher in a future that we can all be proud of.