Daniel Hannan has struck a chord with Telegraph readers this weekend by suggesting that we should embrace the Scots, promote ‘Britishness’, and ‘leave the SNP to fall apart’ instead of the Union. He reminds us of how much the Scots – that ‘hardy and intrepid race of men’ – have contributed to our country, helping to make the UK ‘the greatest force for freedom on the planet’. All for one and one for all.
But what is this ‘Britishness’ that is supposed to tie us together? Of course, there are countless family ties, and the memory of wars fought together – but then so there are with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. True, we have shared a common political history since the Act of Union in 1707, but as Linda Colley points out in Britons, the unifying factors in our common history were Protestant wars, commercial success, and imperial conquest. Britain meant England projected overseas – English power, English civilization, and English customs. That is why the terms Britain and England were so often used indiscriminately and interchangeably, as in English (British) history.
But these unifying factors have long faded. Even the memory of fighting two world wars is fading fast. What remains is precisely what there was there before the imperial adventure began – England and Wales (Britannia), Ireland (Hibernia), and Scotland (Caledonia).
The vacuous ‘Britishness’ that is now supposed to hold us together is a shared commitment to multi-culture and diversity, a settlement from which the English themselves have necessarily been banished – necessarily because the very term ‘English’ subverts this utopian dream, suggestive as it is of a settled host culture and people, into which newcomers might assimilate.
Yet even at the height of empire, England (not Britain) was the preferred term for evoking the homeland and stirring the heart. It was England that expected that every man will do his duty, it was England’s green and pleasant land to which men hoped to return, and it was a corner of a field forever England in which they would find eternal rest if they did not return. It was Henry V’s speech before Agincourt that a company commander read to his men as their landing craft approached the Normandy coast on the morning of 6 June 1944. Writing at the height of the Second World War, the historian A. L. Rowse concluded his The Spirit of English History with the following words, unthinkable in our post-devolutionary era and almost unbearably poignant to read now:
The long record of English history has been fortunate beyond belief: the greater the duty that rests upon every Englishman to see that the future is not unworthy of the past.
So long as we are locked in the Union, any mention of ‘England’ or ‘the English’ immediately marks one as a proponent of English imperial domination, English nationalism, and of denial of the historic victimhood of the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The connotations of racism and the colonial oppression of coloured minorities are unmistakeable. The English can have no part in multicultural Britain but must forever atone for their past.
But freed from the Union, and from the curse of ‘Britishness’, what is there left but ‘England’, and how else can its inhabitants be described than ‘the English’? We might even recapture something of the adventurous spirit, the ‘intensity of experience’ (Rowse’s words) of that most glorious period in our history, when Scotland was but a faraway country, a distant backwater – that of late Elizabethan England.