- Andrew O’Hagan: The English (video)
- Andrew O’Hagan: The age of indifference (Orwell Lecture abridged, The Guardian)
Full text courtesy of the author.
Or, whatever happened to the English working class?
In the summer of 1976, a thing happened in our house that seriously challenged my notion of international relations. The English came to stay. Ours wasn’t the kind of house were people came to stay: it was a council house 25 miles from Glasgow full to the brim with noisy boys, unhappy dogs, phantom parents, and football gloves. But my father had met this man on a building site in Coventry and rashly – or, one might say, merrily – he asked him and his entire family to come and stay in what he now and then called Bonnie Scotland. The discussions and tears before the visit went on for weeks: my mother immediately christened them The English and she threatened to go on strike. I remember her saying she hadn’t a clue what to feed the English and were would the English sleep? Did they go to bed at a normal time the English and when they got up in the morning did the English have cornflakes or porridge or did they expect a banquet from Harrods? I’d like to be able to tell you how when the English turned up – all five of them, tumbling out of a hippy caravanette – that everything immediately went well and peace and understanding broke out in the land of Robert Burns. But it didn’t. The English colonised the house exactly as my mother predicted. The kids jumped on the beds and laughed at the three-bar fire. The English daddy never stopped talking in his big English accent and the mother went straight upstairs for a bath and started smoking in the bathroom. I knew the English were different because the children were doing handstands in the hall up against my mother’s woodchip and the English mammy and daddy were always having naps. My three brothers and I sat silent on a green sofa. My father examined the Daily Record. My mother was in the kitchen with smelling salts, and one of the English children sang a rude song that included the word ‘bastard’.
‘Are they Protestants?’ I asked my mother.
‘Aye, they are,’ said my mother. ‘And worse!’
Long after the English had gone south, my family discussed, for years actually, the true horror of the summer invasion, but in my antithetical, note-taking way I found myself wondering about them. Who are these exotic beasts, the English, who seemed so to defy in my mind the meaning of exotica and beastliness when you really got down to it? They were individualists – at any rate, they weren’t a family in the same way we were. Maybe I was secretly quite pleased that the English had muddied my mother’s Anaglypta. Maybe I just reckoned they were freer than us. But my first experience of the English left me with the beginnings of a theory, to be expounded here, that whereas the Scots and Irish were a people, a definite community, innately together and full of songs and speeches about ourselves, the English were something else altogether: a veritable riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and no collective volition as a tribe.
I was still thinking about the English the following summer, when the Queen’s Silver Jubilee brought bunting and arguments to our street. Allegiance wasn’t much of an option round our way, though the Orangemen of the town wouldn’t have agreed, and soon another antithesis floated over the airwaves in the shape of an English group called The Sex Pistols, whom my brothers loved to death for singing a song that included the words, ‘God Save the Queen/She ain’t no human being.’ We were happy to go through the motions with the ice cream and jelly on Jubilee Day, but everybody I knew thought the Queen was an English joke and a sign of our neighbour’s conformity. The sound of the Sex Pistols sounded more like it – they sounded like a riot, like a political yawp, an altogether different kind of Englishness. Or was the song a mistake, an aberration? The record was soon banned in any event and we went back to imagining the English didn’t really know how to behave or how to stand up for themselves or their songs.
And yet there was and is a very strong notion of English arrogance – that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles. This may be bred in the bone, but the view was virulent in 18th century Britain, where the Scots and the Irish were constantly lampooned in the journals and pictorials of the day. The British Museum holds a great and slightly hot-making archive of English caricatures which show the Scots and the Irish as drunken, hopeless, arse-kissing louts, which is very unfair on the Irish I feel. (That’s a joke.) Dr Johnson baited his friend Boswell along similar lines and the Scots got their own back in ways briskly intellectual and industrial. Yet the resentment lasted – certainly into my own childhood and certainly beyond. My grandparents would bristle at the idea of any supposed English superiority – I remember reading a line of Milton’s to myself, ‘Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live’, and finding it intolerable, whilst also wondering whether or not reading it aloud wouldn’t give my granny a heart attack. When it came to history, it gave some pleasure to know that Scots had done what I’m doing now, and had it done in return, risking the irritation of their neighbour by giving them an account of what they’re like. David Hume (a Scot) did it in his History of England, which set Macaulay (another one) rolling with whig counterpunches for the rest of his life. It has been among the better parts of Britishness, the tendency of our neighbourly cultures to snoop over the garden fence, and I offer these thoughts with the certainty they are one-sided with a lot left out.
But let us start with the sort of thing that drove my forebears to drink. They didn’t care about Dr Johnson, or they hadn’t heard of him: what they cared about was the Edwardian imperial snobbery of England that hurt the Irish and undervalued the Scots contribution to the making of the United Kingdom. My people weren’t nationalists, they were socialists, and they disliked the English habit of patrician superiority in what they otherwise considered to be a perfectly sensible Union. Let’s go to the source to hear the voice that roused them, Chapter 6 of Frank Fox’s 1924 publication, The English:
The predominant character in the British islands is the English and to it the characters of the Irish and the Scottish and the Welsh must generally conform if they wish to win and hold a higher place.
He goes on:
The English character is the most admirable in the world for dealing with savage and simple peoples . . .It was, I think, the keynote of the old English character – to wish to be able to do anything that the other fellow could do. What ‘isn’t cricket’ is generally reprobated.
Perry Anderson has drawn attention to the ‘lasting imprint of imperialism on English life, of how deeply acclimatized English culture became to the ambience of empire.’ It is an ambience that made a curiously small imprint on modern Scotland, despite its energetic cooperation and sometime more aggressive lead in foreign adventures. The Scottish nationalists of today are able to exploit a ridiculous pretension to Scotland having been an occupied territory, occupied by a devilish England bent on colonisation. Anyone who knows anything about tobacco and cotton will need no convincing about Scotland’s part in exploiting the empire, but England carries the can, and the English people seems perfectly willing to do so. The romance of Scottish nationalism has, at some level, to see England as an enemy of promise and an exploiter of freedom – which it was, but not in recent centuries without Scotland’s help, though it says much about the differences between English and Scottish culture that Scottish nationalism can seek to do well out of the conjunction whilst English nationalism must always suffer by it.
In the winter of 1941, whilst doodlebugs sped through the dark overhead, George Orwell explored the strange compendium of strictness and laxity that goes towards making up the English character. His essay ‘England Your England’ summons a living nation on the brink of its own destruction. Orwell’s England was a place of passionate moralists and inveterate gamblers. The English were a practical people with no world-view: a more or less temperate collection of Blimps and hypocrites, foul speakers and pointless intellectuals, horny-handed sons of toil and blind lovers of legality. He showed a nation of people with no artistic temper and bad teeth; he spoke of an upper class that would easily opt for fascism. He summoned the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, queues outside the Labour Exchanges, battalions of old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings. Yet the English were not seriously religious and they cared more for their back gardens, the price of butter, and ‘a nice cup of tea’. It was a world of graded snobberies, each to his own, but where a certain unmistakable gentleness infused the day.
Much of what Orwell had to say about England emerged, I believe, from a sort of critical and political longing. He truly detested the country’s obsession with class whilst admiring the temper of the people. Much of what I have to say myself emerges from a sense of humour, though I recognize, more as time goes by, that England has a distinctive problem when it comes to political action. In the shadow of Orwell, I want to look at how a succession of writers, mainly on the Left, have examined the strange case of the English. They all stop short of tackling the working class’s native inertia, but they prepare us for the reality of it and together they provide us with an explanation.
As we see in the present banking crisis, the English people call for sedation not sedition, and the spirit of the post-empire age has solidly, in England, been one of what we might call Declinism. The English people today are addicted to the rhythms of their own industrial and imperial valediction: they like saying goodbye to the past, and saying goodbye to the past is the single biggest thing they can’t say goodbye to. English pessimism is hotwired to a love of paternalism – to a perpetual willingness to be mystified by the status quo. Recent events in America may show the extent to which democracy there is fuelled by the populist elements – Obama is a manifestation not of Washington’s need for change but of America’s – but that is not how democracy works in England. A good nationalism has to depend on a principle of the common people, on myths of a struggling commonality, and that is what English nationalism has lacked for 450 years. It is strange that Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism and Welsh nationalism – for all their faults – are today seen by a great many as healthy, colourful movements with groundings in inevitability, whilst English nationalism continues to make people think of football hooliganism, Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and the BNP. Why is that? What are these conflations of identity and power and brutality that so oppress England’s own notion of its character and its destiny?
In The Break-Up of Britain, Tom Nairn wrote of a ‘profound, ambient conservatism which has marked the structure of English society for several centuries’. We see it at work every day in England. And we’ve seen it on the face of every British government since 1951. The Gordon Brown who wrote a biography of James Maxton would not be electable as British Prime Minister. He had to transform himself into a simulacrum of Mrs Thatcher, which all British Prime Ministers have done of course since 1979. Almost every person in the present Cabinet had mimicked the paternalistic pattern of England at large: shunning their true feelings on any number of issues in order to resist the upset of change or the possibility of their leader’s disapproval. There are individuals in Brown’s cabinet who hate the war in Iraq and who privately deplore the 10 pence tax application, but they stayed silent to save their jobs. Again and again they did that – they are doing it now, and everybody knows it. Not rocking the boat is an English national characteristic, though the extent to which senior British politicians are willing to cut their conscience to suit this year’s fashions would have been considered venal even in the unsightly cabinets of Margaret Thatcher. Collective responsibility, in the country, as in the Cabinet, is at a low point, and the present government seems unlikely to produce even a token dissident in the mould of Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson, Ian Gilmour, or Geoffrey Howe.
There is a classical aversion in England to organized or even personal resistance, a frightening bend toward compromise. There have always been good causes worth fighting for, but seldom, in the modern era, has there been the common volition to fight them. Perhaps that is why we love the memory of the World Wars so much: they are a national heritage exhibition of our least likely and least usual selves, a testament to our nature as it might have been. The old wars show us what it was like to be a people willing to resist a vast encroaching power. It is not a posture that comes very naturally to the English. Usually, the ordinary people of England only have one word to say to authority, and that word is ‘yes’. Orwell would not be surprised to see such forces at work over the English, but he might be shocked to see the extent to which the English themselves lacked, as time went on, all political resolve to change it. But, again, history warned us of it: despite the Reform Act, despite the efforts of Chartism, the English working class never set up a party in its own interests during the whole of the 19th century. The populist mode in England is silent paralysis. No to change. No to the causes of change.
How did it come about then, this vast and overwhelming numbness in England’s working class? Part of the answer is that it was always there. There has been no successfully sustained incursion by the English masses into public life since the Civil War of 1642-51, and every subsequent attempt at visionary, transformative resistance has turned sour. It is part of the English temperament to want to live in peace, even if peace means compromise, stagnation, abuse, or appeasement. Margaret Thatcher is said to have been genuinely shocked by the ease with which England rolled over when she entered with her rapier drawn. The majority was willing to see their society lose its unions and its nationalized industries – even its status as a society – without a blink. (The people who fought were often described in the press of the day as outsiders, mindless thugs, totally un-English, and they were.) But Thatcher shouldn’t have been surprised at the ease of her crude revolution: the English working class has been docile and careless for years. People on the Left don’t like to say so because in Britain it feels so counterintuitive to criticize the working class, but I strongly believe Orwell would have done so – would have rolled into the towns of England on a Saturday night to examine why the people were so quiescent, so demoralized, so drunk, so fearful of outsiders, so drawn to fantasy and spite and so lacking in purpose as a social group. He would have asked those questions and would have found a way to publish his responses, seeing, I very much believe, how the question of the English working class and their culture needs to be at the centre of any notion of a better future in Britain.
By the late 90s, the working class was no longer a working class – their traditions, habits, jobs, even in some places their speech, given over to new forms of transcendence offered by celebrity culture and credit cards and the bogus life of the fantasy rich. The leisured poor were Blair’s gift to Britain, people who didn’t crave values but designer labels and satellite dishes, seeing no legitimacy for themselves besides that ordained from above. The English underclass, as it was by then called, is the most conservative force in Britain, in some quarters fascistic, hopped up on vengeance, tabloids, alcopops, sentiment, and a weird fascination with the horribly sad drama of paedophilia. Those English today are a people as far from the clattering clog-wearers of Orwell’s Lancashire milltowns as it was possible to get without hopping a plane to Detroit. And it’s not just Thatcher’s fault: a supreme shock came over the Left when the Dockers came out marching in 1963 to support their injured warrior, Enoch Powell.
Ferdinand Mount quite recently provided a surprising account of the situation of the English working class, coming as it did from the centre right. In Mind the Gap, he writes that the so called underclass ‘seem to me impoverished not simply in relation to the better-off in Britain today but in relation to their own parents and grandparents. And the upper class are uncomfortably aware of it, which is why they show so little respect and affection for the lower classes.’ He attacks the notion that England has been progressively (or assertively, as John Major had it) becoming a more classless society. He makes the point that several of the better sort of Labour minister – Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn – on leaving office after 7 years, felt that ‘class divisions in this country not only persist but actually appear in some important ways to be deepening.’ Orwell’s dystopias had feared such an outcome, and we may be living with it in a newly steep way today. ‘The English working class is,’ writes Mount, ‘uniquely disinherited, and the most important ways in which it is disinherited are the more crippling because they are largely hidden from us.’
I have spent a dozen or more years, when writing non-fiction or when researching novels, in and out of Britain’s proletarian nooks and crannies, writing from what I believed was the centre of a strange breakdown in the will to common power among what I still think of as my own people. I saw it outside the courthouse at the trial of the killers of Liverpool toddler James Bulger. I saw it among the mobs who scoured the housing estates of Manchester looking for dodgy priests. I saw it in the fields of Cumberland during the foot and mouth holocaust, where farmers were slaughtering their livestock because they couldn’t afford the fuel to take them to the market. I saw it in Newcastle and heard it in the voices of families whose loved ones had died fighting in Iraq. I saw it as we all did in the Mall during the funeral of Diana Spencer. On every occasion, the people spoke in the shrugging, accepting tones of declinism – of something lost, of something gone, of a way of life being over, spoken with none of the particular English sense of pride and worth that was said to be in boom in England in the years of austerity. In the private world of Tony Blair, was it not an overweening sense of a decline in Britain’s powers of moral leadership that led to his joining George W. Bush in Iraq? What was Blair really looking for when he was looking to find those bogus weapons in the desert? Was it not weapons, but a sense of English purpose, a crusading urge to promote a sense of English belonging and make the national community manifest in a moment of crisis?
But the English, even with far better reasons for coming together, aren’t inclined to. The fact is now traditional. It might be said that the collective political volition of the English working class never really recovered from the destruction of the peasantry in the 18th century. E.P. Thompson suggested as much in The Making of the English Working Class. He is reluctant to retail some bucolic fantasy of ceaseless happiness in the fields and ruddy-cheeked radicalism always ready manfully to assert itself at the drop of a hat, but nevertheless he makes it clear that the Industrial Revolution destroyed the rhythms of English working life and left those people with no sense of mastery over their materials, their earnings, or their hours. Thomas Hardy is the novelist who best captures the alienation effect of carrying the working English from branch and briar to clay pit and factory clock. It took 120 years for the working class to get over the shock and form a political party to represent his views, the Labour Party, which no longer represents his views. Cobbett and Engels felt that English men, losing touch with the old customs, also lost touch with themselves, though the story of how they showed a little resistance to their innate lack of resistance is really the story of the friendly societies (which had 1 million members in 1815), and after them the trades unions – which brought with them the notion of ‘the social man’, an idea of community and society that is often laughed at today by people under 25. There would scarcely be any point to class organization in the minds of these young men – they don’t believe in collective experience outside of leisure, that’s to say they don’t believe in it outside of sport or text voting or 18-30 disco holidays in Falaraki, but if you were feeling historical you could show them E.P. Thompson’s account of country fairs and working habits, of rhythms and seasons and ownership and self-worth. ‘The crucial distinguishing element in English life since the Industrial Revolution,’ wrote Raymond Williams, ‘is between alternative ideas of the nature of social relationships… what is properly meant by “working-class culture” is the basic collective idea, and the institution, manners, habit of thought, and intentions which proceed from this.’
Thompson picked up the point. ‘It is indeed this collective self-consciousness, with its corresponding theory, institutions, discipline, and community values which distinguishes the 19th century working class from the 18th century mob.’ But how do we explain the loss of the urge for self-seeking, for change, which had been a feature of the common English Protestant mind? The Levellers, the Ranters, the Diggers? In the face of the deep-seated ennui of the English working class today, one can present the first line of Christopher Hill’s famous book about England in the 17th century: ‘Popular revolt,’ he wrote, ‘was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition.’
The English working class – including their new ethnic groups, out of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe – are less conscious of themselves as a political class than at any time since the mid-19th century. Even then, the English were too willing to lie down to exploitation, but today the tendency had become nearly sociopathic. I wanted in this lecture to touch on some of those writers who had taken an interest in the condition of the English since Orwell first voted with his pen. We could speak about it much more than we have. The influence of Cobbett, the radicalism of Hazlitt, the programme of Owen: they were all there, spry with their times, but we see almost nothing of their influence on the English today. Who today – which group, which synthesis of hopes and humanity in England today – is set to put its common moral passion at the service of naming and opposing those exploitative relationships that define their lives? Ladies and gentlemen: no-one. There is no objection. There was no real objection during the premier years of fat cattery, still with us despite the Crunch, when bosses were taking salaries 75 times higher than their average employee. The working class of England, such as it is, takes its deracination completely for granted. Disenchantment is the happy code that informs every byway of the underclass: service jobs, celebrity dreams, lotto wins, leisured poverty on pre-crunch credit cards, it’s all there, part of the story of an English people whose grandparents never had it so good. The younger ones laugh in the face of diminishment. Or they turn to drugs. They now speak easily of the decline that they inherited. They say, ‘it’s just life’.
Those grandparents are like my parents: they handed down a legacy of disaffection, a rudderless, almost pious attitude about Them & Us. But in England it was allowed to become a creed among the working class. Richard Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, was able to tell us what the English working class was like in the mid-50s. They had 10 features which are worth naming:
- They live in districts such as Hunslet in Leeds or Brightside in Sheffield.
- They live in back-to-back houses or on the new estates.
- They earn a wage, not a salary, of about £9 a week.
- They were educated at a secondary modern.
- They speak with an accent.
- ‘There is the cracked but warm-hearted voice, slightly spitting through all-too-regular false teeth, of some women in their 40s.’
- They have their heart in the right place.
- You can tell them by their clothes.
- They like to pay out money in small monthly instalments.
- They go on the ‘panel’ at the local GPs. i.e. they take sick leave.
Hoggart’s book is fascinating reading today, in the age of Sky Plus and Nokia for Kids, and you get a whole lot just by reading the chapter headings: ‘There’s No Place Like Home’, ‘The Neighbourhood’, ‘Self Respect’, ‘Putting Up With Things’, ‘The Immediate, the Present, the Cheerful’, and ‘Indifferentism’. The latter is the political point so far as I’m concerned: the English working class are far ahead every other European lower class in the sheer energy of their indifference. If it were an Olympic sport we would leave Poland gasping at the gable end. ‘Most working class people are not climbing,’ writes Hoggart. ‘They do not quarrel with their general level. . .the strong sense of the group among working class people can express itself as a demand for conformity… My contention is that most people [in England] are subjected to a sustained and ever-increasing bombardment of invitations to assume that whatever is, is right, so long as it is widely accepted and can be classed as entertaining.’
And so, the working class of England today has no vision of society beyond the acquisitive – no version of themselves or their habits as being anything other than transitional, each on his way up or on their way out. The working class, at its best, is a waiting room for people who aim to become middle class if possible. As a class in and of itself it appears to be dead. The aims of society are not part of its ethos anymore, as knackered as the Working Men’s Institutes. If a foreigner asked, what is the moral universe of the English today, where would you point – to the Daily Mail? To Jeremy Clarkson? To Simon Cowell and the instigators of the nation’s bouts of TV gladiatorial combat on a Saturday night, where more young people vote than would ever vote in a General Election? Is this the new England? On Radio 4 this morning, the likeable former tabloid editor Piers Morgan was talking about the glories of the TV show he works on called Britain’s Got Talent. He started by deploring the idea that millions of schoolchildren want to be famous for no reason. ‘It’s a pretty vacuous pursuit,’ he said, before going on to say that his show – on which he judges brigades of dancing pigs with David Haselhoff – is ‘a very valuable public service.’
The hunger for distraction among the English working class in nothing new, but what is quite new is the need to find a sense of national belonging in that distraction. English national football is famous less for its achievements than for its culture of hatred. The abstraction sits very easily in the English working class mind: admiring the native skill of English players and their ‘team spirit’, so called, has long since become some kind of synecdoche for the meaning of patriotic allegiance. Fans are moved to paint their faces red and white not on election day, not even on Armistice Day, but on holiday in Majorca or at international fixtures where 22 men will struggle to score goals. The figures recognize that English fans abroad will turn to violence in this situation faster, and more regularly, than any football fans in the world. According to one researcher:
Hooliganism ‘for’ England abroad was … in part, about defensive patriotism in the face of wider national decline. During the conflict in the Falkland Islands in 1982, English football fans in Spain for football’s World Cup Finals, and for some less lethal fighting, carried banners proclaiming themselves to be ‘Soccer’s Task Force’. Scottish fans at the Finals seemed to have a different struggle in mind: their most famous banner, seen before the clash with Russia, read ‘Alcoholism v Communism’.
If ‘the English’ describes a collective, then our task here is to ask what binds it together. What occasions in public life offer the right opportunity for the joining and raising of voices? Aren’t football and club culture simply a way of doing it that appeals instantly to the leisure-minded rather than the labour-minded? People who can’t or won’t change their circumstances may be moved to celebrate them. In any event, the notion of a ‘labour movement’ already feels like a throwback to the world of the Fabians. For the purposes of this lecture I’m confining myself mainly to the English working class, but the same fear of upset, fear of grief, fear of change, the same fetishisation of continuity, is very often to be found among the intellectual classes of England, too. Noel Annan once wrote of ‘a paradox which has puzzled European and American observers of English life: the paradox of an intelligentsia which appears to conform rather than rebel against the rest of society.’ The sight of so many British historians turning up to have dinner at number 10 with George W. Bush put this thought back in my mind: did none of them feel un-English enough to stand back from such a feast? Talented tellers of the national story to a man and a woman, but without any active critical recognition of the uses that story has been put to in defying progress. Once more, we saw inertia parade as passive acceptance.
The English see themselves as being subject to the motions of institutions but not really party to their evolution. If you really examine the public, if you actually talk to them over long periods, you begin to understand that as a generality – and one must stress that there will always be exceptions, whole swathes of exceptions – but as a generality the English live in a miasma of what Isaiah Berlin called ‘negative freedom’: their collective aim is to be free of interference, not to define the future. (Berlin thought people were probably happier and more humane that way, which seems possible, but it does make you glad the great philosopher was never in a position to harvest hope, never the person running Barack Obama’s recent presidential campaign, for instance.) But ‘negative freedom’ is the currency of the English dispossessed – ‘whatever’ say the English today when they’re told something they don’t like, and ‘whatever’ is exactly what they get and what they are ready to accept, so long as everyday life lies undisturbed.
One of the things I loved about England when I was growing up – and I loved a few things, just to annoy everybody, although a liking for the Sex Pistols could do the trick on its own – was the way a people who were supposedly so dominant were also so inactive in terms of determining who they were. They were full of what I later learned Arnold had called ‘indifferentism’: tons of sincerity without action. I have quoted Isaiah Berlin’s notion of ‘negative freedom’ – we could also apply another phrase to describe the condition, Alex Comfort’s notion of ‘irresponsible obedience’. Another slant on the English would see their dim view of class action to be a good thing, a guarantee of the kind of individualism that makes for eccentrics and self-excluders: but silent obedience of the English working class sort is more often antithetical to eccentricity. It usually comes out as a completely individual conviction that difference is suspect and resistance means trouble. The common or garden English don’t say, ‘what can be done?’ – they say ‘what difference does it make?’
When I became a teenager my sense of the English was deepened, or confirmed you might say, by watching all those kitchen sink dramas and films set in the North. Each of them served to underscore both the declinism and the modern sense of complete political inaction I’ve been talking about this evening. At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton throws a stone into the new housing estate and prepares for a life of complete subjugation to all the forces he hates. And in all the others, Billy Liar, This Sporting Life, A Taste of Honey, the main characters either have their freedom snipped or their imaginations curtailed or they run away to London, where inertia at least moves to a musical beat.
But it was during this period that a crude sense of English nationalism prevailed, tied in its new form to racism and xenophobia. The Daily Mail, in its current, scabrous form, was born out of a growing sense that England was and is under threat, not only from outsiders from below, from brown-skinned terrorists, yes, but also from scroungers and single mothers. Anyone who is in doubt about a loss of dignity and a murdering of self-respect in relation to the English working classes need not join the terraces at an international football game: he or she might simply stop at a newsstand and buy a copy of the country’s most popular serious newspaper. If the more famous views of Enoch Powell can be viewed as a distortion of English romantic nationalism, then that distortion is further distorted in today’s Daily Mail, in a way that makes Powell now seem like an Elysian human-lover in the tradition of Horace and Theocritus. But let us pause over this, because it may tell us something about the snuffing of the radical spirit in England.
In other countries – Scotland, for example – romantic nationalism, despite its many failings and fantasies, did manage to capture the essence of the common people. Robert Burns was in no way a simple nationalist and a wild patriot – he died in the employ of the British Excise – but his work nevertheless quite straightforwardly captures the essence of Scottish working folk on the brink of the Industrial Revolution. If we look at Wordsworth, and his ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, you see a similar ambition for the English, to embed romantic nationalism in the experience of working life, and to raise a sense of that life’s moral worth in the language and diction of his poems. But that impulse in Wordsworth barely survived the French Revolution. Perhaps Robert Burns died too early to turn conservative, but Wordsworth lived on, losing faith in romantic nationalism as he’d formerly understood it. He later disavowed his own radicalism whilst seeming to disavow it for the English people as a whole. ‘For a multitude of causes,’ he wrote, ‘unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.’
In a crucial intervention, Tom Nairn once wrote about the strange phenomenon of Enoch Powell. He quotes Powell writing in the Political Quarterly in 1953: ‘Conservatism is a settled view of the nature of human society in general and our own society in particular, which each succeeding generation does but re-express.’ But for Nairn, ‘English nationalism has been travestied by romanticism and confused by imperialism. But no account of its calvary would be complete which failed to perceive how it had been weighed down by conservatism.’ The English people are presently sunk in that conservatism – they have been for 30 years – such that younger generations might be forgiven for believing that relentless, invisible acceptance is merely the natural way of life for the English lower orders. When you speak to that generation, they say – and they strongly believe – that the only progress that has any meaning is the lonely kind that lies with themselves.
That individualism I spoke about at the beginning – that I saw in the English family who once came to stay at our house that wonderful summer – is perhaps deeper in the English soul than anything else. It was noticed by De Tocqueville, who saw it as England’s contribution to the shaping of the American mindset. His responses to England’s lack of caste are recorded in Alan MacFarlane’s book The Origins of English Individualism. ‘De Tocqueville realized that an individualism which had sprung up in England was absent in France. He argued that ‘our ancestors had not got the word Individualism – a word which we have coined for our own use, because …there was no individual who did not belong to a group.’ He warned against the effects of such a withdrawal into purely private interests.
But do we see now a turn back towards a notion of the limits of individualism? Only yesterday, another Frenchman, Nicolas Sarkozy of all people, said he wants to refound capitalism on the basis of ethics and work. Is this not what Obama promises, too, and is it not what Gordon Brown says to himself in the wee hours that exist between his disgruntled political actions? Now that our decline is real, and we are back in recession, will the English working class let go of its long goodbyes and embrace a notion of collective responsibility? In England, is there somewhere in historical memory, or in the public imagination, that might seek to settle not in the routines of personal privation and individual destiny, but in a common experience of moral and economic opportunities alive in the world today?
Orwell’s view of his England relied on a notion of the innate self-respect of the English working class. He named all the diseases but one, for he believed at base in the transcendent ability of the English to be their gentle selves in the face of adversity. Perhaps he would have been disbelieving to see how the English poor have themselves become conjoined to their own adversity, distanced from their own collective powers and distracted from their best traditions of non-acceptance, dreaming of goods and fame as the great and lasting values. Or maybe always knew it and wondered why no one was saying: at the close of Homage to Catalonia, as he arrives back in England and we find this sentence:
And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere.
Nothing was really happening, except the quiet, invisible business of the people being walked over, and saying nothing and thinking that’s just the way it is. ‘But we are the people of England,’ wrote G.K. Chesterton, ‘and we have not spoken yet.’
I was in Liverpool the other day, watching some of the American election coverage with an old fellow who happened to be sitting in the same bar. There was a black woman on TV and she was talking about the coming election. ‘We’ve waited for generations,’ she said, ‘and you know something: I think I had forgotten how much power we actually had to make things better.’ The Liverpool gentleman drank his pint and looked over. ‘That’s the ticket, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘That’s the stuff.’