The English, with an identity problem to die for

As a little Bank Holiday sidebar, I nick part of Libby Purves’ meditation on Identity in the Times (£) today which laments a lack of the English variety and compares it mournfully  with the rosiest possible version of the Irish kind.  Being English, she actually thinks north and south are much the same – imagine!

Libby, a broadcaster and journalist of my slight acquaintance is also a keen yachtswoman. She put into Schull in west Cork for the Fastnet film festival and reflects on the experience . If the problem of the English is a lack of identity (and I’m not sure that it is), there are many who might say let’s have more of the same in Ireland where we often and rightly take a more dystopian view of old obsessions. Still, Libby has found material for a column when she’s been having a roaring time in west Cork. No better place and that’s nice.  Years ago when I was last there, the towns were plastered with signs saying “ Save the Swansea ferry,”  but so far, alas without success. “Always look on the bright side of life, ” as the Man didn’t say on the Cross?

“….so, it was often Irishness itself that struck me: from a rueful, touching comedy in which a broke Ulster father organises a birthday treat for his thrilled seven-year-old by pretending they are hiding from “Queen Elizabeth’s army and the KGB” as they pick apples, to Stephen James Smith’s poem My Ireland over visuals ranging from scenic grandeur to graffiti. Ireland has an enviable ease in its identity, which (mere quarter-Irish myself) I always notice here. For all its divisions — north and south, Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor, city and farm, grand soul and daft eejit — there is an overarching sense of what it is to be Irish, and that it is just fine.

Perhaps it is easier if you are few — just over four and a half million in the Irish Republic, fewer than two million more up North. Yet there are tens of thousands across the globe who still feel Irish: indeed, the republic has a minister of state for diaspora. It’s in the bone and
blood, in sentimentality and dry jokes, craic and exasperated sporting partisanship, rueful historical awareness and sly self-knowledge.

Being mainly English, I envy it. For while Scotland and Wales can sing out their identity, with or without politics, Englishness is too often seen as an embarrassment. We have tradition and cultural riches, from Shakespeare to Victoria Wood, and being yoked to three others we can at a pinch mutter “proud to be British”. Sub-regions like Yorkshire or centres such as Manchester (as nobly demonstrated last week) express local patriotism. But general Englishness? Suggesting it creates awkwardness: a lurking sense of shame, potential racism, hubris, xenophobia, hard-Brexitry. The left-liberal cadre has prissily discarded the distinctive Englishness of its roots: say that you like morris dancing, that change-ringing is an art or Kipling underrated, and they irrationally assume that you’re on the fascist fringe. The last time I heard full-throated happy pride in Englishness as such was in a show by the likeable comedian Shappi Khorsandi. As an Iranian former child refugee she loves all of it, and is merrily proud to adopt Englishness.

This awkward flinch is utterly unlike the Irish attitude, which cheerfully accepts absurd cultural foibles as well as artistic treasures, can laugh at Riverdance even while cherishing it. That ease makes them more able to move on from bad stuff: while Englishness agonises over its forebears’ iniquities, middle-Ireland can both acknowledge and move on from the horrors of clerical domination and abuse. Only 25 years after ending the last of the
anti-contraception laws, the republic has legitimised gay marriage and this week looks set to elect a gay, half-Indian prime minister. As for recession, I remember a witty column in an Irish paper when the Celtic tiger collapsed: the author mused that the BMW-and-boom culture never suited the Irish anyway, since their proper talent was mocking flash eejits from the sidelines.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London