The Forbidding of England
I ATTENDED AN ordinary English state school in the late 1950s. In our history lessons we were taught that England is the heart of Great Britain, that Great Britain is the heart of an Empire, and that, thanks to this Empire, ideas of law, freedom, and democratic government had spread around the globe. We were therefore proud of the Empire, which we described as British, not English, and thought of it as proof of our national virtues and a contribution to the advancement of mankind. Our flag was the Union Jack, a striking synthesis of the emblems of our constituent peoples, and we believed that this flag represented a peaceful union, rather than the triumph of one nation over others. We sang "Rule Britannia,” the rousing chorus of which declares that "Britons never never never shall be slaves!”
We had no difficulty in reconciling our attachment to the English Crown, the English law, the Church of England, and the English language with the view that we were British, and no more British than the Welsh or the Scots. In those days there seemed to be no contradiction in our composite national identity, and we could identify ourselves for some purposes as English, for others as British, without divided loyalties. The turning point of the war, when London was saved by the Royal Air Force, was called the "Battle of Britain,” and postwar spirits were raised by a "Festival of Britain,” located in the English capital. And when England played football against France, we waved the Union Jack in support of our countrymen.
Our identity, in other words, was defined in terms of what it included, not what it excluded. It was not belligerently xenophobic, nor was it founded on myths of racial purity or tribal kinship. But it was a genuinely national identity all the same, and we thought of ourselves (Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish included) as a single "island nation,” containing other nations as parts. (...)