Maybe it’s the world cup, maybe it’s Brexit, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Englishness recently. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how those of us on the political left might reclaim Englishness from the right. At this point you might be wondering what good a sense of national identity is to a liberal, internationalist remoaner. In ignoring the problem of Englishness for so long, we have excluded those for whom a sense of Englishness is important while also allowing the right to entirely control the narrative of what Englishness means. And while an excess of patriotic pride can lead to a whole host of problems, there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling a sense of belonging to a place, a people or a history, so long as we do not start to believe that this makes us better than those who do not share these things. I picked up Kate Fox’s Watching the English partly because there were no relevant George Orwell books in the library at work, but it turned out to be a great place to begin my investigation. Fox is a social anthropologist, and in this book she sets out to uncover the hidden rules which define English culture. This analytical attempt to define Englishness as it is, rather than as any nostalgic or political viewpoint would like it to be, is a necessary starting point in imagining what a progressive, forward looking Englishness could become.
Fox is an entertaining guide, pitching her writing towards what she claims ‘used to be called the educated layman’. Her writing is peppered with personal anecdotes, amusing observations and an undercurrent of the sort of humour which she sees as our ‘default mode’. There is a touch of Douglas Adams’ biscuit story to her account of pushing into queues or bumping into strangers for research purposes. Balancing her light-hearted prose, Fox structures the book like a serious academic investigation, defining key anthropological ideas in her introduction before systematically applying the ‘participant-observer’ methodology to different aspects of English society and identifying patterns and themes along the way.
As might be expected of the co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, this investigation, however lightly written, is underpinned by thorough research, and the depth of Fox’s knowledge is evident throughout, although she rarely includes statistics (which would seem dry and out-of-place in a work of pop-anthropology). However, while Fox makes occasional references to ‘cross-cultural studies’, and is keen to point out that some of the traits she identifies are not uniquely English, I did feel in places that the book lacked enough specific references to other cultures to truly clarify what makes English culture different. A dog is not just defined by the fact that is a four-legged domestic animal, but also by the ways in which it differs from a cat or a horse, and in the same way it would have been nice to have some examples of how English attitudes differ from the attitudes of the Germans, the Vietnamese or our neighbours the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish. We are told in the introduction that, although a certain amount of overlap is to be expected, Fox is interested in Englishness rather than Britishness, but she never follows this up by suggesting how these cultures differ.
I particularly wonder about the pervasiveness of Fox’s core features of Englishness – what she calls our ‘social dis-ease’ – in other parts of our islands. For Fox, this social dis-ease is central to English identity, and she sees it as the key to two seemingly irreconcilable sides to our culture: our reputation for polite reserve and our notoriety as violent, drunken yobs. While I don’t see myself in the latter stereotype, I definitely felt a pang of recognition in many of the more ‘awkward’ behaviours – the potential for embarrassment, the negative politeness, the desire not to make a scene, the awkwardness of greetings and farewells. Turns out I’m not socially-awkward, just English. I do wonder whether this feeling might be more universal than Fox suggests though, in the same way that everyone on the internet self-identified as introverts a few years ago. Perhaps everyone has this sense of ‘social dis-ease’ and some cultures and individuals are just better at hiding it than others.
As you might expect from a book on English culture, social class features heavily. Fox chooses to include sections on class in every chapter, rather than devote a chapter to class in its own right, as she theorises that class norms and an awareness of social class pervades all aspects of our society. Fox is clear that she is making descriptive, analytical judgements on the distinctions between classes rather than prescriptive value judgements, but in parts of the book where she is not addressing social class directly some of her assumptions seem to be unconsciously based on middle class attitudes and norms. She also identifies the usage of ‘dinner’ or ‘tea’ to describe the evening meal as a class indicator, while I had always understand it to be a north/south geographic divide (and my tendency to switch between them as a midlands quirk). I was willing to defer to her expert opinion on the matter (and reassess my uncertainty as a symptom of my mixed class-background), but a recent YouGov survey seems to support my initial instinct. Perhaps English class consciousness is so deeply rooted that even when she is attempting to play the part of the detached observer, Fox cannot quite escape her own biases. I must also confess to these biases: while reading, I found myself unable to avoid measuring her descriptors against my own behaviour and being secretly pleased that I am more likely to say ‘sorry’ than ‘pardon’ if I mishear somebody, unwittingly providing evidence for Fox’s portrayal of the lower, less established middle class unease with their status – their tendency to want to look ‘higher’ than they are. According to Fox, this tendency is more-or-less absent from the working classes and the upper-middle to upper classes, and most prominent among the lower-middles and (to a lesser extent) the middle-middles, who are both keen to distance themselves definitively from the class below. When introducing us to the idea that hidden ideological systems govern our thoughts, one of the lecturers on my degree course emphasised that, once we step outside of these ideologies and recognise them as constructs, we can never truly step back in. Apparently English class consciousness is so strong that attempting to dissect it only serves to make it stronger.
Focussing on a universal grammar of English culture, Fox does not really address English politics, and while it was interesting to see her lay out a grammar of Englishness, the book has little to say on how Englishness can be reclaimed from the nationalists. In fact, English nationalism is not mentioned at all and while Fox is happy to address a number of anti-social behaviours, the only reference to racism is in the context of how, in the ‘orderly disorder’ of Fresher’s Week or New Year’s Eve, ‘telling bawdy jokes is fine, but racist ones are inappropriate.’ It is tempting to imagine that overt racism and nationalism have become more prevalent since the book was published in 2004, but where I grew up not only were openly racist jokes fairly common, but so were far-right political candidates and pro-Combat 18 graffiti. Perhaps a playful examination of a culture is not the right place to examine truly serious socio-political issues. Neither does Fox really address the plague of nostalgia. While she identifies that, from washing machines to restaurants to politicians, we generally don’t expect things to be very good or work particularly well, she does not comment on the related fact that many of us believe things were better in the past. Depending on your political bent, that past might be the height of British Imperialism, or it might be the post-war Labour Government with its radical social policies. It might be the Thatcher years or the cultural explosion of the Beatles and the Stones. For many of us, perhaps perversely, Britain’s golden age comes in WW2, with all of us coming together through food shortages and bombs to show the Nazis what for. One thing is certain, the country is going to the dogs. The politics/music/people of tomorrow are bound to be worse than those of the past. I used to think this was a universal trait, rather than a particularly English one, but recent research shows that our island neighbours do not share this view. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, more people believed that their country’s best years were ahead of them.
One useful concept Fox does have, however comes right at the beginning of the book when she is defining her terms. Englishness, as described here is a cultural category rather than an ethnic one. To some extent this argument seems facile – ethnicity itself is a culturally constructed concept rather than one that has a real basis in science. But the way we talk about culture and the way we talk about ethnicity differs significantly. Culture is system of behaviours and attitudes – something we acquire, while ethnicity is bestowed upon us by accident of birth or perception. By thinking of Englishness not as an ethnic categorisation but as a set of cultural norms one can acquire or adopt, we can neutralise nativist attempts to define English identity as one that can only come from some sort of imagined pure bloodline, but this view risks encouraging those arbiters of Englishness to judge immigrants (and by extension, those who have been here for their whole lives, but who ‘look foreign’) by the degree to which the adhere to a particular pattern of English behaviour. This is all part of the knotty problem that humans naturally look for a sense of group identity, but that all group identities (national, sub-cultural, religious, sports team-related) are, by their very nature, exclusionary and divisive.
I have a few things to add here, but none of them really go very far in solving this problem. Firstly, in any culture, no individual will perfectly embody all of the attitudes, values and behaviours associated with it. Whether your ancestors arrived with Hengest and Horsa, on the Windrush, or last Thursday on a flight from Krakow, there will be elements of English culture that you display, and elements you that you do not. Throughout her book, Fox refers to the underlying rules of English as a ‘grammar’, and I think this is a useful comparison. Linguists describe the rules of a language as it is used by its speakers, they do not prescribe how it should be used – if the language changes, the linguists will record this change and look for causes, but they will not tell the people who are using the new rules that they are ‘doing it wrong’. This brings me rather nicely to my second point. All cultures change over time. As people come from different places, bringing their own cultures with them, it will inevitably have an impact on the culture that is already there. But becoming the sort of country that tightly controls our borders, that tries to police a prescribed view of Englishness, would also have an impact, and, I believe, would tend to exaggerate some of our less desirable qualities. Finally, we should not confuse culture with citizenship, and we should not confuse citizenship with a right to reside in a country. As new people arrive, they will naturally adapt to their new cultural environment (and remember, it is perfectly possible to belong to more than one culture), just as their new environment will be changed in some way by their presence. A progressive version of Englishness would welcome these people into our land and into our culture as part of a new chapter in what it means to be English.
 Although my own class background is probably more complicated than that – I could write a whole blog post trying to work it out. For now I’ll just say that I’m describing myself as ‘lower-middle’, not because I think that is better than being ‘working’ but because, despite having always lived in working-class areas, to describe myself as ‘working-class’ would be to claim a cultural identity that I don’t really have.