A common trait of liberal and left-wing English people is that they are ashamed to be English. This is because we see the behaviour of people like Nigel Farage or Steven Yaxley-Lennon, who declare themselves proud of their Englishness, proud to represent English culture against the forces of wokeness that try to destroy it. Antifeminist YouTube personality and onetime UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin, also known as “Sargon of Akkad”, made a big deal of quoting John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ in one of his rants. This is an iconic essay defending the freedom of the press, although it seems unlikely that Benjamin understands any of it, if he has even read it at all.
All this supposedly makes English history, culture, and identity guilty by association. People do not wish to be tarred by it, as though declaring your pride in being English and loving English culture is to associate yourself with the likes of Farage and Yaxley-Lennon. This is particularly understandable when a whole political movement has previously campaigned on ‘taking back our country’ and identity, though who we’re actually taking it back from is less clear. Many in the Remain camp have tried to drop the “English” label altogether, declaring themselves “European” instead.
There is deep angst among liberals and the left about Englishness. At university, I spent a lot of time with John Milton, his work is some of my favourite poetry and prose written in English. It was painful to see the artist whose work I loved and admired, who embodied in many ways optimism, internationalism, and appetite for positive change in his own time, be used by someone like Benjamin to lend a veneer of credibility to his ham-fisted argument that he should be allowed to be offensive with impunity. For the record, Mr. ‘of Akkad’ falls very much under the “licence” that Milton argues against, and not the “freedom” he champions.
To be clear, there is a lot in English history that is extremely problematic. I would never seek to argue that we should whitewash our history, or that pride in your nationality should blind you to the multitude of evils committed in its name. The way to begin the long, difficult, and overdue healing process is to own our history, reflect on it, and understand what we can do to affect positive change.
This process is made more difficult when people, who are mostly white and middle class, simply denounce their own culture on the grounds that some personalities are claiming it for their own toxic ideology. No-one has a monopoly on history. If we surrender Englishness to the far right, it will mean that the only idea of Englishness remaining will be the warped and bastardised version that they have created.
What is absolutely crucial here as well, is the plethora of individuals within English identity. The idea of Englishness of a British-Caribbean man from Peckham is going to be wildly different from that of a white woman from Bolton or a British Pakistani from Walsall. But all are nonetheless English, all are beautiful, and all are far more important than the twisted caricature drip-fed to us by the far right. They come from lived experience and are not confected or engineered to coax out a misplaced sense of nostalgia.
It is painful to see the culture and history that we come from co-opted by an insidious program. However, simply trying to distance ourselves from that culture in response is to surrender it to one brand of political ideology.
History and culture are not owned by any single political idea. Anyone who opposes the likes of Farage should trumpet loudly what it is in English history, culture, and life that they are proud of. If we don’t, the only Englishness left will be the one we are so desperate to distance ourselves from.
Words by Kit Roberts