English identity crisis

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 Comment by Milena Popova

 

 

 

Scottish news: English identity crisis

I was born a Bulgarian, am legally Austrian, have spent most of my life in the UK and I self-identify as European. So let me tell you about Englishness.

It strikes me as highly amusing that the English - and, frankly, from Newcastle it looks more like just those south of Watford - are having an identity crisis prompted by Scots' desire for independence. It feels like they are waking up to realise that not everyone on this island is English after all. But if they're not, then what is it that makes English people special and unique? Well, as an outsider, more-or-less, who has spent a substantial amount of time in this country, I have some thoughts on how “Englishness” relates to Britishness and other national identities of the UK.

At my bilingual school in Austria, we had a number of native speaker assistants and teachers from all over the world. They taught us not just the English language but oddities of British culture. With hindsight, most of what they taught us was actually English culture. But we did hear Scottish, Welsh and Irish voices. A young man called Andrew gave us our first real encounter with a strong Scottish accent, and it took a long time before we understood him. Still, neither Andrew nor any of my other Scottish teachers ever really spoke about home, until I specifically interviewed them for a project I was doing on the different nations of the British Isles.

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One incomprehensible part of British culture we learned about at school was the food. The mythical English breakfast has definitely become an acquired taste for me over the years. Salted butter, which my Austrian classmates thought would be awful, is - as far as I'm concerned - the only acceptable kind. Our teacher tried to explain scones to us, with their layers of butter, jam and cream. What she failed to get across was that on their own they're really rather dry, so you need the mountains of sugar and fat to make them edible.

Then as now, I draw the line at vinegar on chips. In fact, there is a running joke among my friends that the day I put vinegar on my chips will be the day the Austrians finally revoke my citizenship and demand that Britain take me off their hands. Scarily enough, I will occasionally eat some of those posh crisps with Balsamic vinegar on them, definitely an acquired taste, so maybe that day is coming closer. Here are some of the things we weren't told about in school: haggis, deep-fried Mars bars (I thought my university tutor was joking!) and kippers.

While we consumed all sorts of English-language cultural output to improve our reading and listening comprehension, the closest we came to Scottish culture was reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. The title is based on on a misquote of the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ Thro the Rye”. I did look-up the poem and, though it was years before I truly understood it, I immediately fell in love with the language of it. I don’t think any of my classmates knew there was even such a thing as a Scottish poem, never mind one that the title of the book refers to.

Here’s the thing: pretty much everywhere I’ve lived outside the UK (Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic), the terms “England” and “Britain” are interchangeable - and don’t get me started on getting people to distinguish between Britain and the UK. Ed Miliband talked in his speech about England being represented in Euro 2012 (ah well), and Team GB’s presence in the Olympics. While Andy Murray probably feels these subtle distinctions every time he wins (British!) or loses (Scottish!) a match, to most people beyond the Channel they mean very little. This is not for lack of “Englishness”. Rather, it is because “Englishness” is the dominant culture - for all intents and purposes, externally synonymous with “Britishness”. It is not so much that the English need to define themselves - it’s that for “British” to stop being synonymous with “English”, there needs to be enough space for the other nations to flourish and shine.

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commented 2012-07-24 11:47:25 +0100 · Flag
I would like to add that when I was in primary school (mid fifties)we had maps of Britain with only England mentioned,Scotland had been erased,and that was a deliberate plan from those in the higher echelons of Westminster,and I must add we should also remember the difference between the normal English person and those with the superiority complex.
commented 2012-07-03 14:09:27 +0100 · Flag
my professional work has taken me to 15 countries and five continents.like Milena,I have found that the view that Enlishness is synonymous with Britishness is widespread.People have heard of Scotland but tend to view it as an area of Britain..Some people have even believed that it is an area of England.We are the invisible nation.Possibly a Schizophrenic nation since we are allowed to participate as Scotland in international sports,such as, rugby,,football and the commonwealth games.We are not allowed to participate as Scotland at the Olympics,nor are we able to represent ourselves in the worlds institutions,such as the UN,or the EU.

My desire for independence has been largly motivated by those experiences,rather than economic arguments,although I recognise that Scotland would benefit economically from independence.I do not believe that we are better than anyone else,nor do i wish Scotland to take anything away from other nations,or to invade other peoples countries.What I do wish for is that decisions about Scotland are made by the people who live there,and for Scotland to stand alongside,and collaborate with the other nations in this world.I am an internationalist who believes in independence.Unionist politicians used to refer to narow and inward looking nationalism.I believe that what I have decribed is actually an outward looking and global perspective of Scotlands place in the world.That includes being a good neighbour towards other nations within the British Isles.By contrast,I find some politicians,who are only able to percieve things within the contect of the British state,to be inward looking and narrow.
published this page in Blog 2012-07-02 11:35:00 +0100