Being English 101

In the wake of the UK riots last year, I wrote something about Being English.

While I meant every word,  I did it wrong – because I don’t think I properly explained what Anglicism actually is or even who the English really are. So let’s do that now.

The English


The people of England collectively, especially as distinguished from the Scots, Welsh, and Irish.

For something with such a simple definition, it’s amazing how many get it so very, very wrong. Being English isn’t – quite – the same as being British; all English people are British citizens, but not all British citizens are English.

That part pretty much only confuses Americans.

Another thing that seems to confuse people is the idea that English people have to be born here – that there is such a thing as an indigenous Englishman (or even an indigenous Briton). So I’ll clarify it for you:

There is no such animal. 

A citizen of England is English. Any British citizen who lives and pays taxes in England is English.  Some people are born here and take their nationality with them when they leave. They were once ‘of England’, and once is enough.

It might sound like a bit of a tautological argument, but I’m afraid that’s just how nationality works.

There has never been an indigenous population of Britain. There certainly have never been any indigenous Englanders. During the ice age the island of Britain was covered by a glacier… and wasn’t even an island (still being connected to Europe).

The first English people (around 2500 years ago) were actually Portugese. The people who gave us the name ‘English’ (from ‘Angle’) were German, we’ve been part of the Italian Roman Empire and more recently (1000 years ago) England was invaded by the Vikings (Danes) and ultimately conquered by the Normans (French / Danish). Our language is a truly fantastic mixture of Latin, French and German – and a smattering of words from a hundred other languages. Literally.

We always have been a mongrel culture. It’s one of our greatest strengths – we’re a bloody island; if we didn’t have all this new blood coming in all the time we’d have inbred ourselves out of existence millennia ago… but aside from that it’s also given us the ability to incorporate the best bits (language, culture, technology, religion) of other nations into our own.

Any suggestion that immigration to England is a new concept is clearly lacking some historical context.

Similarly, any suggestion that immigration somehow dilutes or damages our ‘native English way of life’ is living in a fantasy world. The first fantasy is that we have a native English way of life, and the second is the idea that new ideas dilute our culture; historically, they’ve only strengthened it – it’s the intermixing of people and cultures from all over the world which has made English culture what it is today.

None of us, not even the most blue-blooded toffee-nosed cut-glass-accented peer of the realm, is capable of tracing his ancestry back more than a few generations without hitting someone who was not born here. Even the heir to the throne can’t trace his lineage back more than one generation without hitting someone Greek-born. Does this make any of us ‘less English’?

Or is being English perhaps something more than tracing ancestry and drawing coats of arms?

Either those who live and work here are all English, or none of us are.

Magna Carta (1215)

39: NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right

English Bill of Rights 1689

[His Royal] Highness the prince of Orange (whom it hath pleased Almighty God to make the glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery and arbitrary power) did […] cause letters to be written to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal being Protestants, […] to meet and sit at Westminster upon the two and twentieth day of January in this year one thousand six hundred eighty and eight, in order to such an establishment as that their religion, laws and liberties might not again be in danger of being subverted, upon which letters elections hav[e] been accordingly made […]

It is often supposed that the British don’t have a Constitution. We do; we have an uncodified constitution, which means it isn’t contained within a single text. The two quotes above are from the two most important documents of our Constitution, which spell out many of the Rights and Freedoms we still hold true today.

I don’t need to spell out the Bill of Rights 1689; even if you’ve never read it, it was also the basis of the American Constitution, the European Human Rights Act (which was primarily written by a British Lord, incidentally – it’s English standards being imposed on the rest of Europe, not the other way around!), and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

British law (of which English law is a part) seems pretty tangled and convoluted – we’ve been building our legal system for over a thousand years, after all. But really, it just comes down to this:

You have the freedom to do what you will, until your will impacts on the freedom of another.

You can claim political correctness (‘gone mad’ or otherwise), or whatever you like – but what it means is:

“Does my freedom to say and do what I want make another citizen’s life measurably worse?”

If it does, then what I’m doing is probably illegal – and there’s probably already a law against it as well (like I said, we’ve been writing laws for a millennium. There’s a lot of ’em.)

That’s it.

This is how you define an Englishman – he lives in England, and his rights are enshrined in English law.

All the other stuff – the drinking tea, the morris dancing, eating curry that’s far too hot, not being that bothered about religion, caring about the NHS even though it’s a bit shit, secretly enjoying a good queue, enduring bad customer service and refusing to complain because it’s gauche… all that?

Is just what living in our nation does to us.

Being English is, in effect, a state of mind – but it’s a state of mind you can only really come to appreciate by living in England.

3 thoughts on “Being English 101

  • 21st March 2012 at 00:36

    Well, that’s just bloody typical!

    I’m minding my own business when I frivolously search for my alternative username on Google. Lo and behold it leads me to my old Live Journal from 7 years ago. I laugh at my drunken youthful ramblings (while being mildly disturbed by the fact I’m still prone to such things even when older and supposedly wiser!) and then start clicking on old names from said journal.

    And one of them is “Unimag” or “Unimaginative Pseudonym” someone from a gaming forum years ago. So I follow the link here to find that you haven’t changed a bit (though of course you have, I garnered that from the post that led me here and also from the fact it has been 7 fucking years!).

    Not only have you not changed but you have the bare faced cheek to tell me I’m English! Well that’s just bollocks isn’t it? I’m obviously Scottish. i’m more Scottish than a skien dubh to the face, I am!

    How the devil are you, you cantankerous git?

    • 21st March 2012 at 21:26

      Hey! Nice to hear from you again Mr Chops.

      You can be as Scottish you like; there’s a bit in there about transporting your parent nationality with you (people do that all the time, and Scots are particularly precious about it when they (inevitably) move to England..!)

      I’m not doing too bad; still finding things to complain about on the internet, as you can see. I just do it with a soothing pink background.

      (it isn’t very soothing really)

      You may or may not be able to catch up with me on various social or gaming media if you a) use them and b) are able to crack the elaborate code of “my username is always ‘Soylent Dave‘ or ‘SoylentDave‘ depending on whether it lets me have spaces or not.

      (Facebook, Xbox live, Steam)
      Oh and my Twitter account (which manages to be the exception to the ‘I always use Soylent Dave’ rule, because some knobber has camped it) is over in that sidebar there somewhere.

      PS I’ve got a skien dubh of my own so ner (my mate got married in a kilt and I had to do some best-manning and kilt-wearing of my own)

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