I was born in England. My parents are English, although my father was born in Egypt and, probably like most English people, I am part Scot (a Scottish grandfather in my case). My eldest nephew was born in Wales. As far as I know we have no Irish blood, but we may – we probably do. The English are mongrels, going back to the dawn of time. Oh, and just to add to the confusion, I grew up in Zimbabwe, which was then Rhodesia. So it was with very mixed feelings that I watched the Scotland referendum. And this morning I woke up to a profound sense of relief. I still had a country.
Erased from the map
Let me backtrack to the 18 April 1980 and the day that Zimbabwe finally gained full independence and became a nation state. By that time, I was back in the UK and watched on TV, on my own. After years of bitter civil war, there was finally peace. There was finally majority rule. The country could finally look forward and begin to bind its wounds. All these things were excellent. It was incredibly positive and happy. I was incredibly positive and happy watching the celebrations. However – as the new flag of Zimbabwe was raised, the country of my childhood ceased to be. It was erased forever from the map. I was already living thousands of miles from that childhood home and I felt as if my last support had been knocked from underneath me. My head kept telling me it was a stupid reaction but something in the pit of my stomach mourned for that sense of belonging. I felt rootless.
A search for identity
As I grew used to life in the UK, I soon learned that I needed to call myself British not English. I needed to be inclusive, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh – or to ally myself with the horribly negative image of the English, all football hooliganism, xenophobia, class warfare and even fascism. The English have served as the whipping boy of the union, as Hollywood villains, as imperialist hate figures and establishment buffoons. I have to admit, some – but definitely not all of it – is justified. But while the English have been calling themselves British, submerging their own identity in an attempt at national unity, the other countries in the union have been busily building strong separate identities, leaving us insecure and desperately lacking in self-esteem, casting around for anyone to lead us out of it and along the way we have chosen (and continue to look to) some distinctly dubious leaders in hope of finding a saviour.
So what lessons have I learned in the last few weeks?
1) I know that many of my Scottish friends are in mourning right now, but I am delighted that I still have a whole country to belong to. I never want to feel that rootless sense of loss again and I am British, not just English.
2) Everyone has called for drastic change throughout the referendum. The Scots are not the only ones who want this. For me, the most striking aspect of the No campaign was the way the different parties and people, from David Cameron to George Galloway, managed to pull together and work in harmony when it was something that really mattered to them. What I would like to see is an end to the constant battering of confrontational politics in favour of a system that puts the well-being of the people and the country before point-scoring. And if the Scots could put some of the energy of the referendum into helping us change the rest of the UK too, that would be great!
3) There are issues of race still confronting the Home Nations. Racism isn’t just about skin colour and immigration. It needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.
4) It’s time to stand up and be English. I am English, not just British. England needs to find its real identity. Not UKIP little England hunker down and keep out foreigners English, but to reclaim Englishness for what it really is – a scrappy mongrel mess that has welcomed, mixed and married foreigners from Romans, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, to Normans, Jews and Jamaicans, Indians and Somalis, Poles and Pakistanis, Bulgarians – and Romanians! We collect people and borrow all the best bits of them. We are creative, tough, determined, and funny. We love a laugh and we love to grumble. Our language has three times more words than any other and is utterly amazing. We are probably one of the most internationally polyglot nations in the world. And that’s something I’m really proud of.
5) The Scots really know how to throw a party. It’s been way too long since I’ve been to Scotland and I’m going to make a real effort to go to next year’s Edinburgh festival.
Caption for featured image: © Copyright Callum Black and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.