England: The Glory that was and may yet be (Robert Henderson)
National identity is most commonly presented in terms of such banalities as “national dress” (often a mark of past servitude), food and crafts or in the more demanding but still narrow world of High Art. Both are inadequate explanations because they touch only a small portion of human existence. To find the answer to a people’s national identity one must look to their general culture which includes at its most sophisticated, science, technology, politics, education, sport, history, morals, humour, language.
From the general culture comes what might be called the secondary human personality, which is developed by and is continually developing the components of culture. By secondary personality I mean a nurtured overlay on the innate personality. The range of basic human traits – aggressiveness, placidity, timidity, extroversion and so forth – are universal. But those qualities are the mere skeletons of minds. Above them stand the modifications of experience. From experience develops the secondary personality. The social context of that experience and the reflection of that experience through the secondary personality creates culture, is culture.
All of this is not to say that the material and mundane accoutrements of a man’s life are completely unimportant to the foundation of national identity. There are certain things which are such a part of the warp and weft of life over a long period that they acquire true symbolic value. For example, The wilful destruction in England of their historic measures which arose naturally from man’s everyday needs and a coinage more than a thousand years old, has helped undermine the self confidence of a people who retained such things not out of backwardness, but from a sense of national worth and importance.
The most extraordinary fact of English history is that it happened. On the periphery of Europe, sparsely populated for most of its history, always faced by powerful neighbours, it is barely credible that this people achieved such a prominent place in history. Rationally England should have been throughout its history a small impoverished backward state, an extra on the European stage. Consider the history of Ireland which was placed in much the same general situation as England. A novelist who created an equivalent fictional history would be laughed out of court on the grounds of utter improbability.
There is so much that is unusual about England. Not only did she possess the only world empire ever worthy of the name, she produced the one bootstrapped industrial revolution, has displayed a quite unparalleled political stability and a unique political evolution leading to representative government and perhaps most importantly in the long run created a language which for its all round utility cannot be equalled. England is the cause of the modern world. Let her self-respect rest on that massive fact. The English do not need to invent a mythical past for their self-esteem: the reality with all its warts is splendid and marvellous.