the nature of Englishness in the contemporary world: a research suggestion

How does this relate to a Welsh politics site?

The nature of Englishness is something that we in Wales have to live with on a constant basis.  This has been the case since long before “Wales” or “England” even existed as the nations we now recognise.  Every human collectivity with a land border or a navigable sea route to its neighbours is always confronted with similar questions. These always increase in urgency, for the less powerful neighbour, in direct proportion to the size of the imbalance in power between the neighbours.

The bit of the question that are most immediate for the less powerful are, of course, the bits that say “what is my powerful neigbour going to do to me next?” and “what can be done about it?”  Because of the complexity of human minds, and the vast amount of history that confronts us in dealing with anything human collectives do, these questions only intermittently become directly readable via the day-to-day mainstream media stuff of press conferences, openly acknowledged wars, trade deals and celebrity birthdays. 

Usually the nature of the deep material and ideational structures of the beast over the fence need looking at; as well the material the fence itself is built from. 

So although this is going to be shorter than my usual posts, I’ve still got a detour or two to get through before the point.


On religion as a historical driver

People born in the twentieth century were and are too apt to instinctively discount religion as a driving force in  political and cultural life – at least, that is, where their own everyday realities are concerned.  The greatest triumph and failure of Marxism (especially amongst those who believe they are not influenced by it) has been in its placing of purely economic  relations at the centre of human existence.

But economic, cultural and military factors almost invariably contain important religious assumptions and histories.  The history of the “Middle East” is incomprehensible if religion is excluded, even down to the discovery of oil there in 1908 at the location of an ancient “fire temple”.  The USA has made a religious cult of its flag and its constitution, even if you overlook the painful reliance of its athletic and business cultures on evagelism.

Closer to Wales, the importance of religion in the wars for Ireland are painfully obvious, and the still-fragile peace there owes its realisation and structure to some acceptance of that.  In Scotland the same religious divide, and the way it linked with the historic colonisation and historic genocides of Ireland, influenced and influences the pattern of politics there powerfully, especially around Glasgow and the places its life echoes in.

Religious institutions and ideas matter.  But their impacts are not necessarily direct, and not merely something that operates as a motivator of conscious beliefs and action.  They commonly underpin ownership structures, accepted modes of action in secular life, patterns of socialisation and education, and the unstated presumptions of political life.

In Wales...

this is as much the case as anywhere else.  Cymraeg probably owes its survival to the translation of the Bible.  The rise of Nonconformity as a mode of religious life was the main other mode of Welsh separateness from England into the Twentieth Century, and ending of the English State’s attempt to impose its religion as law was the final Radical act of Welsh Liberalism. 

Like most revolutions, it looked relatively insignificant by the time it was finally achieved, in 1920.

(Also like most revolutions, it left unfinished business behind it.  Overwhelmingly, the parishes that straddle the border are still part of the Church of England, rather than of the Church in Wales.  And it is still possible to become head of the Church of England via a  career begun in Wales, although the “Church in Wales” is allegedly a separate organisation.)

But by the time disestablishment happened, the demands for religious equality that had driven Nonconformity’s political edge in Wales for nearly a century and a half, had been sublimated into powerful demands for material equality.  The founders of the labour and socialist movements and of the Labour Party in Wales, were overwhelmingly blooded in lay preaching, and drew upon their training at every turn in their strategies, ideas, and communities.  In particular, like the early missionaries for whom so many Welsh places are named with the prefix “Llan”, and like the Nonconformists who threw up chapels throughout the Nineteenth Century, they built physical institutions from which to act and to preach, and established educational and non-political organisations to seed themselves within their communities.

A collapsed and ingenious summary of this argument resulted in the naming, at the tail of the Twentieth Century, of a rock band that combined the then-archaic southern Welsh fascination with heavy guitars with a self-consciously philosophic approach to lyricism: The Manic Street Preachers.

Despite this folk memory persisting, as Nonconformity rapidly waned through the length of the Twentieth Century, a quasi-Marxist myth spread via both the Labour Party and the academy.  This said that the chapels had only ever been about hypocrisy, cant and accomodation with power; that they were never more than mere opium for the people.  Gwyn Alf Williams blamed the chapels for taking the music out of life – as if the choral brilliance of the Wales of his own era was something to be despised.  Dai Smith and followers focused on the conservatism of the chapel establishment, and put such energy into despising the chapels for temperance laws that they turned rugby, pints and Labour Party into the trinity of the new religion of “South Wales”.

But whilst they blatantly and self-servingly misunderstood religion in the history of Wales, at least nobody was silly enough to ignore its presence in that history.

But when we look eastwards...

that is exactly what we do.  Consider this video of the great (but nonetheless not quite infallible) Raymond Williams talking to Kim Howells whilst walking across the campus of a Cambridge college.  (Do click the link, what follows won’t make sense without it):

There’s nothing wrong in what he says.  If, that is, you do not consider religion as a prime source of cultural power.

If you do though, Williams has his geography out. And ironically for one of the most famous makers of the cultural turn within Marxist thought, he does it because he is disregarding culture.  Including the very buildings that he is walking past – stop the video at 1:48 for a powerful illustration of how visually obvious the lacuna in his thought is.

Englishness as a culture does not then form a cultural triangle from Oxford, London and Cambridge.  Instead it forms a – very materially rooted and economically powerful – cultural web stretching across the Anglican world, with metropolitan nodes wherever Anglican cathedrals are placed, local nodes where churches are built, and outreaches wherever Anglican missionaries work or Anglican educators design curricula. 

There is a link in the results, with the central spots all these things refer back to in their hierarchies being around the area he identifies as the core of England.  The accent that he’s there to talk about has power, but part of its power is the way that it was so long able to be identified simultaneously with spiritual, intellectual and material power.

But, most importantly, Canterbury – the seat of the Archbishop who heads the Church of England – falls outside the area he describes.  Canterbury was an Archbishopric six centuries before Cambridge University was granted its Royal Charter.  From 1534, when the King of England specified that the State, and not the Pope, was to control the church,  the “Anglican Communion”  – the churches broadly following the theological lead of the Church of England and collectively headed by the Archbishop of Caterbury – expanded with empire, and far beyond it.

Unlike empire however, it has never retreated.  This animation – best watched fullscreen – shows its spread.

Our understanding of Englishness and its operation has been artificially restricted by the preeminence of cultural perceptions that miss out the dimension of England as a global religious power.  Even Raymond Williams, who grew up in border country where the villages in one direction had chapels and those in the other did not, failed to spot this – because he was of an age where the growth of secularism appeared unstoppable – even if the secularism that was winning was one of greed rather than one of equality.

How this relates to the present

I subtitled this as a “research suggestion”.  That’s because, if I’m right,  English / Anglican religion shapes the nature of contemporary Englishness in ways that reach far beyond England’s borders; and is likely to shape the prospects for left and independentist movements globally.

In the 1980s it was still possible for sociologists to study “secularisation” as if it were an inevitability.  We know now that this was mistaken.  For those of us around the world seeking to alter our relationship with Englishness, grasping it as an economic-intellectual phenomenon centred upon Oxford, London and Cambridge will not suffice.  It is also an evanglical mindset that is at its core built upon the English State as a religious actor that has the right to entirely direct its Church.

This may seem a little abstract.  But it regularly has real world effects.  In this Guardian story it’s reported that Church of England bishops who criticised Dominic Cummings’ infamous road trip face “questions” from the General Synod.  They have already had death threats for speaking out.  This is deeply wrong, of course. 

But those attacking them understand that the essential function of a State Church is not to uphold the morality of its Holy Books, but the power of the State that created it.  Independistas must learn to recognise – and to nullify – this power.