The idea of Englishness — and the values that have come to be thought of as British values — emerged from the English and British people keeping distance and difference between themselves and the rest of the world. Even when much of that world came under their dominion.
There was once a group of people, sharing a cluster of islands on the edge of an ocean. They called themselves the ‘English’, and over time this name came to be used about a larger and larger collection of people. By making alliances and by force the rulers of these English people created a political entity under the rule of a king, into what we would now call a nation.
Like many groups of people, these English did not keep to themselves. They sought to interfere with and dominate the other groups who were settled around them. To the north lay a political group that called themselves Scots, to the west there were the Welsh, and over the sea to the west there was an island called Ireland, to the south over the sea there were the French.
Over time, the rulers of England tried to dominate each of these peoples.
In all the wars and battles they fought over these places and peoples, the English people changed. They conquered, sometimes they were defeated, they engaged and found differences, they absorbed. So much of English history was about change over the centuries.
And then, at a certain point — towards the end of the sixteenth century — the English started to do something quite new. As well as looking to dominate and exploit their neighbours, they began to travel much further — across oceans to the west, south, and east — and found new places and people to exploit.
The English were very successful at this. They built up large and prosperous colonies on the new continent to the west, and developed lucrative trading relationships with the people to the east, in the lands they called India.
In the lands to the south, in Africa, they found people they could capture and take across the ocean, to force them to work to make the English prosperous.
East, south, west — it was a very successful global network across vast distances. The English rulers became very rich, and their country became very powerful.
And again this made the English change — through contact with the new peoples across their empire and colonies, who were integral to the wealth and success on which English power thrived.
During the long centuries of this English global empire a strange thing happened. The English people — and the neighbouring Scots who joined with them as a ‘British’ nation — they tried to live happily on their islands on the edge of the ocean, benefiting from the wealth of the empire that they controlled.
They developed new forms of economy and technology with the wealth that came to them, from enslavement and plunder. The industrial revolution used technologies of production and transport that would not have been possible without the British empire’s dominance, exploitation, and enslavement of other people across the world.
But during all this time, the English and the other British managed to pretend that their success was all due to their own innate qualities, of intelligence, of breeding, of living in a particular place — isolated on the cluster of islands on the edge of an ocean.
Despite ruling over a vast area of the globe, the English and British managed to pretend to themselves that the wealth that they had was local and isolated, and there was no connection between them and the enslaved people they had taken from Africa, or from the people of India and Asia and elsewhere that came under their rule.
The distance from England to Africa and Asia did not prevent the tyrannies and exploitation of British rule. But it did allow the English and British to believe amongst themselves that they were pure and separate.
As time went on, and the power and wealth from the British empire increased yet further, the British began to form detailed explanations for how they were different from the people they were ruling over, enslaving, and stealing from.
They told everybody, in the name of their ideas of knowledge that they called science, that there was a science of difference between humans and cultures. This science was ‘race’ — what they considered the self-evident proofs of how skin colour marked out the various types of humanity.
And within this scheme of difference based on skin colour, the whiteness of the English marked for them the top of the human hierarchy. Having whiteness, being white, was the mark of civilisation, of power, and all things that were good.
And so power then became both a matter of distance from England and difference from the whiteness of the English and the other British people.
And the British people learned that such distance and difference is what made them both powerful and unique. And this was something they should maintain, for their own preservation.
In the twentieth century, the British found it increasingly hard to maintain control of their global empire. They had been forced to fight two devastating wars with their German rivals over control of the colonies, and they faced increasing resistance and challenge in some of the areas that they controlled — particularly in India. By the mid twentieth century, British colonial rule collapsed — bankrupted, despite the wealth it had once brought the British nation.
Where once the empire had kept a large distance between the British peoples and those who came under their colonial rule, the British nation needed new labour — a cheap workforce — to rebuild their country, that had been so devastated by war.
It was from this that the people of the empire came to be a visible part of the islands of Britain. This was how the once cherished distance was broken down — by the passage of ships such as the Empire Windrush, and many more such boatloads and planeloads of people from the West Indies and Asia, and later from Africa and elsewhere.
At last, the many peoples of the former empire were united, living together in the place that had for so long sought to keep them at a distance. This is how Britain became a place of diversity, of pluralism, of multiculturalism. The empire had always been diverse and multicultural, but Britain and England had not.
This all changed in the second half of the twentieth century. The world that the English and the British had created through their empire became the world replicated in Britain itself. The barriers came down, and Britain became what it was — ceasing to be the isolated islands remote from the peoples and networks that had made it so powerful.
What did not change, however, was the idea of difference that had maintained Britain’s separation and segregation. The ideas of race and the assumptions of the dominance of whiteness still remain. Despite decades of refutation of these ideas, race and whiteness still structure the assumptions of many of the English and British.
The British have not yet found a way to help themselves feel comfortable with such differences, or to think beyond the ideas that came out of their colonisation and rule over others.
The great diversity of the British imperial entity is now replicated in the population of the British Isles. This empire has ceased to be an empire, but it remains in miniature a mixture of the many different peoples, all living together in the place that once sought to remain isolated and undisturbed by that empire.
That will not now change — England and Britain are now diverse, plural, and multicultural, in many different ways.
But there still needs to be a mentality, a viewpoint, a ‘science’ that transcends the old way of explaining and maintaining the old empire.
The assumptions of difference that relied on race were part of a brutal political system. They should have no place in the diverse world that the end of empire created in Britain.
*Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website,malorynye.com.
Categories: Cultural Anthropology
Leave a Reply