Is It Possible To Define Englishness?

Stand at Festival of England

Stand at Festival of England

Spending a day recently manning an English Democrat stand at the ‘Festival of Englishness’, held by the IPPR naturally prompted the question of “What is Englishness”.

This question usually results in a tongue-tied muttering mentioning pubs, countryside and tolerance. Why is this? Why cannot the English, unlike many other nations agree a definition of whom we are? My thoughts on this indicate that it may be impossible to do this. To understand the particularity of this problem Let’s start with a really easy question.


What is a Pub?

In England everyone can tell when they are in a pub and it has little to do with the fact that it is called a pub. We can explain why this pub is a Pub but may well have difficulty explaining why another establishment, quite different from this one, is also a pub. When a southerner goes north and a northerner goes south they can each recognise a local pub for what it it is as soon as they enter it. What is more they can each grade the pub as good or poor as a pub. When they go abroad they can each recognise that the “pub” they enter is not in fact a pub even though it is called one. I have been in so-called pubs in Scotland, Spain, France and the USA and yet I or any English man or woman can instantly recognise that the establishments are not pubs.

Clearly there is more to an English pub than meets the eye. They are, I would say, a phenomenon. So what causes these phenomena to arise?. The answer is I think quite surprising.

Complex Systems

Nations consist of innumerable people, often many millions, all of whom are behaving in a way

that benefits themselves. The benefits sought will differ, perhaps markedly, between people and  can be monetary, social acceptance, security, doing something that makes one feel good and so on. For the most part these behaviours will be constrained by the law, religious beliefs, personal views on morality, local and social customs to name but a few. We signal these behaviours  to each other by what we do and what we say. The major constraint, for most people, will be the law but every individual will have a number of constraints on their behaviour, imposed by others or by themselves. What is signaled to others may also depend on the language and how it is used.

Such conglomerations of people are today known as a complex, adaptive system. The science behind this has only been explored formally since the late 1960s Despite this people have been studying complex systems in the shape of human society for thousands of years. For example Aristotle wrote a treatise on Politics over 2,000 years ago and some 200 or so years ago the classical economists like Adam Smith in Scotland and David Ricardo in England made great steps in describing why economies exhibited certain characteristics that emerged from peoples’ behaviour such as growth (hint: this had nothing to do with immigration but was, according to Adam Smith, due to specialisation).


The basis of our law is the Common law of England. There is a fundamental difference between this and the Roman legal system as practiced, for example, in many European countries and Scotland. Put simplistically the Common Law prohibits certain things but allows all else. Roman law permits certain things but prohibits all else.

Under the Common Law there will be a vast number of behaviours that may be undertaken and what is done by an individual can be, and is likely to be, different for most people. The outcome is a nation where individuals accept that what others do is their own business and the key to being “allowed” to do one’s own thing is to allow others to do what they wish, provided it is not forbidden by the law. The result is a nation that recognises that accepted behaviours are innumerable and that any attempt to collect, categorise and describe them will fail. It becomes impossible to say exactly what the national identity of the nation is because it is impossible for an individual to describe more than the behaviours that they have chosen to exhibit or those they have observed. What is more doing surveys of people that tell one how often certain beliefs or actions occur cannot describe a culture because it is not what is surveyed that creates the culture but rather how the beliefs and actions interact in practice on a day to day basis, and that will be a matter of context.

Under a system of Roman Law there will be a vast number of behaviours that may not be undertaken and a comparatively small number of behaviours that may be. The outcome is a nation that can describe what its identity is and whilst there may be regional variations these will be only a lesser part of the identity.

The Common Law in defining what is forbidden does not define our culture, it is what is not forbidden (which is everything else) that defines our culture. On the other hand Roman Law, in limiting what can be done, does play a part in defining a culture. Put formally the Common Law  allows a set of behaviours that is potentially infinite in size and is thus not listable. The Roman Law on the other hand defines a list of permitted behaviours. This list may be very large but it is countable and will be very small compared to the infinite set of those behaviours it proscribes.

The upshot of this is that Englishness cannot be defined even in a situation when we have absolute clarity of description and knowledge of peoples’ behaviours and values. Unfortunately, or if you prefer fortunately, the English language does not allow even this happy state of affairs to exist.


Busy moment at stand

Busy moment at stand

Language is very important in social systems. At school I studied four languages; ancient Greek, Latin, French and English. Not by choice I may add. I hated Latin!

Latin always seemed to me to be a very regimented language with fixed rules and a ‘beat’ to it which admirably described the Roman genius for war and engineering.

Ancient Greek on the other hand was a more subtle and altogether prettier language as befits a people who developed many of the ideas we use today such as democracy, and a literature that still sparkles after 2,500 years. No educated Roman would have admitted he did not speak Greek.

French is a wonderful language for carrying out an argument. Its structure forces one into logical expositions and the dissection of concepts; just the sort of language you need when you may be called upon at any moment to justify how your behaviours do comply with the list of permitted behaviours.

English, well what can we say about English? And that of course is the point of the English language. In a country where so much is allowed it is very likely that much of what is allowed will offend someone, somewhere. To avoid perennial conflict it is vital to have a language that we can use to describe truthfully what we do in a way that is acceptable to the other person.

A decade or so ago I attended a meeting between four consultants, one Swedish, one New Zealander and two English. At one point in the meeting the meaning of a word became important to the Swede and within a minute the English and New Zealand consultants had produced 12 or 15 words that could be used instead. The Swedish consultant now understood the meaning but commented, in some awe, that in Swedish there was only one word for the concept and why did English require so many. We tried to explain that all of the 12 or so words whilst being somewhat the same actually all had slightly different meanings – perfect for truthfully describing something to someone whilst minimising the risk of conflict at the same time by not really describing it at all.

So what is Englishness?

I hope the preceding discussion has explained why perhaps this is not merely difficult to describe but is in fact impossible. A culture where much of what can be done is not forbidden and with a language whose purpose is to present a behaviour or thought in a maner that is unlikely to cause conflict is a culture that is, in its entirety, inaccessible to anyone. So if you see a new book purporting to describe Englishness or a TV documentary advertising its “New” discoveries about Englishness do not waste your money or time purchasing or viewing the material. You will almost certainly disagree with large parts of of what is said!

So what of the “Festival of Englishness”

IPPR view of an English activity

IPPR view of an English activity

Well since I was manning the English Democrat stand I was unable to attend all the sessions. However others did and from my observations and those of others it appears that the day was devoted to a number of people presenting ideas, obnoxious to many of those attending, in a way that sought to minimise conflict whilst hiding the fact that what they were trying to do – describe Englishness – was impossible.

You really cannot get more English than that, can you?

Manning the stand however was great fun, I met some interesting people and the discussions there prompted the thoughts for this blog. I was not able to stay for the reception but I hope the party made up for what was, to me, a rather pointless event.

What about Pubs, the example I started with. I’m afraid that will have to wait for another day and a discussion of the phenomenon of emergence.

After all that thinking I feel like going somewhere I can discuss Englishness without a load of agro. I’m off to the pub!

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3 Responses to Is It Possible To Define Englishness?

  1. Pingback: So, Nick Clegg Does Not Know What British Values Are! |

  2. This is the definition used in the English Democrats Manifesto. In effect the comment means “The people of England being the People of England” – it is a correct description of the English but not very informative. However my blog was about Englishness being a name for the behaviours and characteristics of the People of England. This was something I concluded was impossible for anyone to know in its entirety – whether they were a member of the People of England or not. Hence my advice to not waste time on “Festivals of Englishness”, unless of course they have a good party, or are held in a pub.

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