England, Englishness & the Freeborn Englishman

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2018 by kmflett

England, Englishness and the Freeborn Englishman

The England football team in the 2018 World Cup has as New Statesman Editor Jason Cowley notes led to a renewed discussion of what Englishness might mean. The answers of Farage and the Tory Right are well known. It’s the Tebbit Test of cheering for England and excluding anyone whose face, views or origins doesn’t fit.

As Cowley also notes Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes from a very different place. At one level quintessentially English, allotment, bike, beard. At another level an adherent of a radical tradition from the Chartists to the CND that has an internationalist perspective and a dislike of the right-wing patriotism of John Bull.

I’m not sure we should look to Corbyn for an original thought on the matter but we can at least recognise his dilemma. The Freeborn Englishman of William Cobbett, that EP Thompson wrote about in the Making of the English Working Class (1963/8) is a deeply contradictory figure.

Thompson’s focus on the Freeborn Englishman suggests that he (and it was always a he) was a complex figure who was identified neither fully with left or right but could appear in either space depending on context.

For example Thompson notes that the Freeborn Englishman claimed a right to riot against oppression founded in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

The Freeborn Englishman did not however claim many rights but what he did not like was authority telling him what to do, or restricting his activities. Hence things like freedom from arbitrary arrest, jury trial and equality before the law were very important matters.

The British Government of the early nineteenth century, referred to by William Cobbett as The Thing, liked, as Thompson notes, to flatter the Freeborn Englishman by claiming that it held to these principles, whereas OTHER COUNTRIES did not.

Certainly the Freeborn Englishman was not an internationalist or an enthusiast for what happened in other countries.

In reality of course, for example at Peterloo in August 1819, the gap between the appearance of some kind of liberty and the reality often led to the Freeborn Englishman and the defence of his liberties to appear on the left rather than the right.

I’m not sure that Englishness has moved on all that much in the subsequent 200 years. There will be some cheering on an England football team notably more inclusive and more explicit in its anti-racism than some of recent decades. There will be others who note that some of England’s support will also be fans of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon the jailed far right troublemaker.

Bridging that contradictory divide is no easy matter and it remains a question of whether in any case it is a prudent project where promoting a genuine internationalism might be a better option. It is one which the British left has in fact a proud history of. EP Thompson commenting on criticism that the left had not become more hegemonic or developed more theory suggested this might have been because there had been ‘so bloody much to oppose’ when it came to the activities of British imperialism. And the British imperialists currently in Government are still at it.

Jason Cowley on Englishness







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