I spent part of a day in London last summer, about six weeks after the 7/7 subway bombings. I was fresh back from an adventure safari into deepest Wales and was too tired to do much more in London than ride around in one of those double-decker tourist buses. But at least I looked at London, which provided an interesting contrast to New York City six weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
By late October 2001 New York City had begun to dismantle the thousands of shrines that sprang up after 9/11 and spread like kudzu over the sidewalks, lampposts, and scaffolding. Six weeks on, some shrines were entirely gone; others merely trimmed back. But in October 2001 the city was blooming with American flags. Rockefeller Center was an ocean of flags, and if you looked up and down Fifth Avenue you could see more flags than you could count, flapping away into infinite distance. It was quite a spectacle.
In London, the only visible remembrance of 7/7 that I saw was the lonely little sign in the photo at the top of this post. The only other clue that London had recently endured anything out of the ordinary was the tour guide’s cheerful announcement that the bus would not be stopping at Buckingham Palace for security reasons. I didn’t go to the subway stations associated with the 7/7 bombings (I considered it, but thinking of how tourists gawking at Ground Zero made me feel queasy, I decided — out of respect to London — to stay away). I assume there were flowers and signs and visible expressions of grief around those stations. But if so the shrines were confined to those stations and not drizzled liberally all over the bleeping city, as they were in New York.
Neither had London turned into a flag festival. In fact, I barely saw a Union Jack the entire time I was in Britain. Of course, the English flag is not the Union Jack, because that is the British flag. The English flag is the Cross of St George, which I understand is waved enthusiastically by soccer fans wherever an English team is playing. Perhaps the English are less given to flying national flags because they’re ambivalent about which national flag to fly.
By contrast, the Welsh fly their dragon flag from anything that will hold still for it. When you enter Wales by car you are greeted by a big, proud, dragon-festooned sign that says Croeso i Gymru — Welcome to Wales. They want you to know you ain’t in England any more, boyo. But when you drive into England from Wales you get no clue at all that you’ve crossed a border, except that suddenly all the road signs are entirely in English.
The English also seem a bit ambivalent about national anthems. “God Save the Queen” is the anthem of the entire United Kingdom, and since other parts of the UK have their own anthems, there is some controversy about whether “GStQ” is the proper anthem for English soccer matches. And if it isn’t, what is? I understand some English rugby teams have adopted “Land of Hope and Glory” as the English anthem, while others prefer “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for some unfathomable reason. But soccer teams haven’t made up their minds. There is no official Scottish anthem, but the Scots unofficially have adopted “Flower of Scotland,” or sometimes “Scotland the Brave.” On the island of Britain only the Welsh are not at all confused about anthems; theirs is “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau,” diolch yn fawr iawn (thank you very much).
The difference in reaction to terrorist attack, New York v. London, might be explained by the larger magnitude of the New York attacks. Further, attacks on London from foreign enemies have not passed from living memory. I suspect Londoners born since the Blitz have absorbed the bombing of London into their national identity, and they are guided by that brave example. We Americans have no such collective memory to guide us. Even those of us who have heard of the War of 1812 may not be aware that the British captured and burned Washington, DC, in 1814. For us, that was too long ago to count. For most Americans, our invincibility from foreign attack is part of our national identity. The 9/11 attacks were not just atrocities committed by foreigners against our fellow citizens; they were a violation of our collective ego.
The London subway bombers, however, were British citizens. There’s another difference. But they were British citizens who did not define themselves as British, apparently.
English national identity may be going through a different kind of identity crisis. I suspect the English may be going through a deep, if subtle, re-evaluation of what it is to be English, especially as something distinct from being British. Or maybe not. It’s subtle, as I said.
Americans tend to use England and Britain as synonyms, as Shakespeare himself did in Richard II —
- This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,â€”
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
But the Celts, dug into Britain’s edges and highlands since the time of Roman and Saxon invaders, stubbornly refused to surrender their own unique identities. In recent years Wales and Scotland have won some degree of home rule, and the English gave up their centuries-long effort to eradicate the Welsh language, allowing Wales to be officially bilingual. In effect, Scotland and Wales have demanded recognition as British, but not English, and England has agreed.
Now there is an English Question. The devolution of Britain’s old centralized government now allows the Scots and Welsh some say-so over matters specific to Scotland and Wales. But what about England? As Tony Wright observed, matters now decided by the Welsh Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament for Scotland are decided by the British Parliament for England.
Those who warned that devolution to Scotland and Wales would trigger the break-up of Britain have turned out to be emphatically wrong. Those who argued for devolution as a means of keeping the British project up and running have been no less emphatically vindicated. Yet it has, ineluctably, also created the English Question, and it is to this that attention now has to turn. The future of Britain, and of Britishness, may well depend on whether we can find a convincing answer to it.
It is reported that Scottish Labour MPs decided not to sign up to the parliamentary rebellion against the Government’s education white paper because it would draw attention to the anomaly of Scottish MPs deciding on education in England when English MPs have no say on education in Scotland. In fact of course it did precisely the opposite, especially as abstention of view was not intended to be translated into abstention of vote. Similarly, the smoking ban in England was voted on by Scottish and Welsh MPs despite the fact that in Scotland and Wales the issue is a matter for devolved decision.
I’m not aware that the English are pushing for home rule for themselves. The oddness of this may be apparent to everyone but the English. Maybe centuries of seeing themselves as the lords and rulers of all of Britain have left them thinking of Scotland and Wales as relics of history, or vestigial organs — sort of the way non-native Americans think of Indian reservations. As exemplified by the signs (or lack thereof) along the English-Welsh border, the Welsh are far more interested in the integrity of national boundaries than the English.
But now the English are asking, “Hey — where’s our national anthem?” Did they not notice this void before? Is noticing the void now a signal that the English are re-defining themselves vis-Ã -vis the Welsh and Scots? And if so, will “Welcome to England” signs someday be posted along the roads leaving Wales?
The matter of racial minorities in Britain complicates the identity thing even further. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in Britain to fully understand where the Brits are with this. My impression is that, while most Brits are determined to put on a tolerant face, there’s some racism bubbling under the surface. For example, during the Welsh safari I was told that some English people are buying homes in Wales because Wales is still mostly white.
Yes, but it’s still mostly white for the same reason the Ozarks are still mostly white — a shortage of good jobs and other economic opportunities. Centuries of low status have left Wales still beautiful, but poor. Like the Ozarks, it’s not a place large numbers of people move to; if you live there, chances are you were born there. If racial identity could so override national identity and cause an English person to move in with the poor cousins, among whom “you’re acting English” is an insult — how ironic is that? And isn’t it interesting how we seem to have layers of identities, and that we push one forward and pull back another, depending on circumstances?
And yes, I realize I’m leaving Northern Ireland out of this discussion. That’s a whole ‘nother level of complication that could add several feet to the length of this post.
I started musing about the English because of this post by Michelle Malkin, who in her artless way managed to turn a remembrance of 7/7 into a smear of the British. Brits are not nearly hateful or intolerant enough to suit Malkin. The Unhinged One links to this op ed in the Washington Times by Diana West, who is disturbed because an entire 13 percent of Britain’s Muslim population believe the 7/7 suicide bombers should be considered martyrs.
And, apparently, some among this 13 percent are not shy about expressing their opinions. West quotes one of these, Anjem Choudary:
“Who says you own Britain, anyway?” Mr. Choudary replied. “Britain belongs to Allah. The whole world belongs to Allah … If I go to the jungle, I’m not going to live like the animals, I’m going to propagate a superior way of life. Islam is a superior way of life.”
Offensive, yes, but I don’t see a big distinction between Mr. Chaoudary’s attitude and that of many of the Christian Right who live among us here in America. They all disgust me, yet if I make faces at the Christian Whackjobs I’m a Bad Person, according to the righties.
Malkin and West are angry that Brits permitted Chaoudary and others to demonstrate outside the Danish Embassy during the recent cartoon war, and that British police protected the demonstrators from violent reprisal. The demonstrators had to be protected because they carried signs praising both the 7/7 and 9/11 terrorists. West writes,
Hundreds of demonstrators marched through London, praising the 7/7 killers or calling for the murder of journalists who publish Mohammed cartoons. And the police stood by.
More accurately, they made sure the protest went off smoothly, as the Times Online reported. “People who tried to snatch away [the placards] were held back by police,” the newspaper reported. “Several members of the public tackled senior police officers guarding the protesters, demanding to know why they allowed banners that praised the ‘Magnificent 19’ â€” the terrorists who hijacked the aircrafts used on September 11, 2001 â€” and others threatening further attacks on London.” …
… The “Newsnight” show on which Mr. Choudary subsequently appeared included news footage of an English bobby vigorously silencing such a citizen, described as a van driver, who, according to the televised report, had angrily criticized the Muslim protesters. It is tragically enlightening.
“Listen to me, listen to me,” said the policeman, shaking his finger at the van driver. “They have a right to protest. You let them do it. You say things like that you’ll get them riled and I end up in [trouble]. You say one more thing like that, mate, and you’ll get yourself nicked [arrested] and I am not kidding you, d’you understand me?”
Van driver: “They can do whatever they want and I can’t?”
Policeman: “They’ve got their way of doing it. The way you did it was wrong. You’ve got one second to get back in your van and get out of here.”
Van driver: [bitter] “Freedom of speech.”
This vignette wasn’t law and order in action. It was desperate, craven appeasement. As the bobby put it, “You say things like that, you’ll get them riled.” And we mustn’t get them riled. Let Anjem Choudary and his band of thugs praise mass killings, threaten more attacks and advocate murder by beheading on London streets in broad daylight, but don’t get them riled.
Unfortunately, neither Malkin nor West spell out what they would have done in this situation. Would they have refused to allow the Muslims to demonstrate? That sets off all kinds of questions about when the government can stop demonstrations and when it can’t, and Malkin and West do not address those questions. Would they have had the police step aside and let the demonstration turn violent? What if the police stepped aside and people — Muslim and non-Mulsim — were killed? Would Malkin and West have been happy then? They don’t say. They don’t grapple with the hard issues. They just know that Muslims should not be permitted to do things that anger Malkin and West.
Muslims in America seem a lot more docile than Muslims in Europe. Is this because they are less angry than British Muslims? Or is it that they are more afraid of what might happen to them if they speak their minds? If the latter is true, what does that say about Americans? Does it say we are not “appeasers,” or does it say we have less respect than the Brits for freedom of speech? Does suppressing speech make the problem of Islamic extremism go away, or does it sweep Islamic extremism under a rug? What might happen if Muslim extremists demonstrated in New York City with signs that praised the 9/11 terrorists? Would the NYPD be able to keep the peace? Would the NYPD try to keep the peace?
And what are the 13 percent angry about, by the way?
According to this article in the June 22 Economist, Muslims in Europe are angrier than Muslims in America. The article poses various possible reasons for this. But this one was most intriguing to me (emphasis added):
Amid all the confusion, there is one clear trend among European Muslims. Islam is increasingly important as a symbol of identity. About a third of French schoolchildren of Muslim origin see their faith rather than a passport or skin colour as the main thing that defines them. Young British Muslims are inclined to see Islam (rather than the United Kingdom, or the city where they live) as their true home.
It does not help that all Europeans, whatever their origin, nowadays find themselves â€œidentity-shoppingâ€ as the European Union competes with the older nation-states for their loyalty. No wonder many young European Muslims find that the ummaâ€”worldwide Islamâ€”tugs hardest at their heart-strings.
Hmm, there’s that identity thing again.