With debates about Scotland’s independence heating up in advance of the Referendum in September, questions of ‘Englishness’ and national identity are more pertinent than ever. In today’s blog post Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University Leicester and co-editor (with Philip Dodd) of the forthcoming 2nd edition of Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920, talks about how and why the book was originally conceived and why the topics discussed in it are still highly relevant today.
Robert: When the Scots go to the polls on 18 September they will make the most important decision about the future of the United Kingdom since the Irish in 1921. Ireland's departure came at the end of a period that had seen major attempts to reconstitute the United Kingdom as an imperial state built on four home nations with the Englishness at the core. Although the Union had existed since at least 1707, the political settlement of 1880-1920 represents its last great modernisation.
Our book Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920 was originally published in a decade caught between the old social democratic certainties of 1945 and the new market-oriented global Englishness that was built by Thatcherism and New Labour in the 1980s and after. That is how we might see the book now but of course it was not possible to see so clearly at the time.
At the time we were two young lecturers at Leicester University trying to account for a lot of confusion and division. England was changing fast but we didn't know into what and, after an education that had largely ignored the subject, we turned to thinking about the course of English history as something that had nurtured not only an Empire, but in the home nations a particularly complete form of national identity .
So we situated the book in the crucial 1880 to 1920 period and tried to get a hold of the philosophical and institutional forces that underpinned the new liberal Englishness.
Looking back now, it seems that our basic uncertainty gave our book a certain edge and freedom which our contributors were quick to exploit. True, we did not cover every aspect, but those we did cover - on liberalism, conservatism and socialism, on music and literature, on the national institutions and social mores, on Ireland and English ruralism - we managed to integrate into a general argument about cultural forms of power and authority. Although in the main our emphasis was definitely political, none of it was 'Whig' in the elite sense and all of it, as we've said, was out on the edge.
We were the first but by no means the last. Englishness was followed by an avalanche of works on the subject which continue to make critical interventions in all the major Arts and Humanities subjects and which, in some cases, have reconfigured the entire university curriculum. Whatever the Scots decide on 18 September, the United Kingdom will never be the same again. For how it was before the change, see this new edition of a classic work from Bloomsbury.
Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920, edited by Robert Colls and Philip Dodd and with a new Afterword written by Will Self, is published on 28th August 2014 in the UK and 23rd October 2014 in the US. You can find out more about the book's contents and purchase a copy via the Bloomsbury website. Will Self has also written a fascinating piece on how English culture and national identity have changed since the 1990s, which you can read here.