I was thinking of writing a ‘who what where’ guide to referring to ‘England’: a set of guidelines about where it is right and proper to refer to things such as civic institutions, government bodies and even ‘the country’ as ‘English’ and ‘England’, and where it is not. For example, in the case of ‘the NHS’, should one always insist on ‘English NHS’ given that the users of the service (Who) are English, the organisation itself is an English body (What), and legislation relating to it such as the recent Health and Social Care Bill is limited to England (Where)? So yes, you should say ‘English NHS’. But is it always wrong to just say ‘the NHS’?
I found that the more you try to be precise and reasonable about when to call things ‘English’ that aren’t formally English – because they’re British institutions, or are thought and spoken of as such even if not – the more you get wrapped up in complex rules and exceptions. At the end of the day, you just have to call a spade a spade.
But whose spade is it? Let me illustrate this question with an example. If I’m talking about the things I own, or where I feel I belong, I would say ‘the car’, ‘home’, ‘the family’ or ‘town’, and not ‘the Rickard car’, ‘the Rickard house’, ‘the Rickard family’ or ‘Cambridge’, even though those terms are more technically correct. So it is with things that are of ‘the nation’: it’s OK to say ‘the NHS’, ‘the Department of Education’, ‘the North’ or even ‘the country’, and not always insist on ‘the English NHS’, the ‘Department of Education for England’, ‘the North of England’ or ‘England’ respectively. Not specifying that you mean ‘England’ when you talk of these things implies that a) everyone knows which national family we’re talking about, and b) everyone involved in the conversation feels a sense of ownership and belonging in that family.
In other words, I’m saying we shouldn’t always jump down the throats of politicians and journalists when they don’t spell out that they’re talking about England when referring to things such as ‘the NHS’ or ‘our country’. It’s true that the two conditions I set out above often don’t apply: a) the politicians and commentators in question generally imply or actually believe that the nation they’re talking about is ‘Britain’, even when the things being discussed do not apply to the whole UK; and b) often the said politicians and journos feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over English matters even if they themselves are neither English nor represent English voters. In these instances, their talking about England as ‘the country’, or about the NHS as ‘our NHS’, is a bit like someone unrelated to me – say a GP or an interfering neighbour – referring proprietarily to my family as ‘the family’ (which family: yours or mine?), or feels entitled to comment on my plans to make some home improvements as ‘what are we going to do about our conservatory idea, then?’. It’s inappropriate, patronising and interfering – but it’s not wrong as such.
What is wrong is not so much when things that are English are described in presumptuous terms that imply we all know which country we’re talking about, and that we’re all entitled to make decisions about it, but when, in addition, that country is explicitly referred to as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ when the actual content or context of the discussion clearly means that only England can be at issue. For example, people often describe the [English] NHS as a ‘great British’ (by implication also ‘Great British’) institution. Well, clearly, no: it’s no longer either an all-British organisation nor even a cohesive, national(ised) body, and ‘the NHS’ (without any designation of nationality such as in ‘NHS Scotland’ or ‘NHS Wales’) clearly just means the English one. So we should correct people when they talk in those terms, if only to clear up a gross misunderstanding on their part.
Similarly, we’re perfectly within our rights to jump down the throats of anyone who talks blithely about ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ when we know they can only possibly be talking about England, whether this is in relation to politics (e.g. England-only laws or government bodies) or culture (e.g. when people start talking of English institutions or traditions such as, say, cricket, Morris dancing or – more topically – Shakespeare as ‘British’). ‘No, no, no: you mean “English”’, we should say’.
To continue with my analogy, people talking of ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ in such circumstances are like somebody referring to my nuclear family and personal business as part of an extended clan and family business whose jurisdiction over my life I don’t necessarily recognise. It’s like a patronising, wealthy cousin who sees himself as the ‘head of the family’ coming along and telling me how to run my own life and talking about ‘the family’ as, I don’t know, the Brown or Cameron family rather than the local sub-branch of the clan, which I like to call ‘Rickard’.
So to summarise: when people say ‘the country’ or ‘our’ (a favourite Cameron device for avoiding saying ‘English’, as in ‘our NHS’ or ‘our society’, etc.), and really mean ‘England’ or ‘English’, we shouldn’t try to pedantically correct every single phrase or statement, so long as we are clear about which country is being referred to, and make it clear we’re not hoodwinked by establishment spin. (I’ll discuss what this might mean in practice a bit further below.) However, when people say ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ and really mean ‘England’, we should correct them, politely but firmly.
Similarly, we should pull people up in the opposite case: when they say ‘the country’ or ‘the nation’, and mean ‘the UK’ or ‘Britain’ not England. When people talk in such terms, this involves a claim to speak in our name or act in our interest, and an assumption that ‘our’ interest is unambiguously the same thing as the ‘British’ interest. For example, the coalition’s ‘governing narrative’, as it were – the fiction that justifies its existence and central policy plank of deficit reduction – is that it came together in the ‘national interest’. But this is by definition untrue for anyone who regards their nation as England, not Britain. There’s no way the coalition could be said to be governing in the English-national interest, since it does not even recognise England as a nation in the political sense. So we should tell people who claim to be acting in the national interest that they mean the British interest, which is not the same thing.
The same goes for anybody who invokes ‘the nation’, and the concept of shared values and national sentiment this implies. This relates to anyone in the public eye, not just politicians. For example, David Beckham – the former captain of the England football team and would-be captain of the Olympic Football Team GB – referred last week to the ‘whole nation’ being honoured and excited by the passage of the Olympic flame throughout the UK, and by the hosting of the Olympics themselves. Well no, David, not if you mean ‘England’. Sure, many English people do indeed feel thrilled and privileged that Britain is hosting the Olympics, but England isn’t hosting it – at least, not in any officially recognised sense. Which nation do you mean?
Which goes back to my original question: whose spade is it? It’s not ‘our’ [English] Olympics, it’s the British Olympics, and you should say so. Call a spade a spade. But at the same time, we need to know who we ourselves are, so that we can recognise and hold on to what truly belongs to us. We English are not given to overflowing national rhetoric or to parading our national pride around Olympic arenas – we’ll leave that to the British. We don’t have to go around stamping everything as ‘English’: English NHS, English Health Department, North of England. We are the country and should rise above the need pedantically to remind people of that fact at every turn. But this in turn requires national self-confidence and the development within us of a sense that the ‘implied national community’, as it were, behind the words ‘country’ and ‘nation’ is England, not Britain.
If we are England and we know it, then we’ll also know that ‘the NHS’ and ‘the North’ are English, too. We just need to remind people who think and say those things are British, and who think ‘the nation’ itself is Britain, of that truth.