Is it my imagination, or is the media – particularly the BBC – finding it harder than ever to make a clear distinction between England and Britain? There seem to have been loads of programmes and news reports recently in which the commentary has swung seamlessly between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, or indeed ‘Great Britain’, as the name for the country being described.
The worst example that I heard came in the otherwise amusing Radio Four programme To Paris with Parsnips on Monday of this week. This followed the fortunes of “two British amateur cooks [taking] over a Paris restaurant to feed British food to the French” – except that, half the time, the chefs and their cuisine were indiscriminately described as English, and half the time as British. Similarly, one report assessing the prospects of the Team GB women’s football team referred to how well they had done in the last FIFA World Cup – except, of course, no Team GB has ever featured in a World Cup: it was the England team.
I blame the ‘Team GB Effect’ for this confusion, building on the Jubilee Effect, which similarly involved (mostly commercial) extolling of all things Great British, or ‘great-British’. Ironically, the more ‘the nation’ is painted as Great Britain, the more ‘English’ – culturally – it gets, and the slippage between (Great) Britain and England becomes unthinking and automatic. This is because ‘Great Britain’ is the name for ‘the country’ that most captures the historical truth that, for the English at least, the British Empire and state was in practice ‘Greater England’: a projection of English identity, civilisation and power across the whole of the Kingdom and Empire. So the more the English direct their identification and patriotism towards the symbols of Britishness, the more ‘English’ Britain becomes, and the more interchangeable are the terms ‘England’ and ‘Britain’.
This is all a very unhealthy and retrograde development, sending into hopefully only temporary reverse several years of increasing differentiation between England and Britain in the minds of English people. However, this classic conflation of England and Britain by English media and people – many of them, at least – is completely unsustainable in the long term. For a start, it pisses off the Scots and the Welsh – and we know we mustn’t piss off the Scots and the Welsh, don’t we!
In this context, on one level, I thought the protest made by some of the Scottish and Welsh players in the Team GB women’s and men’s football teams respectively by not singing ‘God Save the Queen’ ahead of their first matches rang rather shallow. If the players involved had really wanted to affirm their national identities and the independence of their football associations, they shouldn’t have been playing for Team GB in the first place. However, it seems that what they were actually objecting to was the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ as a default English national anthem in international football matches. As the grandfather of one of the Scottish players, Kim Little, put it: “It’s the national anthem of England, and she is Scottish”. Well, yes, he’s got a point: using ‘God Save the Queen’ before English football matches does turn it into a de facto English national anthem, with or without the anti-Scottish fifth verse. This is another example of the conflation of English- and British-national symbols and identity that Team GB itself personifies.
An even more important reason why this conflation cannot hold out in the long term is the fact that the increasing separation of Scottish and Welsh politics and identity from that of the British state is going to make the idea of Great Britain as a nation ever more untenable and delusory. Anything predicated of ‘Great Britain’ will simply come to be seen as applying more appropriately to England: to ‘Lesser England’ – England only – rather than Greater England. There is no such nation as Great Britain and never has been: Great Britain has only ever been an imaginary extension of the English realm across the UK and Empire as a whole.
Of course, the dream lives on and is rekindled whenever ‘the nation’ is invited to strut across the ‘world stage’ by performing the sort of minutely choreographed pageant – Jubilee or Opening Ceremony – that represents ‘Britain at its best’ precisely because it’s what represents Britain to the world, and projects ‘British identity’ on a global level and as a global brand. Hence, we are told, tonight’s opening ceremony, entitled ‘Isles of Wonder’, will present to ourselves and the world a vision of “the best of British, featuring volunteer performers from the NHS”: that same NHS which, in England only, has recently been handed back to the private sector. Centre stage will be a sort of fantasy-island Britain, with the stadium “transformed into the British countryside for opening scene ‘Green and Pleasant’”. The transformation is indeed complete: “England’s green and pleasant land” from Blake’s Jerusalem becoming Britain’s green and pleasant countryside. How ironic that these words are drawn from the popular choice for English national anthem: not content with demanding that Scottish and Welsh footballers sing a British anthem they regard as English, the Olympics organisers are taking English symbols and projecting them out to the world as British! Great Britain in action!
Perhaps that’s why it is ‘Team GB’, in fact, rather than ‘the Great British team’ or simply ‘Great Britain’. We’re conscious that the latter terms sound rather false and empty: a bit marketingy, like all of the ‘great-British’ nonsense we’ve been subjected to all year; or a bit jingoistic and Ruritanian – a tin-pot island nation (effectively, England in all but name) still pretending to be a great, multi-national imperial power.
So if we’re looking for the Olympics to reveal something about ourselves, as Great Britain, to ourselves and the watching world, we’ll be looking in the wrong place, as Great Britain itself is a flight from who we really are. We’ll be the British bulldog continuing to bark up the wrong, British tree, instead of the English dog that has finally barked and is content to confine itself to its own territory.
Either way, let’s hope that our English bite – medal-winning prowess – is more meaningful than our bark!