The Matthew's House Project addresses this idea of identity with some regularity. What makes Americans define themselves a certain way? What makes Exit 200 on I-75 different from Exit 210? How does love work without identifying enemies? In a global market that is strung up and out on technology, does place make any difference? Lee Snelling teaches classes on cultural issues in Georgia today but he grew up in England and identifies himself as an Englishman (in the South, I suppose though New York has an identifiable ring). I spoke with Lee about his homeland and his concerns about what “being English” might mean.
MHP: Where are you from in England?
Lee Snelling: My hometown is Ipswich, England. We are near the southeastern coast of England in an area known as East Anglia (the East Angles – a reference to our German ancestry).
MHP: What does it mean to be English these days? And how does that compare with your perceptions on what Americans mean when they sing their proud to be an American? Isn't there an identity crisis everywhere... except for China perhaps?
LS: Being English (or some prefer British) isn’t what it use to be. You would think that a country that has such a rich history would be more proud of it. Growing up in English schools we were taught about English history and how proud we should be of it. If you expressed that sense of pride these days you are deemed a nationalist, a troublemaker, anti-immigration/xenophobic.
Of course there are numerous stereotypes that go along with being English – the funny thing is many of these are true. We do indeed drink a great deal of tea (hot of course). Many of us do have bad teeth – not sure why that is the case. We are brought up to love the Queen. There are many more of these of course.
About identity crisis, I am not sure. I have lived in the U.S. for fifteen years, but I am still quite aware of who I am as an Englishman – God, Queen and country all the way. It is the government that causes an identity crisis. The push for being more European and being a leader in the European Union has facilitated this identity crisis. That is a whole other matter though.
MHP: Explain a bit of the history related to immigration and England. Certainly it has something to do with the former (or current) Empire and the acceptance that modernity seems to demand in its tolerance statements.
LS: As a former colonial power we have experienced a huge influx of immigration from all over the world. In the 60s, 70s and 80s much of this was from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean. In more recent years we have seen a wave coming from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and war-torn countries, etc. It has caused some real animosity in England. We are encouraged to not be too proud of being English because it is unwelcoming to these other groups. There has been a resurgence of nationalist political movements, which is both scary and embarrassing really. But it is a reaction to a lack of governing by Parliament.
People too often forget that England is an over-populated island. We don’t have that much room to expand after several thousand years of civilization. Our current population (just England, not the British Isles) is 50,000,000 and we are comparable in size to the state of Louisiana (whose population is 4,500,000). So imagine packing 45,000,000 more people into the Bayou State. England can’t keep absorbing the amount of immigrants we are taking in. Yet, the Labour Government is very reluctant to tackle this issue.
MHP: You can't simply exile these groups from your country, can you?
That method has certainly been tried and found effective in history, but today that would be taboo... same thing with assimilation, right? So where does that leave us? Learning Arabic?
LS: Exiling people just isn’t England’s style these days. That would take initiative and strength – two things lacking in recent years. Gordon Brown – the current PM that replaced Tony Blair – has a great deal of work to do in the next few years. Exiling certainly doesn’t mesh well with the mission and vision of the European Union. With the policy of open borders and the free movement of people this simply isn’t an option.
Another reason this would be dangerous is the growing resentment within immigrant communities. Remember many of the 7/7 London suicide bombers – if not all of them – were homegrown terrorists. These were young men that grew up in England, but since 9/11 had become disillusioned with the marginalization of the Islamic community. Exiling Islamic “troublemakers” will only legitimize their angst with the Establishment and English society in general.
MHP: I heard about the French prime minister visiting with the queen. So what? Isn't the queen just a remnant of old like the Church of England seems to be for the country - a remembrance of what England used to be like you said?
LS: Having the rich history England as we do, a great deal of things out of “pomp and circumstance.” Queen Elizabeth is merely a figure head of state more for symbolic reasons. Technically, she still holds a great deal of power; but doesn’t actually execute it (need to be careful with the word execute when talking about the monarchy). She can dissolve Parliament if she elects to, but whether this will ever happen is another matter. She opens Parliament each year and delivers a speech, but she doesn’t actually write this speech herself – she is assisted by the ruling party in the House of Commons.
As for the Church of England, I would venture to guess that many English people would have a tough time remembering the last service they sat (or slept) through. Growing up in England I went to two services – both at Christmas. My father took us both times thinking it was a fatherly obligation to expose us to church. The Anglican Church – Episcopalian in the U.S. – has truly seen a drop-off in attendance. I have seen statistics as low as 7 percent of the English population attending a service on a regular basis. It’s a shame to think of all of the local parishes that dot the landscape of England and they are scarcely visited on a Sunday.
MHP: Talk about the icons that you point to that makes you proud to be English... is it Australia's loyalty or Big Ben? Is it Stonehenge or Oxford?
LS: Icons . . . well it definitely isn’t Stonehenge or Oxford. Stonehenge is a group of rocks in the middle of a field to most English people. It’s there for the tourists! Oxford – as beautiful as it is – certainly isn’t an iconic symbol. Attending a university back home isn’t an experience kids grow up thinking about like it is here in the States. And Oxford is for the cream of the crop, so we don’t aspire for something that’s well beyond our place in English society. Oh and by the way Big Ben is a bell, NOT A CLOCK!
MHP: Talk about Northern Ireland. Why do you care about retaining it?
I don’t care about retaining it from a personal point of view. We keep hold of it because it is a reminder of our days as the glorious British Empire. Of course the trouble is a majority of the population in Northern Ireland is Protestant so they want to remain part of Britain. To be honest, for a country that lacks natural resources and isn’t exactly a tourist destination I don’t understand what the fuss has been about. To think of all the lives that have been lost for the sake of what exactly? I look forward to the day that devolution truly takes place and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland acquire 100 percent sovereignty. In my opinion their right to self-determination is long overdue.
MHP: So, how does an Empire become un-empirical? Would you consider America an Empire? What are the similarities?
LS: How did England become un-empirical? Greed perhaps? The Indians (not of the Navajo or Cherokee variety) got tired of us taking all of their tea and politely asked us to leave. Speaking of tea and former colonies – we still have a score to settle with the city of Boston concerning a little party you had a couple of hundred years ago.
We had a good run as an empire and our time came to an end. The sun has to set at some point right? This will surely happen to America, not that I am insinuating that America is an empire. England just spread itself too thin. After fighting the Crimean War, World War I and World War II we just couldn’t keep on to all of the various territories we laid claim to. Economically, politically and militarily we couldn’t handle it anymore. It was only natural that it would all come to an end. But look at the other empires through history and didn’t they all do the same? They bit off more than they could chew. Perhaps America will learn from this.
MHP: What are the similarities between England and America, in regards to empire building?
LS: Arrogance – simply stated! Is it really necessary for me to explain this?
Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.