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English Idiom

british idiom
Written by Robert Colls

The trouble with the new liberalism is that it believes in itself more than it believes in the people – which is awkward for a liberal ideology whose narrative has always been the masses against the classes. In the wake of the referendum, the British people found themselves not good enough for their betters who, in turn, don’t know how to forgive them for being so trivial, so local and so boring. For the first time in my life the intellectuals hate ‘the masses’ all over again.

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Rosie works in the university cafe.  She used to kid me along by saying “It’s not rocket salad you know”, but when I told her I was going to work at Leicester’s other university, she flatly denied it had one. She couldn’t think where it was… but when I said ‘De Montfort’ she said “Oh you mean The Poll-eh! Why didn’t you say?”  She didn’t care anyway. The University was for them up on the hill while the Poly was for us down the town.  It’s not rocket science.

Too trivial for what matters, too provincial for where it matters, too boring for intellectuals – this story says something about how the British think of themselves.  In fact, stretching from the old medieval community at one end of the campus, to the bright wide piazza at the other end, to the elegantly converted Victorian buildings in the middle, De Montfort has not only given Leicester a second university, it has given it a second beating heart.  They used to make socks in the Clephan Building.  Now we make Arts graduates.  This is ‘De Mont’, and it don’t mean a thing unless it’s got that Leicester swing.  Just like Leicester Vaughan College over the way.  Sold off by the university on the hill but now being reclaimed as a cooperative community benefit society by former tutors and students, Vaughan is a tiny bit of civic pride that just couldn’t be given up.

You wouldn’t know any of this unless you came here.  In 2016 Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League.  They sang ‘we know what we are’ all through the season, and the second line crashed back: ‘CHAMPIONS OF ENGLAND’.  And so they were.  At the beginning of the season this very ordinary club was 5000/1 against.  Do you know what that means?  It means that the club could play for 5000 years and never win the League.  In other words, it meant never. But they won it all the same.

In 2012, Leicester found a king buried under its social services car park.  About 10 feet down and in reserved space number 3, marked ‘R III’, they found the body of Richard III, king of England, slain in battle in a Leicestershire field in 1485.  At first the city didn’t know what to do with itself but in the end a bizarre mixture of loony medieval pageant and Anglican rock carnival re-buried him under a block of Yorkshire granite.  Just for an odd moment, Richard was a multicultural hero in the first European city with a majority black and Asian population.  Leicester doesn’t talk about its diversity all that much.  It leaves that to others, usually up from London on a day return.  As with Vaughan and De Mont, as with being Champions of England, as with finding the King of England in a car park, it just gets on with the special business of being ordinary.

These are the sort of stories that hold a country together – told in what the historian E P Thompson called an “English idiom” which he described as “disintegrative of universals”. In the great Brexit debate, by adopting an overblown universalism of such proportions they almost sailed away, the British intellectual class lost the debate. This they could not believe.  The Guardian newspaper, once the bastion of Thompson’s empirically-minded English idiom – rooted in Manchester as fair-minded and factual – now took on the spite of The Bourbons.  True, Larry Elliott and Giles Fraser, two Brexiteers, continue to write for it, occasionally, but against a rising tide of editorial policy that puts the new liberalism first and the news second. 

The trouble with the new liberalism is that it believes in itself more than it believes in the people – which is awkward for a liberal ideology whose narrative has always been the masses against the classes.  In the wake of the referendum, the British people found themselves not good enough for their betters who, in turn, don’t know how to forgive them for being so trivial, so local and so boring.  John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses tracked the history of this condescending relationship from 1880 to 1939 but, astonishing as it may seem, it’s back. For the first time in my life the intellectuals hate ‘the masses’ all over again.

What is to be done?  Keep all northerners in the North?  Lock all white van men in their van?  Disenfranchise all those who haven’t got a degree, or a profession, or who can’t speak European good like what we can?  I exaggerate, but only slightly.  Those who are good with words, of course, said it best.  Novelist Ian McEwan said his country had “befouled” itself, while with a lavatorial flourish Ben Okri asked if there were “no windows that can take away this smell”?  Sir David Hare, the well known Hampstead playwright, thought that he could only look forward now to “a loveless future” of “social backwardness”.

The levels of aggression and malice from people and institutions who otherwise would normally stand for the English idiom has been astonishing. Why should Labour MPs want to side with the banks against a democratic mandate?  Why should Tory MPs of all people be willing to kill their own party in the name of a Franco-German arrangement?  We appear to have an Establishment embarrassed by own establishment.  National sovereignty, parliamentary democracy, the nation-state, self-determination: these were their words, not everyday parlance.  And now when the people get them out for their own use, they’re not their words any more.  It seems. 

And all for what?  The EU is not yet so post-modern as to be post nation-state or, if it is, it is the only one who is, trading on nation-state legitimacy without believing in a nation-state future.  Yet the BBC YouGov poll on national identity (June 2018) found mainly the overwhelming strength of English and British identity in all groups – the old and the young, the more and less educated, north and south, rich and poor.  That the Today programme didn’t report it like that is another matter.  In fact, Remainers talk very little about national identity but when they do it’s as an opium of the people, offered from above and intended as a distraction from their real selves – or, as Demos put it, “peddled” and “harnessed” by “insurgent politicians” intent on “imperilling our liberal democracies”.  But it’s our liberal democracy that willed the referendum in the first place and, as in Marx’s comments on religion, there’s nothing false about it.  National identity is what people have created for themselves to meet their real needs and desires.  It may not be the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of who they (we) are, but it’s what they make of it in the meantime and so far, the meantime has been a long time.

What is the nation-state for?  Leavers are regularly lectured by the political class for wanting the impossible dream of some ‘control’ over their lives. Putting aside for the moment the fact that in these matters the lecturers usually have more opportunity to control their lives (pensions, property, education, good connections etc) than the lectured to, the truth is that post-war Europe grew rich and free by controlling the market.  Social democracy in all its forms (Roosevelt, Attlee, Marshall Plan, Common Market) was not just a play for justice, it was economically successful too, steadying social and business risk.  All the key sectors, including housing, education, labour, transport, welfare and immigration, not to mention all the offices of municipal government, applied layers of control that now no longer exist.  James Meek went to Grimsby for the 2015 election and couldn’t find anybody in Grimsby responsible for Grimsby.  The dismantling of these levels of ‘control’ has been disastrous for most people, not only in Britain, and most people, including Remainers, know it. 

Let us suggest a couple of positives instead.  First, whatever else it did, Brexit signalled a British belief in themselves and their institutions.  The left always used to tell the people that the country belonged to them (something the right never did).  But then, in the 1990s when the left made their great cart-wheel into universal rights and global immanence and lost their reason for being British along the way, the people – English, Welsh or Scots – never forgot their identity as self-determining peoples.  Not for the first time, they looked to themselves.  This is vexed because various elections saw them come out for themselves in different ways, but at least they were all looking for a system which they wanted to understand.

No one ever accused the EU of being understandable or transparent.  Not good at listening to its peoples in any sense its peoples recognize, Brussels represents the extreme technical middle.

Second, it is true that the economic future has to be played for; and no doubt many people voted remain because (quite understandably) they didn’t fancy taking the chance. But one thing is certain: for all the difficulties of leaving, we now have the opportunity to re-think our place in a more complicated world where it is not clear, and has not been clear for some time, where the big money is being made, or where the big decisions are being taken, or where the big borders are being drawn.  After Brexit, at the very least, it is now up to the British state (no excuses) to regulate the free flotation of capital and labour and reverse the slide in the quality of life of that half of the country who are not graduates, not rich, and don’t live in the south.   The future of British fishing could provide a nice little test case of whether Brexit will be made to deliver just for the City or for some notion of the nation as a community.  The Norwegians, by the way, who understand these things, have issued a new 200 kroner bank note showing a giant cod.

The British are at their best when they are not trying to look extraordinary.  Look at our friends Tim and Izzie’s green gardening and carpentering in Brittany.  The Chartists used to call for three acres and a cow.  They are doing it on three acres and a wifi connection.  Or look at Manchester, a city that turned being prosaic into an art form but is also one of the Europe’s great hubs of science and technology.  Or consider Hull, once famous for fish but UK City of Culture 2017 as well, and the chosen home of England’s greatest modern poet.  Larkin specialized in turning bits of ordinariness – an old photo, a musty church, a train journey – into magic.  You can meet him on Hull’s station platform any day (although he can be taciturn).

It has been a bad year for disasters, but consider how people in London and Manchester responded in every way they could, look at the way big cities suddenly seemed small again, joined up and ready to be counted.  The real and most hopeful life of these islands is not the sort that the British Council finds easy to promote or uncover, try as it might.  Away from the tourist image, the British people come together in a million ways not ordinarily appreciated. From poetry slams to charity matches, from cooperative community benefit societies to parish councils, from French classes in front rooms to badminton clubs in village halls, to gudwaras, allotments, beer festivals, garden fetes, community campaigns, Hay on Wye’s festival of ideas, Keswick’s Way with Words, street parties and the like, they have long shared the democratic knack of coming together for private causes and civil results.  Alongside that, there is their equally remarkable capacity for trusting each other, for feeling free to say “Yes’ or ‘No’, ‘Thanks’ ‘No Thanks’ and ‘Cheers’ all in a moment. You can most quickly find this holding the door for someone in a pub, but you can most powerfully access it by getting to know somewhere local – trivial and boring though that might be.   

Last year my friend Albyn celebrated his birthday in a boiling Italian restaurant in Durham City.  All around us northerners were eating and drinking at their most unabashed until suddenly the table next to us started crooning. They were a choir from down south (doon sooth) who had been to the Cathedral but now were singing for him.  The waitresses folded their arms.  The bar staff grinned at each other.  The manager took a minute as the other tables went quiet and just for a moment the ordinary became extraordinary. It wasn’t the rocket salad.  It was the English idiom in its rightful place.

Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, and the author of Identity of England (Oxford University Press, 2002)

A version of this article first appeared in Demos Quarterly 20 June 2017 and it appears with the permission of the editor.

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Robert Colls