Trying to get to grips with the historical, social and psychological construction of any sort of identity is difficult enough: almost impossible in the case of that slippery customer ‘Englishness’. Nick Smith set us neatly on our way on 30 September at the Golden Ball with a useful tripartite approach. This was the second of the joint meetings with ‘York Social Ideas’ led by York Alternative History.
After a short survey of the way in which the EDL tries to construct their idea of what constitutes being English by referencing back to some strange misreading of events in the early medieval period, Nick went on to deconstruct the wider concept of identity formation. The main content of his talk was an explanation of how a version of what constitutes ‘English’ was created as part of moves by the rulers of Wessex to assert hegemony over the vast variety of different groups that then inhabited what became eventually defined geographically as England. It was created in cultural opposition to what was considered foreign and had to be fought or held at bay: the Welsh, the Vikings, and so on. No mean feat to go through all this in less than half an hour.
There followed a long and wide-ranging discussion lasting the best part of an hour, though in the nature of things it was hard to come to any other conclusion than that the whole idea of any ‘nationality’ continues to be elusive the closer you look. It seems to have to do with a felt need to assert difference, which may or may not be inclusive or exclusive or perfectly neutral, depending on the social and psychological factors behind the ‘need’. The role of the State and its ruling class has, historically, been a great deal more important in hardening the edges of national identities than any presumed cultural or linguistic factors. In the creation of these identities there seems to be a complex interaction between generally benign cultural differentials and the activities of specific interest groups (political, commercial, psychotic) seeking to use these for some other purpose.
Well done Nick for such a good introduction to the subject and well done to those who came along for their often profound contributions to the discussion. A very civilised, entertaining and illuminating evening!
Watch out for other York Social events on their website and keep track of York Alternative History’s ongoing efforts, as well as out next foray with York Social in about three months’ time.