In January 2016, eight choristers assembled outside the Commons to sing a rather strained rendition of William Blake's 'Jerusalem'. Awkwardly mumbling the words behind them was the mastermind and Labour MP for my hometown of Chesterfield, Toby Perkins. Toby had planned this media stunt to attract the nation's attention to his proposed bill; a bill for England to follow Scotland and Wales in adopting its own national anthem for sporting events.
Naturally, the media had a wee chuckle and in came a smattering of anthem proposals. Some floated the idea of Fat Les's football anthem 'Vindaloo'. No irony was lost when the Sex Pistol's 'God Save the Queen' received minor support. Even recently, Big Shaq's 'Man's not Hot' was suggested on Twitter.
Accusations also came in. 'Is he anti-monarch?' one Derbyshire local asked. 'Aren't there more pressing issues?' another infuriated Englishman inquired. In parliament a certain Jacob Rees-Mogg stated that 'these expressions of individual nationalism are a disuniting factor in our country.' In the face of opposition and general disinterest, the bill flopped. Yet as I was watching this debate play out on local news I became acutely aware of a shift that was happening. England was becoming self-aware of its distinct place within Britain.
Of course, England is and has been a nation in its own right. Yet in the past, my country has preferred to assert a British rather than English nationhood for multiple reasons. Britain has historically been a project largely driven by the English. The way in which the union came to be is marred in conquest, colonialisation and enforced conformity. Britain's interest and values were English interests and values for so much of our history that the two are now hard to separate. Also, regional identity often trumps English identity. We are often a northerner, a southerner, a Brummie or a Londoner first and foremost. Therefore, because Britain and England has been fairly interchangeable, even if I was to call myself English, I couldn't really tell you what that meant or looked like.
Personally, I have always called myself British. Not out of passionate conviction but because I felt that by being British, I didn't need to be English. I am a British citizen with a British passport. I have a British taste for good beer, roast dinners and tutting in queues. I happily fly the Union flag, ice it onto cakes, and have it emblazoned on cushions.
But my reluctance to identify strongly with England is also largely due to a barely spoken but often felt perception in my country that any display of patriotism, such as flying the St George's cross, or any expressions of pride in being English is slightly vulgar, a bit ignorant, right-wing. George Orwell wrote in 1941: 'In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman.' Seventy-six years on this feeling endures to the point where any conversation about national identity is treated as a taboo, both by our politicians and by surrounding communities.
Rather than encouraging unity across England, this reluctance to discuss what it means to be English because it sounds right-wing has ironically allowed right-wing nationalists groups to lead this debate. These are groups who want to reclaim an England that is white, Christian, English-speaking.
Lately I have heard friends, family and community members who have felt that the debate on English culture and identity has been dismissed now assert their Englishness with angry, bitter voices. These voices are only getting louder – for ongoing devolution, indyref and Brexit are forcing England to consider its place outside of Britain and Europe.
Where England has failed in the past is creating a narrative and identity which has sought to homogenise where it sees difference. Today, parties such as EDL, BNP and UKIP are fuelling the anger people feel to achieve just this. England faces a historical choice: to dismiss this anger or take this debate out of the hands of right-wing nationalists and create a wider, positive and inclusive debate about what it means to be English.
To have a dialogue in our classrooms, universities, in community halls and in seats of power across England about issues of language, race, politics, our divisive history, food, religion. To ask whether England is working for its people, whoever its people happen to be. To build a narrative and identity which includes and unites, which encourages civic engagement across regions, nationalities, religions.
Even across Britain. For each country has its own story and across the British Isles they weave in and out of each other to create a rich tapestry of shared experience and heritage. I believe that Englishness can stand alone and as part of wider British identity, to sing our own national anthem and yet still come together to sing 'God Save the Queen.'
Yes, you could argue that we should just do away with the idea of nation altogether. I disagree. As Paul Kingsnorth suggests in his book 'Rescuing the English': 'A nation is a story that a people chooses to tell about itself, and at its heart is a stumbling but deep-felt need for those people to be connected to the place where they live and to each other.'
You only need to play one of the numerous Buzzfeed quizzes entitled 'You're Definitely British If You Can Complete These Sentences,' or 'This Quiz Can Tell Exactly How Scottish You Are,' to recognise that we all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to say 'me too.' One way or another we all seek to know who we are, to find a collective identity and narrative which ties us to our past, binds us within our present and helps us to forge a future together. It is perhaps this need and not just the fear of ugly English exceptionalism that encourages me to believe that England has a positive, inclusive and outward-looking future – if its people seek it out.
Toby was right. The time has come for England to sing its own national anthem.
Bethany Ansell presented this paper at the recent Young Scotland Programme