Monday, 25 October 2010

England: A mongrel nation?

England: A mongrel nation?

The definition of mongrel in my dictionary goes thus –

Mongreln. animal (esp. dog) of mixed breed. Adj. Of mixed origin or character

To me this definition implies an admixture where no particular trait or feature prevails, and a multiplicity of elements and forces, many of them unknown, has been at work. It’s opposite is often held to be ‘pure’. 

This article is emphatically not to be read as a claim that the English are a ‘pure race’. All I intend to do is ask (and, I hope, answer) two questions – “Just how ‘mongrel’ are the English?” and “Why is the term applied so frequently to the English?”

Few people in the modern world would ever make a claim that their nation is somehow racially ‘pure’. And yet by the same token few would be willing to dispense with their historical identity. The use of the word mongrel in relation to an entire nation of people implies that their characteristics are not only not fixed, but are easily mutable, and have been frequently changed over time.

In recent years the word has often applied to the English by commentators and not a few English people themselves in a way which would have been uncommon just a few decades ago.

The implication is that the English are not an ‘historical’ people, and do not have characteristics of their own but have an identity that is simply an amalgam of elements taken from the identities of other people. In the context of the doctrine of multiculturalism, these elements are provided by the supposed ‘waves’ of immigration to which England has been subject throughout her history.

The English themselves certainly began as migrants, originally moving to late Roman Britain in dribs and drabs to be employed in the defence of this far-flung outpost of the empire, but as that empire collapsed and as its inheritors became increasingly fractious the peoples of Southern Denmark, Northern Germany and the Frisian Islands began to move in increasing numbers across the North Sea, drawn by employment as mercenaries and the hope of acquiring land. These peoples, though known as Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians were essentially the same – Germanic people who shared the same language, customs and religion.

Tribal identities were not strong amongst the early English and by the time of the Venerable Bede (b. 672 or 3, died 735) the idea of an English people was well established, and strengthened over the ensuing centuries. This identity was firmly in the mind of King Alfred when he signed a treaty of peace with the leader of the Danish invaders Guthrum –
“This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the witan of all the English nation, and all the people that are in East Anglia, have all ordained and with oaths confirmed...”
The Danes originated from the same areas of North-West Europe as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (both the lands of the Angles and the Jutes are wholly or in part contiguous with the territory of Denmark), and began to settle in England in the 870s.

Their similarity to the English was such that in the BBC documentary programme Blood of the Vikings it was so difficult for researchers to distinguish the genetic characteristics of Anglo-Saxons from Danes that it was decided to treat them as being the same. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the cultural similarity between these near cousins; they spoke a language so similar that an Englishman and a Dane could probably conduct business without the aid of an interpreter, and the area settled by the Danes seems to be free of those marks of inter-ethnic conflict we nowadays associate with ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Modern place-names in the area of the Danelaw are often an amalgam of English and Danish elements, suggesting that the boundaries between the two peoples were so flimsy that they quickly lost their meaning. Certainly they lost their meaning politically when in 937 King Aethelstan defeated a coalition of anti-English forces (including some Danes from within England) at Brunanburgh and united the various English states into the single nation-state of England.

By 1066 the Normans could see few distinctions amongst the English as they cast a covetous gaze over an England politically unified and culturally homogenous, and prepared for what would later be billed as the first great ‘wave’ of immigration in English history. But in the Normans we again are not really dealing with a distinctive group of people, at least not in racial terms. Many Saxons were settled in what would become Normandy in the later stages of the Roman Empire for the very same reason that they were settled in Britain – as hired mercenaries to protect the coast from raiders. These people, amongst others, were still in Normandy when the ‘Northmen’ settled the area and gave it its name. The Normans were themselves Danes, and although they took on the language and many of the customs and social traits of their French neighbours, they also retained many of the traits of their ancestors.

When William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, landed in Kent he brought with him at the most 8,400 men, 3,900 of who were Bretons and Flemish. The Bretons and the Flemish would likely have returned home after the successful conquest of England, as indeed would many of the Normans themselves who had families, land and employment in Normandy and beyond.

Other Normans would certainly have come over to England in the wake of the Conqueror, but altogether the Normans were unlikely to have formed a large group within England, which at the time of the invasion had a population estimated at 1.1 million. However, the Normans were to have an effect on the political and social structure disproportionate to their numbers for the simple reason that they held all the reins of power. They formed a new elite, choosing to remove the native English aristocracy, but penetrated little into the great mass of Anglo-Saxons who surrounded them. In time they came to adopt the tongue of those they ruled, as well as their system of legal customs (which became known as the common law) and the system of administrative boundaries, renaming them counties instead of shires.

1066 and its aftermath saw the last significant immigration into England until the mass immigration of the 1950s onwards. It is significant largely because of its political and social impact rather than because of any great change in the composition or culture of the English. In the 17th Century a small number of Huguenots (possibly 50,000) entered England, which then had a population of about 4 million. Many Huguenots did not stay in England but moved on to her North American colonies, a pattern of movement that would be repeated later in England’s history. Flemish weavers and Dutch millers migrated to England in small numbers, but quickly disappeared into the enveloping English milieu that surrounded them, the only evidence that they were ever really here is the result only of careful research by local historians.

In the 19th century the largest migrations into England since the Danelaw took place. This was the movement of Irish to escape the potato famine and look for work in England’s burgeoning industries. It is thought that upwards of 750,000 Irish came to England, whose population at that time numbered about 30 million. A smaller number of east European Jews (about 120,000) also came to England at around the same time.

Danes, Normans, Huguenots, Irish and Jews all emerged from Europe, bringing with them values, and even customs, they shared with the native English. They found a strong, vibrant English culture which, in the space of only two or three generations, consumed them with hardly a nod at their existance.

The historical ‘waves’ of immigration, then, were spread over a period of 800 years, and taking the best estimates of total numbers of immigrants, it is unlikely that the annual immigration into England throughout that period amounted to more than a fraction of a percent of the total population.

Is it any surprise then that the immigrants rapidly vanished, through anglicisation and marriage, and that there is little that is tangible left beyond a few material monuments, such as Huguenot churches in London to mark their passage into Englishness? Ultimately the course of the English nation was hardly deflected by their presence.

Modern research, including DNA testing shows that the population of England is not that different from what it was in 1066. It is still clearly English – largely genetically, and almost completely culturally. So why, for the English, the sobriquet ‘mongrel’?

The answer is simply the unprecendented immigration into England that has occurred since the Second World War - truly a ‘wave’.

Such high levels of migration into a country inevitably leads the native peoples to question whether or not they can continue to have a discrete existence as an homogenous people tied to a homeland. The English are now presented with a situation that is not in their national collective experience – a large, indigestible mass of people from very different cultures living amongst them. 

The English might respond to this by insisting that they are an ancient people, tied by ancient bonds not only to each other but to the land in which they live. Such a response would immediately place the future of mass immigration, and the doctrine of multiculturalism it has created, in jeopardy. In order to defuse any assertion that an ancient culture and national identity is being undermined it is important to show that that identity doesn’t really exist, or at least that it is easily shaped from the borrowings and leavings of other peoples’ cultures.

If everything is in flux, is nothing but mix-‘n’-match, then what does it matter if the current manifestation of a common identity is abandoned for something new? In order to justify waves of immigration today it must be shown that there always have been ‘waves’ of immigration in the past, and that these have only been beneficial, because are we not a proud and accomplished people today?

But what if the ‘waves’ of immigration never happened? What if England’s achievements came about, not because of diversity, but because of her cultural homogeneity…?