Britons Feeling Rootless

In National Geographic, Simon Worrall (whom I think it is safe to guess is British and white) reports on Matthew Engel (whom I also think it is safe to guess is British and white) and the longing for the England of yesteryear (“Britons Feeling Rootless After Changes to England’s Historic Counties“):

When award-winning Financial Times columnist (and cricket guru) Matthew Engel told his friends and family he was going to visit each of England’s 39 historic counties and write about them, they thought he’d taken leave of his senses. Three years later, he finished up the last county, fittingly the one where he lives, Herefordshire. Engel’s England is the story of that journey, a quirky and deeply researched take on the unique geography and social history of England’s counties—and the historical continuities that link them.

From the Q&A:

The book opens with you trying to explain to your son the complexities of national identity. Is he British or English? From the U.K. or G.B.? It’s something that perplexes all foreigners. Enlighten us.

There’s no country quite as complex as this one. If you’re British, you didn’t even know which letter to look under on the drop-down menu on the Internet. Are we U for United Kingdom? B for Britain? Or E for England? It’s one of these things that the British don’t even think about, any more than they think about the fact that this is the only country that doesn’t have its name on its stamps.

But it’s become incredibly topical as the United Kingdom came within a few percentage points of breakup. The Scottish thought about it. The English have done their utmost not to think about it. But what’s suddenly become politically important since the Scots narrowly voted not to separate is the question of English nationalism. Up to now it’s only been a negative—a way of not being Scottish or Welsh or Irish. Which is why I’ve always believed in the county as something smaller that you can feel attached to.

Like everything in Britain, the concept of a county is a very ancient one. So tell us a bit about the history.

The English counties have an extraordinarily long history. One county, Kent, we know dates back to Julius Caesar and may well be older than that. Essex is at least 1,500 years old. And all the other historic counties date back at least to medieval times.

I firmly believe that these counties are immensely important in giving people an identity—both a self-identity and a way of being known. You can say to anyone in England the names Devon or Lancashire or Yorkshire, and they will immediately have a picture of where you’re talking about.

In that sense, it’s like an American state. When you say Indiana or California, everyone knows what kind of state you are talking about, where it is roughly and its characteristics, even if they’ve never been to the place. What the counties don’t have compared to the states is any kind of political power. Everything in this country is pretty much run from London

We think of counties like Cornwall or Yorkshire as traditionally English. But of course Britain today is a nation of immigrants, and immigration has transformed many counties. Tell us about Leicestershire.

Up until the 1970s, Leicester, which is the county town, was an almost completely white city. Today it’s on the verge of becoming majority non-white. This was a particular kind of immigration: Asians forced out of East Africa in the early 1970s by the dictator Idi Amin. The Asians were the traders in East Africa. So the white colonial masters didn’t like them, and the Africans didn’t like them, either. Under Amin, life became intolerable for them, and the British had to accept their post-imperial responsibilities to rescue these people. They were a particular type of immigrant. They were entrepreneurial, they spoke good English, they often had money salted away, and they had skills. So they became extremely successful, in many cases setting up major businesses.

In other parts of the country, like the cotton towns in Lancashire, where large numbers of Pakistanis were brought in from rural Pakistan, with no English and very few skills, you have a very depressed situation and, one feels, just beneath the surface, a very bad-tempered one. In Leicester there are residual tensions, but it’s been much easier to reach an accommodation.

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