Sir Roy Strong, a historian and former director of the National Portrait Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London – has apparently written a short book on the subject of English national identity, called Visions of England. He recently took Justin Webb, the editor of the BBC’s Today programme to Goudhurst in the Kentish Weald, to show a village and landscape hardly changed in decades.
Looking at the slideshow from the BBC it is indeed remarkable how the physical presence of the village and the rolling fields appear unchanged by time, and the accompanying music, the Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams is lyrical and evocative of a gentle English country landscape which really does exist. I do get to drive around Wiltshire as part of my branch secretary duties with GMB, and I am frequently overcome by the beauty. Wiltshire has perhaps a unique political geography, dominated as it is by the Army, and peppered with small, unglamourous working class towns like Melksham and Trowbridge. But Somerset, Dorset and Devon, alongside Wiltshire, the parts of England I am most familiar with, are all working rural landscapes, with their own distinctive sensibility.
Sir Roy’s argument is that the comfortable and modest scale of the English village has a defining impact on the national character, much more than the clamour of the city, and the collective discipline of the factory and the call centre. This is an argument that keeps resurfacing, from George Orwell to John Major, and therefore cannot simply be dismissed as reactionary. However, neither should it be accepted.
Firstly, we should observe that the apparent preservation of rural life in villages like Goudhurst is in fact the result of the substantial destruction of the rural political economy, where quaint villages become colonised by the urban rich, either for retirement or as second homes, who drive house prices out of the reach of families who have lived there for generations. Furthermore, the objections of the well-to-do incomers to the development of social housing and new business premises kills the local economy, and declining local spending and falling numbers of children jeopardise local shops and schools.
Secondly, the rural economy never been sustained by agriculture alone, as England had a traditional wool and then cotton industry, first based upon handicraft production, and then concentrated in mills and manufacturies; and this industry was distributed to avail itself of water power. Ludditism, republicanism and Chartism were born in the small rural towns surrounding the wool trade.
In agriculture itself, there was a form of radical conservatism among the rural poor, captured brilliantly by William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1830. The traditional moral economy of the countryside involved a social contract between the squirearchy and the labouring poor, living in face to face communities where everyone knew one another. Enclosure and machinery, and the rising power of the money based political economy, broke these moral obligations, and ground over the rural poor like a Juggernaut, and they responded in a strange mixture of hoping that the Church and Crown might restore the old ways, along with violent machine wrecking, arson, and physical intimidation. Nor should we forget that it was rural Dorset labourers who inspired the first national trade union campaign, with tens of thousands in London, Manchester and Bristol campaigning for the return the Tolpuddle matyrs from exile.
The English consciousness of who we are, and the collective feeling of shared history, never wanders far from a sense of them and us.
Another fallacy of Sir Roy’s position is to assume that the countryside of England (which somehow always seems to mean the rural landscape of Southern England) and village life is a more important aspect of Englishness than the cities. But surely, the iconic cultural icons of England in the Twentieth Century have been born in the smoke and energy of the city. It is the multi-cultural experience of modern urban life that provides the shared community of experience for most people in England, whether they choose to identify themselves as English or not.
(Pictured is the Wiltshire village of Aldbourne, familiar to Dr Who fans as the film location for the 1971 story “the Daemons“, it was also the real life billet of the American soldiers of Easy Company in 1944, whose tale was dramatised in the HBO series “Band of Brothers”)