BBC Proms Features: Jeremy Paxman

A primer on English culture with Jeremy Paxman

By Tom Crann, American Public Media

What does it mean to be English or British in today’s more multi-cultural, devolved world? There are few people more qualified to shed light on this than Jeremy Paxman. He’s one of England’s best known journalists and TV presenters. He’s covered many of the world’s hot-spots for the BBC, and he’s the anchor of their Newsnight program, where he’s famous for his tough-as-nails interview style. He’s also written about English identity in his recent book “The English.” He explained the differences in those concepts of British and English

JEREMY PAXMAN: Of course they are different. Britishness is a political idea—an identity which was formed when England and Scotland—Wales doesn’t count for the purposes of this argument because they’ve really not got a sufficiently defined sense of their own identity—I’m waiting therefore to be thumped by any Welshman that may be listening—but the argument really comes down to the point where England and Scotland were united in the early part of the 18th century, a new flag was invented, a new center of government was established and a new idea, a sense of national identity. British identity emerged, deeply routed in ideas of Protestantism against the rest of the world. Now, that is very different to the old idea of Englishness.

TOM CRANN: Now you mention in your book, “The English”, the four songs the average Englishman can stagger through, as you put it, and those four are all on the Last Night of the Proms program—the last part: Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, God Save the Queen, and especially Jerusalem, William Blake’s poem. And I want you to talk about Jerusalem and this idea of its idealistic ruralism.

Yes it is. Blake wrote that at the time that Britain was being colonized by what he called the dark satanic mills and so we’re talking about the early days of the industrial revolution here where there was a massive migration from the countryside into the towns where Britain had been way ahead of its competitor nations in the industrial revolution—a revolution you could say they subsequently lost—but way ahead. And this process of industrialization and urbanization was casting a big shadow across the countryside and Blake in this poem looks back to an idea of England which is I think still very deeply routed in the English character and it is this idea that the real England is not the England that most people see as they look around them. One couldn’t argue anything other than this is a very urban and suburban society and yet there is a profound conviction on the part of many English people that the real England is the countryside—the green rolling hills to which Blake refers before they were despoiled by the satanic mills. So it’s a quite profound emotional attachment which actually which doesn’t really bear that much relation to people’s every day lives curiously.

I’m going to use a phrase that you’ll probably cringe at.. you mention in your book we’ve moved from a Rule Britannia era to what Tony Blair sometimes calls…

Don’t say it!

“Cool Britannia”…

Don’t say cool Britannia! This is utter nonsense. Go on—what are you talking about?

Well if we agree the Victorian idea of the British Empire is over—what do we mean by “Cool Britannia”?

You search me? It was some sort of nonsense dreamed up by Tony Blair. I’ve no idea what he was on about—in the exuberance of the Labor victory in 1997, which followed years and years of conservative rule and was a generational shift in British politics—I think the drink went to their heads and they coined this phrase “Cool Britannia”. I think what it was referring to was rock music, pop music, art, fashion and so on. Britain is very much nowadays at the cutting edge of these sort of worlds but the spectacle of such worlds being appropriated by middle aged men, in an attempt to make themselves look good by association is frankly pretty laughable.

Talk though about the idea of England exerting an influence if the Empire is no more politically and militarily. There certainly are ways that England exerts its influence beyond its shore, culturally.

Yes, Empire would be the wrong word. You say, militarily and politically, it no longer exists—that is demonstrably true—and it would be wrong to use the word empire in the sense of an intellectual hegemony but there is an intellectual influence and a linguistic influence and cultural influence which is still I think very well established and quite profound and maybe one should call it a commonwealth of ideas because the cross currents which flow within it from here and they flow from North American and they flow from Austrasia and many places in Africa and India as well.. but there is I think quite a what is it a freemasonry of theEnglish language? I don’t quite know how one would describe it.. its certainly not Imperial although it has Imperial historical routes. But it certainly still exists.”