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The live online debate with David Starkey was held on Sunday, February 21.

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By 2050 England will have recreated itself: visionary, multi-ethnic, free. Is this farewell to the bulldog breed?

By David Starkey

QUESTIONS, once upon a time, were things that happened to people in faraway countries of which we knew little. There was the Eastern question, the Balkan question, the Palestinian question, the Indian question and, always and most intractably, the Irish question. What there was not, of course, was the English question. Instead, it was our job as a Power to solve other people's questions (though the Irish, famously and ungratefully, changed their question whenever the English answered it).

But suddenly, at the end of the 20th century, the English have realised, to their surprise, that there is an English question too - within Britain, within Europe, as we ask ourselves: "What sort of nation are we? Are we a nation at all?"

The politicians have already come up with their own attempts at national rebranding. John Major offered cricket and warm beer, Tony Blair cool Britannia and William Hague the British way. None remotely works.

If we continue to get the answers wrong, our future is grim. We will sink beneath the waves we once ruled and become either a pseudo-independent Ruritanian statelet or a sulkily resentful province of the Euro Empire.

On the other hand, if we get them right, the sky's the limit. England could become a new, bigger, more successful Hong Kong, and English could become the global language.

Napoleon sneered that England was a nation of shopkeepers. Two hundred years later, as his vision of a united Europe is achieved, we should go a stage further down our own path. England should become an international marketplace in which people, ideas, wealth and trade all move freely - without taxes, tariffs, censorship or immigration controls. The result would be a nation unlike any other that the world has seen. In some essential way, it would still be England.

Fantastic? Not really. For it's all there in our history. Everybody knows that England was the first nation to industrialise. We were also the first to experience the pangs of de-industrialisation, and the first to develop a flourishing post-industrial economy. The history of English nationalism follows a broadly similar path.

For we were there first as well. As early, for instance, as the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) England had acquired the whole apparatus of cultural nationalism - something that took the Germans another 250 years to assemble.

There was a national historic myth, a state-sponsored canon of English literature and a determined attempt to push the claims of English itself to be a great European language, despite the fact that it was spoken by only 3m natives and by scarcely anybody else.

One thing even Henry VIII lacked, however, was a national dress. But there were attempts to remedy this in the 18th century by making Van Dyck dress the English national costume.

Happily, in view of its satins and lace, the attempt failed. Indeed, what we can call the classic period of English nationalism proved short-lived. The driving force of royal autocracy was defeated in the civil wars of the 17th century - wars that also led to the absorption of England into the new political unit of Great Britain.

At first, there was an attempt at forging a single national identity for Britain and the Britons. But the attempt foundered quickly. Instead, Britain half-reverted into its constituent elements, which developed two distinct identities.

The Celtic-fringe nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland took on board the whole panoply of cultural nationalism. In Scotland, it was loyalist and done under royal patronage. George IV, his kilt riding up over his flesh-coloured tights, presided over Sir Walter Scott's tartan pageant in 1821, while Victoria built Balmoral and cosied up to John Brown. In Ireland, the Gaelic revival fed directly into anti-British nationalism.

The English took a different route. Instead of cultural icons, they revered their political institutions, such as parliament and common law. And they thought them the best in the world. In so far as they had national symbols, they were the crown and the Church of England, with its Shinto-like worship of the royal family.

We come now to our immediate millennial crisis. For the English, it is a crisis of de-nationalisation. The decline of Britain abroad and the loss of confidence in our political institutions at home has robbed us of our sense of identity. Nor is there much else we can fall back on - thanks, ironically, to our earlier success. Everybody speaks English and everybody wears the business suit, derived from the Victorian frock coat. Without a dress and language we can call our own, we stand inarticulate and naked among nations - as you will find out if you ask an Englishman to define his Englishness.

For the Celtic fringe, on the other hand, the end of the millennium has been a time of national revival. As their sense of nationhood is cultural, Britain's political decline has left them untouched. Indeed, it has been an opportunity to extort yet more goodies from the weakened Westminster parliament.

But the dividing of the ways is coming. The two great political questions of the moment are devolution at home and relations with the European Union abroad. For, in both cases, the interests and attitudes of England and of the Celtic fringe diverge radically. For the Scots and the Welsh, devolution is an unadulteratedly good thing. For the English, devolution is a disaster, offering only a choice of evils between dismemberment into the so-called English regions or colonial subordination to the governors of Scotland's new Labour.

Over Europe, the faultlines are similar. The European Union will require a merging of political identities. For most European countries this is more or less acceptable, as their principal sense of nationhood is a question of culture and language. If you speak French you are French; if German, you are German; and if Welsh, increasingly, you are Welsh. Language is less important in Scotland. But the folklorique aspects of Scottish nationalism are also what the Eurocrats, like Hollywood, flatter and indulge.

For the Celts, therefore, Europe is not a threat but an opportunity. The English are different. Our sense of Englishness is primarily political, not cultural. Take that away and you take away everything. This is why Europe is a uniquely explosive issue in England. And it will blow up, I imagine, with the fireworks over the dome on New Year's Eve 1999. Thereafter, change will come almost as quickly as the first hangover. First, Britain, swayed by England, votes against the euro; then Scotland and perhaps Wales break with England and plunge fully into the European Union. The breach with Scotland will be the moment of truth. England will be alone. And it must re-invent itself - but how?

There are two choices. The first is nationalism; the second is what I have called post-nationalism. The nationalist route would involve a crash course of indoctrination in national symbols: flags of St George at every corner, Land of Hope and Glory on everyone's lips. It is a step into the past; it would also probably fail. For the new nationalisms of Europe and the Celtic fringe are underpinned by racism and substantial middle-class support. Both are missing in England, where the flag of St George is sported only by taxis and the white-van-driving classes. Nevertheless, in its present mood, I fear that the Tory party will plunge, Gadarene-like, for this obvious but losing option.

On the other hand, it is just possible that new Labour, if Philip Gould's claims about its commitment to permanent revolution are right, will opt for post-nationalism. For post-nationalism represents a real third way. It takes a commitment to political and economic liberalism from England's past. It combines them with the tolerance and the ability to accommodate racial minorities from our present. And from the best of past and present it would forge a future to be proud of: free, free-trading and prosperous. London would become the world city; Ireland, with the divisive symbols of Britishness finally laid to rest, a valued ally, and England would cease to see its future in terms of throwing in its lot with something bigger; ie America and Europe.

For one thing surely is clear. The new millennium will indeed be a new age. It will not be the costly, lumbering mammoths of existing states and corporations that will flourish, but smaller, fleeter-footed creatures. The new post-national England could be one of the first of this new species. Let us hope so.

David Starkey is an historian, broadcaster and fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

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