As a minor sidelight on the debate on this thread springing from the forthcoming General Election in the UK, here is the first paragraph of an essay of mine (published in Able Muse in 2008) about the poet, Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917). Thomas was killed in the fighting at Arras. Identity-politics can seem disarmingly simple, but is – as Thomas, who did not know the term, seems to have realized – often highly complex. (In my father’s family I have a Welsh grandfather and, in my father’s mother’s family, a Welsh great-great-grandfather. I have lived only in England, for much of my life in Yorkshire, where, in fact, I was born. I feel, mostly, British and European. In one sense, I am a Yorkshireman, British and European only by accident.)
from The Elusive Persistence of Edward Thomas
In his 1966 collection American Scenes and Other Poems, the British poet Charles Tomlinson (1927 – 1915) has an engaging poem entitled “Mr. Brodsky”, in which he tells how he “had heard / before, of an / American who would have preferred / to be an Indian; / but not / until Mr. Brodsky, of one / whose professed and long / pondered-on passion / was to become a Scot”. On a visit to Tomlinson’s house, Mr. Brodsky stands in his “neo-New Mexican parlour” and plays his bagpipes, “lost in the gorse / and heather or whatever / six thousand / miles and more / from the infection’s source”. No doubt many of us have met people like Mr. Brodsky. The question of what it means to be Scottish – or Welsh or (Northern) Irish – has gained urgency since the devolution of aspects of government to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in recent years. The concept of “Englishness” is particularly vexed. One recalls John Major’s vision, in 1993, of a Britain fixed beyond change, a “country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’”. Major’s vexed and highly selective idea of “England” has swallowed up the equally vexed idea of “Britain”. Major misquotes Orwell here and takes him out of context, but Orwell in 1941 was well aware of such creative obfuscations. So, long before, was Edward Thomas, who observed in 1909, “What with Great Britain, the British Empire, Britons, Britishers, and the English-speaking world, the choice offered to whomsoever would be patriotic is embarrassing” (The South Country).