England past its glory was still a land of hope
Hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrants benefited from Britain’s greatest achievement, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
MY ENGLAND isn’t Stanley Baldwin’s “tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy”, or George Orwell’s “clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns . . . old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning”, or John Major’s “long shadows on the county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs”. It isn’t imperial delusions or patronising public school voices. It isn’t the impregnable self-righteousness of a brilliantly self-serving ruling class. And it isn’t the Queen.
My England is the welfare state. My aunts and uncles didn’t emigrate to England. They emigrated to social democracy. The place they wanted to be wasn’t Hammersmith or Ealing, Birmingham or Manchester, though they ended up in all those places and more. It was National Health Service Land, Free Education Land, Unionised Workforce Land, where you could get a living wage, Jobs for Women Land, where being female didn’t mean your only choices were whether to be a housewife or a nun. It was a land of basic decency where ordinary working people believed they had a right to a reasonably tolerable present and the hope for a better future.
If, in the period between 1945 and 1979, you wanted to understand the difference between ideology and human realities, the question to ask was: what’s the difference between England and Ireland? In the realm of rhetoric and abstraction, the answer was to be found in endless discourses about history, religion, victimhood and oppression, the Empire and the Four Green Fields.
But for those who grew up on small farms or in the working class ghettoes of Irish towns and cities, the answers were entirely different. You could get a job in England. Your kids could go to secondary school and, if they were smart, they had a good chance of getting to university. You could get your eyes tested and your teeth fixed. You could get some kind of a house. And in Ireland, you couldn’t.
And all of these things trumped nationality and religion. It wasn’t that the hundreds of thousands who left for England felt less Irish – in many ways, they were forced to feel more so, to be suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the way they spoke and moved. Whether they liked it or not, they were Paddies, forced to deal with everything from outright racism to “good-natured” joshing. (“What’s the matter, Paddy, can’t take a joke?”)
In relation to religion, it wasn’t that they hadn’t been force-fed warnings of the dangers of Pagan England to their faith, their chastity, their very souls. Irishness and Catholicism remained immensely important to the bulk of those who went. But ultimately they were less important than wages, houses, schools, prospects.
The most obvious thing about the Anglo-Irish relationship is this plain fact of ordinary life – that hundreds of thousands of Irish people found in England what they couldn’t get at home: social democracy. Yet, of course, this is also the reality that will not be celebrated this week. Neither side really wants to talk about it.
The Irish don’t want to talk about it because it says something uncomfortable about class. The very fact that England is embodied for us this week by a hereditary monarch reinforces a comfortable set of oppositions. England is class-ridden; Ireland is classless. England has never entirely shaken off feudal deference; Ireland is egalitarian. Imagining England as the Queen allows us to imagine ourselves as a republic.
What is conveniently lost in this is that our own class system is, and has long been, much more rigid than the English one. Its monarchy and aristocracy makes the English system much more blatant. But ours is far more deadly and our emigrants knew this. The children of farm labourers and dockers and street sweepers knew that their kids would stand a much better chance in England than they ever would in an Ireland where “seed, breed and generation” are the most loaded three words in the language.
When we complain, as we ought to do, about the contempt that so many Irish people had to endure as emigrants in England, we conveniently forget that those people preferred it to the contempt that lay behind the “egalitarianism” of our republic. Which shame would you rather endure: being called a Paddy or living in a slum? Being patronised or being unemployed? Having your national feelings hurt or having no chance of a decent education for your kids? I know which options my aunts and uncles took.
But, of course, it also suits the British side not to celebrate this Irish attachment to their social democracy either. The post-war welfare state, imperfect and incomplete as it was, is the greatest positive achievement in British history. It was built on the greatest negative achievement (endurance in the face of the
Nazi onslaught) and deployed the same qualities of hope and energy and collective will. But it’s being dismantled now, so it’s best not mention it.
Still, I’ll think this week of my English cousins with their decent jobs and pleasant houses and good education. And I’ll raise a glass in memory of the almost-dead – to English social democracy.