As a small boy I knew I was English – I’d have had to be pretty obtuse not to. However, it took longer to understand why: that I was English by virtue of having been born in England to English parents who were, and whose own parents and grandparents had been, English by birth, heritage and culture. When advanced enough to grasp the notions of nationality and citizenship I realised I was, beyond being English, also British: for England was but a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whose parliament sat at Westminster and in which each part of the kingdom played the same role, though not – because of disparities in population – an equal one. The brand, if one thinks of it that way, was Britain and Britishness, and we English were but a part (albeit the largest part) of that construct. The English, like the other tribes of these islands, subjugated their identity to that of the collective brand.

But the collective brand then declined and threatened to vanish as the other parts pursued their own tribal identities in a way the English, except for some eccentrics, pedants and a few ugly extremists, did not. By a paradoxical arrangement apparently stemming from the notion that the English were habitually the oppressor and the other constituents the oppressed, the pursuit of their own identity by the Scots and the Welsh (the Irish, mostly, had gone their own way in 1922) was considered entirely acceptable. But on the part of the English oppressor, it was considered as overtly supremacist, even racist. Not long ago the Cross of St George flew only over the towers of the buildings of the established church in England. On the rare occasion the ensign was seen elsewhere it was associated with the far right. When it appeared at football matches in the 1990s – the time of its resurgence as a wider symbol – it wasn’t so much because England had a good team, as that the aggressive self-identification of the Scots and the Welsh started to force people of the oppressor nation to feel oppressed themselves.

This presented a problem to those of us who wished, in the new circumstances, to assert our equal right to exhibit a national identity but did not own (nor wish to own) a pair of jackboots, have shaven heads or a collection of armbands, and the bouquet of prejudices that go with them. So we had to work to affirm a benign idea of our English culture, heritage and values that did not entail oppressing or discriminating against anyone, but simply celebrated our identity.

Had I, as a small boy, been able to understand a concept so complex as ethnicity I’d have known I was English in that respect too – apart from the rather significant fact that I was a direct descendant of a man called Robert Heffer, a Dutchman and my ninth-great grandfather. Showing a sense of survival for which I and generations before me remain grateful, Robert’s father (whose name I do not know) left the Spanish Netherlands around 1548. Pope Paul III, who led the counter-reformation, told the Emperor Charles V he’d been too tolerant of the Calvinists who had left the Roman Catholic church, and that he shouldn’t just be shirty with them, he should kill them. Robert’s father crossed the North Sea, landed on the Suffolk coast, and started walking. Eventually, reaching Cambridgeshire and presumably seeing a landscape that reminded him of Holland, he set up home. Robert was born in a village on the Isle of Ely in 1550.

So we are a nation of immigrants. Long before the Dutch it was the Angles, the Saxons, and the Vikings; and, of course, those who came over with the Norman conqueror. There might be a few left in England, in one or two more isolated agricultural fastnesses, who descend solely from Ancient Britons; but almost all the rest of us, however homogenous we might think we are because of our whiteness and our monoculture, are really mongrels.

Consequently, the small fraction of me that is Dutch – given all the English who married into and diluted that line – and the somewhat larger fraction that is Irish (thanks to a great-great-grandmother from Limerick on my father’s side) do not prevent me or millions like me considering ourselves English. After all, the King of England, so freshly crowned, is mostly German and partly Scottish. This leads us to the notion that being English is really a state of mind attached to a qualification either of birth or residence, and that is how it should be. It is a nationality not defined by ethnicity, nor perhaps even by geography, and it confers no citizenship, which remains British and shared with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. Perhaps in the last thirty years or so, in the era of rising nationalism among Scots (though that might be burning itself out) and among a deluded minority in Wales who believe it can exist as a separate state without English money, England has become a brand again, preparing for the day it can return to its pre-1707 status. But should the tide have turned in Scotland, Britain might again be widely embraced, raising again the question about what it means to be English: if we are back to being just British again?

From childhood I realised England was an old country, driven home by my living in an especially old part of it. I learned at primary school about the nearby Roman town of Colchester and visited its castle. A little further down the coast was the second oldest church in England, St Peter’s on the Wall, built by St Cedd in 664 after the Synod of Whitby. It stands at the mouth of the Blackwater, down which over a thousand years ago, in 991, marauding Vikings sailed and fought the Battle of Maldon. Living amidst such everyday antiquity shapes one’s understanding of and attachment to an environment. The business of my part of the eastern counties was still much as it was throughout the preceding millennium: agriculture. It’s hard not to develop a close bond with a landscape inhabited for so long, whose settlements have evolved over such a length of time, and where for all the changes wrought by the last century, the evidence of the past is still so visible. I suspect that explains my devotion to the music of Vaughan Williams and his school, which seems so powerfully to complement and evoke it.

Being English – even mongrel English – means something different to each of us. Institutions, landscapes, customs and ideas are common denominators; but ask a hundred people what Englishness means to them and you will get a hundred answers. My answer starts with the embrace by culture and antiquity, but moves quickly to values – democracy, the rule of law, the state leaving the individual alone (as once it did), Christian teaching (which as an atheist I am happy to accept) and above all tolerance: letting people, within the law, do and speak as they please, accepting them even if their opinions differ from those of a ruling minority. We still shelter those fleeing persecution as my Calvinist forebears were sheltered; and as Cromwell welcomed the Jews back to England, and the Huguenots came after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the Belgians in 1914, the Kindertransport of 1938 and Ugandan Asians in 1972. We are a kind, open-hearted society, though minded to defend and conserve what we have in this old country.

Politicians romanticise the idea of England, talking about cricket on village greens and pints of warm beer in pubs. Some soak up our culture more than others: I am one for whom a pint of beer at a cricket match, or a wander round a Norman church, and the doctrine of live-and-let-live, define a way of life with which I feel comfortable. I am conscious some of my fellow English don’t, which shows that we must all have the liberty to execute our idea of ourselves as we please. That, itself, is the ultimate symptom of Englishness.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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