THE BLOG

Whose England?

29/04/2015 21:37 BST | Updated 29/06/2015 10:59 BST

Most of Ukip's voters are English. They yearn for a fantasy golden age when they were masters of these isles and the world, and their land was green, pleasant and white. To understand the nostalgia and sense of loss, you have to go back not to the end of empire, but to the end of the last century.

In 1998, some power was devolved from Westminster to the newly set up Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. Since then, England, the biggest and most powerful nation in the UK, has been restless, unsure, resentful and a bit lost. The other three nations have more verve, purpose and optimism. Along comes Nigel Farage, messianic, tricksy, manipulative and combative, a reincarnated St George, prepared to save England from the wicked European Union and bloody foreigners. (Incidentally, St George was a swarthy foreigner from Syria, who would never get past British border controls today). He knows how to win over and speak for small Englanders.

Yet England has never, ever been small and boringly homogenous. I tell its multifarious, rumbustious story in my new book Exotic England.

Africans were in 'England' before England slowly came to be. They were soldiers in the Roman battalions and archaeologists have discovered the remains of upper class Africans in York and Stratford upon Avon. When Shakespeare opened his first theatre in London, he named it The Globe. He knew England's imagined entity could not be contained within these shores. Think about that. Elizabeth I issued an edict banishing ' blackamores' from her kingdom. Yet the same Elizabeth followed Istanbul fashions, was awed by businessmen and ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire, had Londoners welcome them with bells and torches. Way back in 1578, one George Best, wrote disapprovingly about white freeborn Englishwomen who took up with black freed slaves and servants and brought forth dark skinned children. That did not happen in any other European land. (Today, mixed race children are the fastest rising group in Britain, most of all in England.)

Historiographer Thomas Rymer (1643-1713) concluded the English, unlike Venetians, did not feel 'hatred and aversion to Moors' and were even willing to marry them. By the mid 17th Century, Chairs of Arabic were established in Oxford and Cambridge. In 1701, Daniel Defoe wrote a poem on Englishness, ' ..from a mixture of all kinds began, the het'rogenous thing, an Englishmen'. When the poem was attacked by his purist countrymen, he responded: ' had we been an unmix'd nation, it had been to our disadvantage...those nations which are most mix'd are best and have the least of barbarism and brutality among them'. A purpose built mosque was built in Surrey in 1888, designed and built by Englishmen. Upper class converts prayed there. Queen Victoria learned Hindustani so she could communicate with her servant Abdul Kareem, an Indian Muslim, her beloved friend and confidante.

So, to reiterate: ever since the first boats went off to explore ( and exploit) the world, Englishmen and Englishwomen have been expansive, outward looking, enraptured by all that is not England, the orient in particular. From the 16th Century onwards, English culture has been uniquely, remarkably, porous and promiscuous. The other UK nationals can be open too, but not as much. European nationals, including hot blooded Mediterranean tribes, are less adventurous, more culturally conservative. Globalisation is battering away at this fortress mentality, but resistance is strong and obdurate. In parts of Northern Italy, 'ethnic' food outlets have been closed down and banned. Italians, it seems must only eat Italian. Imagine trying to pass such a law in England. Life without Chicken Tikka Masala and Peking Duck? There would surely be a revolt. The French and German academies still strive to protect their old languages from 'alien' words, a futile endeavour. In contrast Dr Johnson, the 18th Century complier of the first English dictionary, joyously included non-English words which had crept into English discourse. (Johnson also sent his black servant Francis Barber to grammar school, treated him like a son and left him an inheritance).

Princess Diana loved two Muslim men, heart surgeon Hasnat Khan and Dodi Fayed. Prince Charles admires Islamic art and design and studies the Qu'ran. (That has led to crazed speculation online that he is a secret, ardent Muslim) These two were more alike than they realised. Both were shaped by the diverse streams of England's cosmopolitan history. They typify the nation's openness to the 'Other' - an incorrigible aspect of the Anglo-Saxon identity. Yet Englanders were and are stereotyped - sometimes by their own people- as colonial snobs, inveterate racists, dull, devious, cold, repressed, tight folk. The labels are not inaccurate, but they are incomplete and unfair.

Retro Farage does not know his own swashbuckling nation. He leads the English away from the best of themselves. But not for long. England has never been isolationist and never will be.

Yasmin will be giving the talk Exotic England at HowTheLightGetsIn Festival on Sunday 24 May.