I promised you London; and London it is. One sure-fire way of winding up the English is to call London “London, England” as though any one is likely to confuse it with London, West Virginia or London, Arkansas. Yes, yes, yes, okay – there’s a London in Canada, a London in Australia and quite a few Londons in the States, as well as the famous one on the Thames. But they’re the ones that need further explanation, surely, at least from a British point of view. As it happens, though, even the national location of the London was questioned this week.
The biggest political and media event of the last couple of weeks was undoubtedly the appearance of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, on the BBC’s political discussion programme Question Time. The BNP represents the anti-immigration (and many would say racist) far right in Britain. When it started in the 80s, the BNP was openly racist – and Griffin has in the past denied the Holocaust and been convicted of distributing racially inflammatory material. Since he became leader he has moderated its image, following the example of successful far-right parties in Europe, but most people think this is merely a tactic – and the BNP has only recently been forced by the courts to open its membership to non-whites. Against a background of serious dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties, this summer his party gained two seats in the European Parliament. Hence the controversial appearance on the BBC, which is legally bound to be politically impartial.
It has to be said that Griffin’s performance was pretty poor: in my view and that of many others, he was exposed pretty comprehensively as a bigot with negative views about non-whites and gays. Absurdly, he tried to wriggle out of saying whether he accepted the historical fact of the Holocaust by claiming European law prevents him from doing so, and he faced sustained attacks from the other panellists and from members of the audience. But what made him look even more ridiculous than the debate itself was his complaint afterwards that the show was unfair, the London audience being drawn from “a City that is no longer British” because “dominated by ethnic minorities”.
So I’ll be more tolerant in future of Americans who speak about London, England. At least they know what country London’s in.
Speaking of London’s essential Englishness and the changes it’s undergone, I’ve been doing lots of outside boozing these last few days, first at the Camden Head in Islington (it’s where my girlfriend, Francesca, lives) which serves good Cornish beer from Sharp’s Brewery and which makes ample provision for smokers – outdoors drinking, having been a summer-only pastime in England since time immemorial has become fashionable all year round since smoking inside pubs was banned a couple of years ago. Only hardy souls will keep doing it all throught the winter. But in mild late October as the clocks go back, Londoners are grabbing their last chance to sit outside in comfort. My other watering-hole recently was the Prince of Wales, not far from Victoria Station, which probably is best on the outside, although it’s also friendly and has very good beer – including this excellent one from a new London brewery, Sambrook’s. Notice the box selling poppies for the annual poppy appeal, which might be a good cue to mention this interesting anti-BNP website.
Finally, one of the country’s most traditional institutions is faced with possible sudden change and contemplating an uncertain, divided future. The Church of England has long been a compromise of a typically English kind – in a sense Catholic, claiming to represent the continuing tradition of Christianity since it arrived in England, and in a sense Protestant, since it rejects the authority of the Pope and Rome. It’s a kind of national church, with the Queen nominally at its head (it was founded by Henry VIII of course) and although most British people nowadays aren’t part of it, it’s a national institution, like the NHS or the BBC: the place where anyone can get married, or buried. For a long time now it’s consisted of three parts: the Evangelicals, the “Liberals” and the Anglo-Catholics, the last the most traditionalist and the most upset, first by the ordination of women priests and the prospect the Church will soon have women bishops, and secondly by what they think of as liberal attitudes to homosexuality within the Church (an idea that surprises most non-believers). Well, now the Pope has made a move that threatens the delicate balance, by offering dissenting Anglo-Catholic priests a home in the Roman Church. It’s an extraordinary move, this: Church of England priests can be married, and would remain so if reordained as Catholics, in spite of the fact that Catholic priests must be celibate. It’s an aggressive move, too, taking advantage of divisions within the Anglican church to try and poach priests and establish the Catholic Church as the leading voice of conservative Christianity in England in advance of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain next year.
How many will leave? I’ve no idea. But if it’s anything like the thousand some people have been estimating, then the Church of England will be changed significantly: it will be be more liberal, more evangelical and less traditional. Whether the departure of those who’ve been slowing reform will free the Church and energise it, or whether it will be a further step in its decline – only time will tell. Next time, I’ll tell you about something else.