The British Twittersphere has been enlivened today by the release of a video showing the 'heated' debate between historian David Starkey and journalist Laurie Penny during a discussion on the English national identity. Some clips are available on YouTube, but the full video is behind a pay-wall, so I thought I'd write up the transcript for anyone who's interested. Personally I think any attempt to define a national (or other) 'identity' can only undermine that identity, just as analyzing a joke renders it unfunny. Identities, like humour, stop making sense when you try to make sense of them; there is nothing rational about them, and to debate them rationally is impossible - this exchange is English in a way that no amount of sensible arguments could be.
Laurie Penny at podium. LP: “But what’s interesting about the question what is Britishness, is precisely the fact that nobody seems to know. It’s gold for a columnist, it’s gold for any hack, and, you’ve seen 4 people on this panel are probably going to give completely different answers, anybody you ask in this audience is going to give a different answer. If you ask David Cameron, it’s about tolerance and fairness and inviting French people to take advantage of our lenient tax system; if you ask a pupil at Wellington college, growing up in these lovely surroundings, they’ll tell you, probably about the excellent teaching here, but they’ll also tell you about grime and dubstep and whatever it is they’re listening to; if you ask me, and I’ve been recently been living in America for a while, so, I get asked this question quite a lot, and I bring up things like, the taste of fish and chips on Brighton Beach, and Dr Who, and drinking tea. That’s what it is for me. If you ask somebody like my colleague Prof. Starkey, it’s playing xenophobia and racial prejudice for laughs, and if you ask people who organize conferences like this, it’s sitting by politely while people play racial prejudice and xenophobia for laughs and pretending that this is an acceptable part of contemporary debate…” Video cuts – panel discussion A Man: “We’re setting up a false dichotomy here between Britishness and Englishness; they’re not, at all...” David Starkey: “There’s an absolute dichotomy. The two are completely different, there’s a historic English identity which goes way back before the concept of Britain. Also this notion that England or Britain as uniquely a nation of immigrants is preposterous - every European country is a blend, of course it is, but the great, there are two great differences. The first…” Laurie Penny: “I believe you have a house in America, Mr Starkey?” DS: “I have a house in America.” LP: “I was wondering, where are you domiciled for tax purposes?” DS: “I am domiciled here, and I pay full taxes, and can I just say…” (stands up to face audience) “as you have chosen to be personal and invidious, let me share a little story with you. One of the great things that is essential to Britishness is the sense of public duty, that you do things for nothing with organizations that can’t pay. Ms Penny, who has been advertising these great left-wing virtues, and I, were to due to debate for a very impoverished little society called the Thomas Paine Society, on the virtues of a republic on the one hand and a monarchy on the other. I...” LP: (inaudible) DS: “I was prepared to do it for free, she insisted on trying to charge such a large fee that the event had to be cancelled. Now I think that that is as mean and grasping as some runt comedian (audience applause), and I will not be lectured to by a jumped-up public schoolgirl like you; I came from the bottom, and I will not have it.” (applause, laughter, jeers etc.)(LP takes podium) LP: “Excuse me, may I respond to that, I think I deserve a right of reply to that. I personally feel that asking to be paid...” DS: “Did you or did you not do what I just said?” LP: “I was going to respond to that, but if you…” DS: “Why not do it straight away. Did you or did you not claim such a large fee that the event had to be cancelled?” LP: “No, I didn’t, Mr Starkey.” DS: “Well then, every member of the committee is lying and you, clearly, as usual, are telling the truth.” LP: “No, this is not what was said to me. I...” DS: “I have emails. That wonderful... method of tracking…” Chairman: “Alright, alright, respond to it Laurie...” LP: “No, actually I don’t think I’m gonna respond to it, one of the… the event was cancelled partly because they couldn’t find a speaker in time, because they were trying to fly me out and part of the reason that… the cost for that on top of my being asked to be paid for two days work, because I actually don’t earn very much…” DS: “Pffffffffff!” Chairman: “They had two pretty good speakers there already...” DS: “No, she backed out because she wasn’t being paid.” Chairman: “Anyway, we’re running out of time, but I wanna come back to Britishness vs. Englishness…” LP: “I’m sorry, excuse me - I really don’t appreciate being stood on stage to be personally attacked and having a finger jabbed in my face.” Video cuts Chairman: “Laurie?” LP: “I think I’d like to say something about Britishness in terms of what’s just gone on here, which I feel we’ve moved on from very quickly, I attempted to make a point, and had a person on this panel shouting and pointing in my face, and in fact the point that Professor Starkey raised, about me dropping out of a panel when we were due to speak together, my main reason for doing so was that I didn’t want something like that to happen. I felt like I was being set up to be attacked, and part of the reason I decided to – this is a difficult thing to say and it’s easier to say to event organizers that you’re going to charge a ridiculous sum of money - and be asked to… well not necessarily ridiculous but… and be asked to go.” (cheers / jeers?) Chairman: “Alright...” LP: “On the other hand, excuse me, I haven’t finished my point. My point is that this is what debates like this come down to. There’s a civil way of putting… racial prejudice… there’s also…” (Someone walks in front of camera and makes a ‘cut’ gesture to Chairman) Chairman: “OK Laurie, I want a final word from…” LP: “I also want to say that there’s a violence inherent in this discussion and it comes out very, very easily.” Audience woman: “You started it, that’s the problem, you called him a racist, you know you did…” LP: “He is a racist.” Organizer: “OK ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to call a halt at this point...”