How has the UK changed

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote an essay for the Guardian on English culture – and by extension, Englishness. I entitled it "The Valley of the Corn Dollies". Returning to it and the consciousness it exhibits I am struck by the many obvious continuities – the sense I have of Englishness enduring – but also by the transformations that have taken place in England, and by extension within English identity, over the last two decades, and that were quite unforeseen by me. Not that in 1994 I was in the business of writing futurology, still, any attempt to fix a culture in time must pay due heed to the particular nature of its fluxions. This lack of foresight is also matched by the essay's comparable lack of hindsight; I don't mean by this that it displays no concern with where the ideas and practices associated with Englishness may have come from, only that as its author I seem to have had little precise sense of their evolutionary timescale. This is understandable, I suppose; the concerns of a 32-year-old are, one hopes, different from those of a quinquagenarian. I say "one hopes", although the very adoption of the impersonal first person and the continuous present relocates the aspiration to a nebulous cultural realm, not this England at the beginning of this particular year: the 2014th of the Common Era.

In fact, the very assumption that generations are capable of individuation and of possessing their own geist is one that the last 20 years have ground away at, and I realise now that implicit in it were notions of the cultural primacy of the young. The impact of a rapidly ageing population on English culture (and by extension, Englishness) is something I will return to, but for now it will suffice to remark that while this phenomenon – the banking-up of the baby boomer generation into a grey market at the end of the consumerist conveyor belt – may be widespread in the so-called developed world, the impact it is having on England seems especially powerful given that Englishness itself is almost always conceived of in terms of gradual evolution rather than abrupt change.

In 1994 I was much taken by what I saw as the peculiarly English genius for satire both political and social, and I took this to be evidence of an underlying vigour in the nation's primary institutions – parliament, the law and the media, if not the monarchy and the established church. I located the satiric wellspring as residing still in a class system that had, by and large, resisted essential alteration by skilful co-option – but I suppose I then believed that the dramatic ironies might tend towards dissolution. Arguably, an England without the double-speak of snobbery and exclusion might be less funny, but there were surely other things it was possible to laugh about. I now look back on this attitude as being excessively sanguine; a recent article by the impeccably middle-English novelist Jonathan Coe nailed shut – for me – the coffin lid on the ghoulishly self-satisfied face of contemporary English satire. To paraphrase Coe's argument: far from standing in a dynamical relation to the exercise of power, the whole tendency in postwar English snook-cocking – from the so-called "satire boom" of the 1960s, all the way through to the politico-shit-kicking of Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It – has been implicitly to legitimate the status quo; for, by attacking the political class en bloc and without distinction, the satirists have both abandoned their own moral compass and allowed the wielders of power to appropriate the very weapons deployed. The end result is that one of the most high-profile politicians in contemporary England is the seemingly buffoonish mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose self-satirising shtick consistently bastes him with buttery public approval.

Another instance of my younger self's myopia was my failure to anticipate the coming era of digital media. Perhaps this was forgivable: in 1994 mobile phones were still a rarity, satellite and cable TV services remained trapped in the coils of government regulation; and while locally networked personal computers were becoming reasonably prevalent in English offices, the web was too diaphanous to be seen. At least by me – I remember a salesman visiting me at the small business publishing company I ran in the early 1990s, and attempting to explain the benefits of connecting to the internet and thereby gaining access to the emergent web. I sort of grasped what he was talking about, but simply couldn't see what use my business could make of these innovations: we had all the information we needed at our fingertips already – or so I believed. Again, the shockwave from the subsequent technological revolution is still reverberating around the world, and there seems no reason why English culture should be particularly affected – except that the web and the internet helped to make manifest one of the longer-term, but previously hidden developments in English culture and society. This was the nation's transformation from a manufacturing economy to a mercantile and service-based one; a change that saw even more economic power shift to London and the south-east from the northern industrial cities. It was accompanied by the rise of a commercial bourgeoisie that viewed its own prosperity as intrinsically related to transnational capital flows, even as its loyalty became more fervidly attached to symbols of nationhood (the monarchy, the armed forces) that within the context of a declining empire – and still more so after the treaty of Rome – should have increasingly appeared as mere rhetorical tropes.

But nationalism is itself always a rhetorical trope, and while England may have a curiously contrary way of articulating its self-belief – proceeding, one might say, by an apophatic process, whereby Englishness is given greater focus and intensity by mounting up affirmations of all that it is not – nonetheless there is a core English identity to be discovered, one that solidified in the late 19th and early 20th century; one that has proved remarkably resilient throughout the last turbulent 100 years; and one that shows every sign of remaining intact even as the original factors that brought it into being are changed out of all recognition. It's instructive to map my own rather naive speculations of 1994 on to the current dispensation, but it's more productive by far to examine the period 1980-2020 in terms of the equivalent span a century before; such an overlay may also mean that I don't look back in 2034, appalled by what I missed.

This late 19th-century shift in the locus of power – from north to south, and from land and manufacturing to retail and financial services – was accompanied initially by the ascendancy of the collectivist and utilitarian tendency in English liberalism. The first world war hammered home with the monstrous cacophony of the guns the idea that to be a free Englishman (and despite the suffragists the accent was still on men at this stage) was to have one's liberties underwritten by the positive interventions of the state. John Bull's green and pleasant island, where vinous-faced squires rode to hounds and "do what thou will" was nine-tenths of the law remained as a sort of organic reverie, inhering in an invented English countryside of rolling hills and productive mixed-arable and dairy farming. This Englishness – which was subscribed to as wholeheartedly by utopian socialists as it was by belligerent Tories – was a gestalt unconsciously devised to counter the standardised torments of mass villadom; and it finds its fullest spatial articulation in the Arts and Crafts semi standing in a suburban cul-de-sac, replete with unique features. That simulacra of these houses are being built to this day – and indeed, that the current rowdy debate on the paucity of housing still concentrates on this stock-brick-castellated ideal – tells you almost everything you need to know about Englishness, which is that the principal reason for its endurance lies in the very fictitiousness of its premises.

The 20th century looks momentously transformative for England on paper: the near-decimation of a generation between 1914 and 1918; the loss of imperial grip in the interwar years and its complete abandonment after 1945 (to be replaced by another fictive gestalt: "the Commonwealth"); the final attainment of universal adult enfranchisement in 1927; the second great spasm of collectivisation in 1939-45, and its sequels in the form of the National Health Service, universal state education, a burgeoning public housing sector and so on. But, with the benefit of our centennial overlays on the overhead projector, we can see that these are as nought when compared with the way ideal Englishness continues to inform and legitimate the real exercise of power. Writing at a time when Burkean Tories and Benthamite Liberals share the cabinet table, and the prime minister declares that the British army's mission in Afghanistan has been successfully completed, it's difficult not to feel trapped within the farcical phase of history's repetition.

Englishness, taken to be the lowest common denominator of what any given individual identifies about his or herself as an English person, remains overwhelmingly located in these rhetorical tropes: the supervening political wisdom of the head of state (who is at once magnificently disengaged and fully apprised); the immemorial beauty of the countryside (which is paradoxically tied to its anthropic character: we have English Heritage, the US has wilderness); the bivalent concept of "fair play", which unites the negative libertarianism of John Bull with the positive state engagement of Clegg and Miliband; and – most important this – a complex and often contradictory understanding of inclusiveness, which is seen as served just as well by co-option to elites (black and brown coronet-sporters in the House of Lords), and impersonation (Hackett-clad hacks out hacking, Burberry-clad members of the chavistocracy fine dining). For the English, the ability of any given individual to assimilate has been taken as a confirmation of the nation's essential inclusiveness; and the way to "get on" is to accede to a tokenism that will, given time, fade to grey. The unparalleled success of English Jews in achieving this ideal was as marked in the 1900s as it is in the 2000s. The Marconi scandal of 1912, which had a solid undertow of antisemitism, was complemented by the insider trading scandal of the Guinness Four in the 1980s, by which time to mention that all the defendants were Jews was as infra dig as alluding to the semitic origins of half of Thatcher's inner cabinet.

In the years from 1880 to 1920 concerns with "the other" were focused in part on the Ashkenazi Jews, refugees from Russian pogroms who at that time were settling in the East End of London. But far more significant was the uses to which the Celtic fringe could be put – in particular John Bull's other island. Whether as the unwelcome Gastarbeiter of their day, or as fractious malcontents rocking the imperial vessel, the Irish – supposedly fey and improvident at the very best – shored up the immemorial citadel of Englishness. In my 1994 Guardian piece, with the Good Friday agreement still in the future, I quoted an Irish friend – the writer Robert McLiam Wilson – saying what a reliable appetite the English had "for hearing what shite they are". I took this – like the satire – to be a good quality, and evidence of a productive dialectic in English culture and character; it doesn't look that way to me any more. In fact, like any individual who tolerates such abuse, the English, taken collectively, hide their bullying and their arrogance behind a willingness to hear what shite they are; low self-worth is not a recipe for a happy nationalism – ask the Italians, or the Egyptians for that matter. The absolute intractability of the Irish question for successive waves of the English liberal consensus remains with us, at least in the diminuendo of Ulster, to this day; but revolving round this primum mobile of colonialism (and recall: Ireland was put to the sword by parliament, not monarch) are all the other crystal spheres of the expansive English cosmos. The fundamental problem for the English – how do they reconcile a recent history typified by violence, exploitation and rapacious greed with their overwhelming sense of fair play – must be staged again and again, because the tension of these opposites can only possibly find resolution through its re-enactment. Twenty years ago, with devolved government for Scotland and Wales still in the future, and Irish people of all stripes reminding us of what shite we were, I paid the traditional obeisance: acknowledging the separateness of these cultures and applauding their ability to still shine in the dark shadow thrown by their behemoth of a neighbour. But I also had to be clear: London was a whirlpool worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story, sucking in all the raw talent that ventured anywhere near it; culturally speaking, the Celts could only hold their mournful tune if they kept well away from the cacophony.

In 2014 all possible forms of alterity are faced down by the English with the same biblical stare: either go with the goatish adherents of political Islam or be herded with the rest of the sheep into the pastures beloved of Constable, where ye shall lie in peace down beside the British lion. And if you're a Romanian or a Bulgarian, don the sorting hat that other eastern Europeans have put on before you; either take a worthy low-paid job – preferably mopping up after our incontinent elderly – live in a bought-to-let garage, spend your money in our economy rather than sending it home, and then send yourself home after you've made a "net contribution"; or alternatively be forever condemned as a slimy slithering scrounger – and probably a "gyppo" to boot. If you've chosen well you might get a bit part in The Archers – the gold standard for English inclusiveness; if badly you'll feature disproportionate to your offending behaviour on Crimewatch.

The rise and, for the most part, the acceptance of identity politics in England plays to the advantage of traditionally constituted Englishness, an ideology that thrives on physiological metaphors and which allows for different groups – "communities" in the modern idiom – inasmuch as they are prepared to become "sustainable" organs generating "growth" within the body politic. The Edwardians who hushed up the Cleveland Street gay brothel scandal, while sending Wilde to jail, would have appreciated an England within which being flamboyantly gay could be squared with being outrageously conformist; no doubt, in time, they could have got used to black men with dreadlocks sitting in the House of Lords, or feminist women taking their strident turn at the dispatch box. What they understood is that there can always be an England so long as these "communities" can be persuaded not to see themselves as part of a larger one: the community of the dispossessed. The question of whether or not English Muslims will hurry up with their assimilation or persist with their tiresome religio-cultural revanchism is of course intimately bound up with Englishness itself; an Englishness that – as that other economic sponger-cum-migrant Karl Marx understood only too well – cloaks its cold mercantile heart in swaths of chiffon sentiment. Knowing the price of everything is … exhausting, and it's a taedium vitae that persuades the English to indulge in successive cultural – and even spiritual – devaluations; anything but allow Englishness to find its true level in the world.

Earlier I said that digital media had made manifest the century-old north-south power shift; now I should explain. In 1994 I was much exercised by "retail services", the huge English export of which I chose to see, through Panglossian spectacles, as to some extent synonymous with the undoubted English brilliance at purveying popular culture – street fashions, dance music etc. The truth is that financial services were the real export earner then, and despite – or arguably because of the 2007-8 ruction – they remain so now. What's more, courtesy of the tax payer, they are fully engrafted in the state apparatus as the largest and most symbiotic instance of a public-private finance initiative. Popular culture is merely the window dressing: like Danny Boyle's lavishly staged charade in the Olympic stadium. It follows that England – and by extension true Englishness – exists if at all in an accommodation with this dispensation, which is really only the kulturkampf of that self-same commercial class that first pioneered capital flight a century ago.

To be English is to subscribe at some level to this debt-financing model of national character; the mortgaged heart of oak labours sclerotically on while a billion tweets and Facebook status updates are its exaggerated cardiogram, evanescently recording the peaks and troughs of its Kate Middletonesque narcissism. And of course, given that Englishness is the genius loci of an imaginary place – the green and pleasant land through which runways are forever bulldozed, and in which high-speed rail lines are entrenched – it follows that it's a bespoke national character for the ageing: in this relaxed-fit, red-white-and-blue garment they call "British" the English can punch at, above, or well below their weight internationally. Again, as I write, in the aftermath of the conviction of Lee Rigby's crazed killers, and with the parliamentary committee with responsibility for their oversight making the usual doomy pronouncements on the parlous state of the armed forces, it's worth noting that servicemen and women have never been so popular. Only with a national character as capable of being altered on the hoof could a decade's worth of defeats and withdrawals be a cause for such rejoicing; yet even with a possible Scottish secession (taking with it if not the actual formations and materiel, at least the long and honourable tradition of providing the recruiting office for imperial hard men), I feel confident that the English will carry on being British when it suits them. It may be that historians developed the army-nation concept to explain successive crises in the legitimacy of 20th-century French regimes, but the relationship of the British army to Englishness is just as significant, for, like the English constitution, its permanent condition of crisis may in fact be its abiding strength.

It would be comfortingly simple to compare the role the European Union plays in the English collective psyche in 2013 with that of the British empire in 1913; and given that the English prize both comfort and simplicity let's do just that. Both are hinterlands to which loyalty is accorded on the basis of trade and profit alone, both are sources of potential immigrants, both evince a troubling inclination to believe themselves to be dog-wagging tails, and both stir up the ancient fudge of the English settlement. One of the most popular sub-genres of late Victorian and Edwardian English literature was the invasion fantasy – the most famous examples of which are Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands and HG Wells's The War of the Worlds. The zeitgeist – whether paranoiac or real – plays little part in the contemporary literary consciousness, which prefers to flee to the Tudor period (or a version of it, at least); and instead we have real-life invasion fantasies courtesy of the John Bull de nos jours, Nigel Farage, and his Greek-debt-crisis chorus, the English Defence League. The irony of this embattled Englishness would not have escaped the late Victorians and Edwardians, who, following in the wide wake left by their portly sovereign, were only too happy to attend Shavian debunkings or consume a Wildean diet of hearing what shite they were, but who nonetheless still had a sense of themselves as being at the very centre of the world.

In 1917, when the doughboys entered the Flanders trenches, that centre decisively shifted towards the US; it was an invasion of England via Belgium that none of the science fiction writers foresaw, mostly because the neoliberal faith that in time became incorporated in invaders' ecclesiastical institutions – Bretton Woods, the IMF, the Federal Reserve – was already shared, in embryo, by the conquered. No one needs to be a seer to predict that by 2020 the world cynosure will have just as decisively shifted to the south-east – but not England's. The emergent Chi- or Bric world will impact just as powerfully on Englishness in the 21st century as the hegemonic US did in the 20th; yet having already masterfully performed the trick of retaining a sense of metropolitan pre-eminence while becoming parochial, there seems no reason to think that Englishness won't keep calmly constipated and carry on with the same old shit. This year's centenary of the first world war's outbreak will give the ageing English – wearing their habitual British costume – the opportunity to stage their favourite sort of mummery: the glorification of machine-made death and destruction on a colossal scale. Already minister after minister is rising to the dispatch box to declare that while the first world war should not be prettified, and the commemorations should be an opportunity to educate the young; those same young people should be made to swallow the idea that their beloved homeland faced a terrible existential threat in 1914. Thousands of young men took His Majesty's shilling, and a century on the poster boy for their recruitment, Lord Kitchener, gets to be on a £2 coin: because England is the land of debt-financed nationalism, it is also the one where people are perfectly happy to inflate reputations.

And finally: a word about food – and newsprint. In my 1994 essay I drew the central motif of Englishness from an instance of marketing: in Richard Eyre's 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch (scripted by Ian McEwan), the MacGuffin is thematic rather than narrative. During a conversation between the protagonist – a cod-idealistic television journalist – and the much older ad director whose lefty wife he has just cuckolded, the ad man tells him that the ploughman's lunch, far from having been some timeless titbit of the English peasant, was in fact invented in the 1960s to vitalise pub snacking. I could say a lot more about The Ploughman's Lunch – which in turn attempts to say a great deal about the fellow-travelling English character during the Thatcher revolution – but let's just focus on the food. In 1994 – let alone 1984 – food was still largely conceived of as a form of sustenance. In 2014 it has become the primary way that the English take their culture: to be English is to eat; to eat out, to eat many different cuisines, to watch cookery programmes and to have an opinion on the alleged drug-taking habits of celebrity chefs. It follows that Englishness itself is a gastronomic affair – and I think what I've written above bears this out: Englishness is at once a praxis: a way of going about things; and a way of transforming what is not English – shish kebabs, onion bhajis, ackee and salt fish – into what is. The problem for Englishness is that it tends to eat too much, and too indiscriminately – and that's not healthy for the ageing national character. Of course fish and chips (an inspired example of English praxis: Belgian fried potato mixed with Ashkenazi fried fish) was traditionally served in newspaper; but it isn't my partisan status as a journalist that leads me to believe that the English would have done well to hang on to the wrapping and discard the food. At least, I would've wished them to have done this if their great and passionate belief in the freedom and independence of their press wasn't – like so much that's English to the core – something of a myth.

• A new edition of Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920, edited by Philip Dodd and Robert Colls, for which Will Self has written the introduction, will appear from Bloomsbury later this year.