England’s identity crisis: what does it mean to be English?

Posted By: July 01, 2014



The pending Euro and Scottish elections are raising tumultuous debates about English identity and governance. So what do these uncertain times mean for the country’s future?

 John Harris. The Guardian.  Tuesday  May  20, 2014 14.13 EDT


England flags
Flying the flag: there is a revival of passions about England. Photograph: Andy Hooper/Associated Newsp/REX

Let’s face it: we are living through the most important phase of British politics – indeed, British society – since Margaret Thatcher’s first government. Everything seems uncertain: the result of the next election, the long-term fate of all three main parties, the reputation of such British institutions as the BBC, the police, and the NHS – and the future of the United Kingdom itself.The relentless modern news media has a tendency to make even the most convulsive events look like just another item on the “breaking news” ticker. But the importance of the debate about Scottish independence, which is reverberating throughout the whole of the UK, is clearly massive. Recent polls have put the pro-independence side only a few points behind the “no” camp.

In early May, a source close to David Cameron served notice that if the pro-independence side won, he would not resign as prime minister, which spoke volumes about where we have somehow arrived: facing a once-unthinkable scenario, senior politicians are matter-of-factly considering their options.

Whatever happens in the September referendum will have profound consequences. All three main UK parties are now of the opinion that if it sticks with the union, Scotland should be given more powers over its affairs, and as and when that happens – let alone if Scotland decides to split away – the imbalanced nature of the UK’s governing arrangements will be revealed as never before. The long-ticking question is about to explode: if it’s so important for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland people to have increased control over their affairs, what about people in England?

Political anoraks refer back to the so-called West Lothian question, named in honour of the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who first raised the point in a debate about devolution in 1977. Back then, his point remained hypothetical, but it sat under British politics like a time bomb: “For how long will English constituencies and English honourable members tolerate … at least 119 honourable members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?” Thirty-seven years on, we are getting used to people talking about “English votes for English laws”, an English parliament, and giving English voters an increased say via a new kind of regional government.

The last of those ideas was floated by the previous government, only for a plan for an elected regional assembly in the north-east to be resoundingly defeated in 2004, whereupon everything went quiet. Now, a new Yorkshire First party has just been launched, arguing that “Yorkshire has a larger population than Scotland and an economy twice the size of Wales, but … the powers of neither.”

In the north east, despite what happened a decade ago, something similar is said to be on its way. The same restive mood was highlighted last month, when the EU formally granted the people of Cornwall “national minority” status, and there was renewed talk about giving that county – the poorest in the UK – much more control over the spending of European regeneration money.

Cornwall: the EU formally granted it “national minority” status. Photograph: Nigel Pavitt/Getty Images/AWL Images RM
There are other signs of a new, uncertain era. A revival of passions about England has been obvious in things that have looked unremarkable but are freighted with political meaning: the splurge of documentaries about national history and geography, the revival of interest in English folk, increasing celebration of St George’s Day. Ideas about what this might mean for England’s future identity vary wildly. One long-standing school of thought goes back to The Break-Up Of Britain, a prescient book written by Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn in 1977. In this view of things, Britain and the UK are concepts loaded down with the stuff of empire and colonialism, which all four countries in the UK should shrug off. As Nairn put it, the English perhaps need to “reinvent an identity … better than the battered, cliche-ridden hulk which the retreating tide of imperialism has left them”. Recently, a crisply phrased version of this view was dispensed by Scottish author Irvine Welsh: “England had a mission to be an inclusive multicultural nation and this old-fashioned imperialist UK has stopped it from fulfilling its national destiny.” (Scots often seem to be the most vociferous mouthpieces of this theory – viewed from a certain perspective, they may be open to the charge that they are simply trying to make themselves feel better about leaving the rest of us in the lurch).

By contrast, other people see a “British” identity encompassing a huge range of people, as against an Englishness that is too often crabby and xenophobic. In the census of 2011 – the first to ask people to tick boxes for their national identity (or identities) – 60% of people in England described themselves as English only, but there were fascinating variations swirling around that number. Perhaps most interestingly, in England, 38% of people from an ethnic minority said they were exclusively British, as against only 14% of white people, and the ethnic groups in England most likely to say they were British were Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and people who trace their background to India. It’s not difficult to interpret those differences: for many people, Britain is an inclusive, outward-looking place, but a solitary England would represent something much more problematic.

In this reading, the first word in “English Defence League” has a sharp significance. So does the existence of the English Democrats, a rather nasty pro-English political party who advocate an English parliament and the honouring of St George’s Day with a public holiday, and wage war on “political correctness” and “mass immigration” – they’re a kind of Poundland Ukip, said to have been infiltrated by former members of the BNP.

Nigel Farage, Ukip
Nigel Farage, leader of Ukip – the conduit for a specifically English political revolt. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
And then there is Ukip itself: the conduit for a specifically English political revolt, and full of people who highlight the notion of England as an angry, introverted place. In this England, there is seething resentment about differences in public spending north of the border (an annual £1,300 per head greater than in England, according to Alex Salmond), the press whips up hysteria about halal meat, and millions of us want out of Europe, as quickly as possible. If Nigel Farage – who, when he was last asked, supported the case for an English parliament – and his people top the poll in this week’s European elections, that view of England will only be given more credence, which will perhaps push Scotland even closer to breaking point.

There is now a small library of books that examine all this, among the most impressive of which is The Politics Of English Nationhood, written by London-based academic Michael Kenny.

Multicultural Britain
Multicultural Britain: Englishness can be seen as insular and xenophobic. Photograph: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary/Alamy
“That image of an insular, sour, grievance-fuelled Englishness – that dominates a lot of liberal worries about perceptions of Englishness,” he says. “But I’m sceptical about whether that’s the dominant strand of English identity. I certainly think it’s become more prominent, and Ukip have emerged to express it. But there’s also a quieter kind of everyday small ‘c’ conservatism, which has attached itself to a sceptical view of the unions to which England belongs, and a growing disaffection with politics and politicians. It’s complicated: that isn’t necessarily the same thing as the mood that Ukip speaks to.

“And there’s something else going on as well: a number of different attempts to put together a more liberal, multicultural face. That’s the weakest one, but it’s there. All those faces are at play, but there hasn’t been any political engagement with them.”

He warns: “The debate for people who support the union is whether it’s becoming more damaging to cross your fingers and hope that Englishness will go away, or think about engaging with it constructively. But whatever happens in Scotland in September, all this will come on to the agenda.”

Voices outside the political right – whether you call them “progressive”, “liberal”, “on the left” or whatever else – have long had difficulty dealing with questions about England. They have largely welcomed the rise of new, inclusive kinds of national identity in Scotland and Wales, but for some reason, the prospect of anything comparable happening in the UK’s biggest country is still viewed with suspicion. “We see patriotism as essentially pathological,” a senior Labour figure tells me. “It’s something to do with the mob. And we’re scared by it.”

Among people grouped in and around Labour, there is also a deep-seated anxiety about whether or not England is a conservative country, with both a small and a large “c”. The electoral evidence is ambiguous: the Tories won more English votes than Labour at the last two general elections, though Labour optimists are fond of pointing out that of the 18 general elections since 1945, only three – in 1964, Februaray 1974 (there were two contests that year) and 2010, when we’d have ended up with a majority Tory government – would have produced different results in Scotland’s absence. Unfortunately, though, that is not nearly the conclusive point it’s sometimes cracked up to be: it’s complicated by the fact that pre-Thatcher Scotland returned sizeable numbers of Tories, and the question of how Labour would do without votes and MPs from Wales.

Whatever, even if the creation of an English parliament remains unlikely, the likelihood is that we will soon be talking about new, England-focused arrangements within the UK parliament (promised by the Tories in their last manifesto, and which might leave any Labour government with only a slender grip on day-to-day business), or the need to disperse power around the English regions. There will also be an inevitable discussion about values, history and culture. Are people on the liberal left prepared to let England be defined as the country of kings and queens, Victorian values, the Anglican church, Margaret Thatcher, Downton Abbey and Nigel Farage? Or might they finally talk about the place that produced the Diggers and Ranters, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, nonconformist Christianity, Clement Attlee, Two Tone – and great cities that are now the absolute embodiment of everything the Farage-ists take against?

Billy Bragg has been discussing questions about England for well over a decade, in both his writing and songs. In 2002, he released England, Half English, an album that stole its title from George Orwell, and was adorned with a St George’s flag. Its title track found him tentatively exploring what his home country was, and is: “My mother was half English and I’m half English too/I’m a great big bundle of culture tied up in the red white and blue/I’m a fine example of your Essex man/And I’m well familiar with the Hindustan/’Cos my neighbours are half-English, and I’m half-English too.”

“We’ve got no reason to hide behind the Union Jack,” he says. “If that period has passed, and the Scots go, and ultimately, the Welsh decide to go too, we need a civic renewal in England. And I’ve got a lot of faith in English people being able to do that.”

• This article was amended on 20 May 2014. The original misused “late” for “former” in reference to the MP Tam Dalyell. This has been corrected.