The future of the left since 1884

A respectable Englishness

The emergence, or rather re-emergence, of England and Englishness continues apace. The Brexit vote was in part inspired by UKIP (a sort of English national party), and supported most decisively by England (53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent). 72...


The emergence, or rather re-emergence, of England and Englishness continues apace. The Brexit vote was in part inspired by UKIP (a sort of English national party), and supported most decisively by England (53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent). 72 per cent of those who think of themselves as English voted out compared with 43 per cent of those whose primary identity is British.

If we are from England, it is increasingly there in our language—the English NHS or English schools—and in our sense of ourselves. This identity shift has been overwhelmingly bottom-up and socially conservative, even nativist, though not unambiguously or permanently so.

It is an emergent property and as it grows it will become more mainstream, more respectable and more liberal. The gradual ‘Englishification’ of two groups will hasten this, though both processes will be slow and faltering: the educated middle class and ethnic minority England.

But first a word of warning. Englishness is not sweeping all before it in the way that Scottishness (alone in the United Kingdom) has become the overwhelmingly dominant identity in Scotland. About three-quarters of people in England still describe themselves as a combination of British and English and this figure has not changed in 20 years.

It is nevertheless true that when people are forced to choose which identity they are more attached to, Englishness has gained ground over Britishness. The British Social Attitudes Surveys show that in both Scotland and England, ‘small nation’ identities gained substantial ground over Britishness between 1992 and 1999. In 1992 over 60 per cent of English people selected British as their most important national identity against just 30 per cent for English. The ratio of British to English then declined steadily across four survey waves, from over 2:1 in favour of British in 1992 to 1:1 by 1999. But this ratio has not altered in any clear way since, despite increased Scottish political assertiveness.

In 2011, a question on national identity was included in the census of England and Wales for the first time, but this should not be considered a barometer of declining Britishness. It asked ‘How would you describe your national identity?’ Respondents were asked to tick ‘all that apply’ from a list that read ‘English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British and Other.’ Over 60 per cent of people in England only ticked English. However, the format of the question, in which English is the first option and is juxtaposed with other sub-state national identities, biases the results in favour of English only responses.

One thing, however, is crystal clear: identifying as English is much more common among poorer, less educated, more working-class people. People who identify as English are far more likely to vote UKIP and oppose immigration and EU membership than the average voter. They are also far more likely to be white. Indeed in many parts of the country with significant ethnic minority populations, saying you are English is the same thing as saying you are white. And the survey evidence shows that white British people are more likely to identify as English in areas of high ethnic minority settlement.

This ethnic version of Englishness is apparently in sharp contrast to a more civic version of Scottishness. The latter has adopted this political frame because of the independence debate and, crucially, thanks to the fact that a large section of the liberal, progressive middle class in Scotland has shifted from Labour to the SNP and has been central to shaping the messages of modern Scottish nationalism. Nothing like this has ever happened in England. However, just because the Scottish progressive middle class claim to eschew ethnicity it doesn’t, of course, mean that the Scots as a whole follow them in this.

Frank Bechofer and David McCrone, in their recent book, Understanding National Identity, discuss the most popular reasons for English people saying they are ‘English not British,’ or ‘more English than British.’ Among English people who give these responses, the most popular reasons are that they are born in England (88 per cent), identify with its history or culture (82-86 percent) or that ‘in having to be British, English people too often downplay being English, and I think that’s wrong’ (66 per cent). And 35 per cent said they felt more English after Scottish and Welsh devolution.

The connection between Britishness and more liberal political views is evident in the fact that English respondents who identify more strongly with Britain than England agree that Britishness is important because ‘all parts of the United Kingdom are included’ (86 per cent) and ‘being British brings us together because it includes all ethnic minorities and people of different cultures’ (72 per cent).

However, importantly, Understanding National Identity offers conflicting evidence on the inclusiveness of English and Scottish identities. While English respondents are 15 points more likely than Scots to claim that continued Muslim immigration would threaten their (English/Scottish) national identity, English respondents are about 5-7 points more likely than Scots to accept that a non-white person can be a member of their (English/Scottish) nation.

As we have noted, white people are far more likely to identify as English than non-white. Over 70 per cent of White British people in England identify as English only, but this falls to just 8-15 per cent for the main African and South Asian minority groups in England. It rises again to 26 per cent among African-Caribbeans and Englishness is also more popular among mixed-race groups: English identification is around 40 per cent for mixed white-Asians rising to 63 per cent for mixed white-Afro-Caribbeans. 54 per cent of Jews in England identify as English, not far behind the 65 per cent figure for Christians.

Increased ethnic minority identification with Englishness will help to provide it with more legitimacy in the longer run and although there is clearly a long way to go—especially in the more polarised places such as the northern mill towns—there is some movement in the right direction. Several prominent minority figures in the media, including Gary Younge and George Alagiah, have recently declared themselves to be comfortable with an English identity.

After all, ethnicity simply refers to ancestry and myths of ancestry—once you have been in a country for a generation or two you can choose whether or not to identify with the dominant ethnicity of your adopted country. Englishness has historically been a relatively open ethnicity –consider two of the leading lights in Ukip, the French ancestry Nigel Farage and the Irish ancestry Patrick O’Flynn. It is obviously easier to blend in with the dominant ethnic group if you look the same but there is no reason in principle why looking different to the majority should be a barrier, especially as the majority becomes so used to mixing with people who look different to them (but sound the same) that they scarcely notice it.

In any case there are many different ways of identifying with a country. Just as the resonant symbols of Englishness are not identical for working and middle class people they will differ between majority and minority English. And as England’s ethnic minority population hits almost 25 per cent of the total and we grope around for a post-multicultural story for expressing our collective existence, a form of pluralistic nationalism is the most likely direction of travel. That means that most ethnic minority people living in England continue to identify primarily as British, whilst not regarding the Englishness of their white English neighbours a threat, and vice-versa.

There are several reasons for suggesting this benign trend will prevail. Although the word multiculturalism will continue to be used (or rather misused) to mean the acceptance of a multiracial society, support for its more substantive meaning—coined recently by Maajid Nawaz—of “diversity between rather within groups” has largely faded outside parts of academia and the ethnic minority intelligentsia. As anxieties about immigration and lack of integration in many places have increased so the laissez-faire ‘come here and be yourself’ version of multiculturalism has given way to a more integrationist ‘British values’ story.

The rise of Englishness can sit comfortably inside this new story as part of a loose, pluralistic nationalism and, moreover, as part of a new acceptance even among the educated middle class of the benefits of moderate nationalism in an otherwise fragmented and individualistic social landscape. A lack of overt patriotism among the influential and respectable classes has been one of the features of English post-imperial (and even arguably imperial) life noted by George Orwell, especially of the left-wing intelligentsia, but more recently by Jeremy Paxman and Geoff Dench.

The Brexit vote, notwithstanding an unpleasant flurry of overt xenophobia on the fringes, was in part an expression of respectable English national feeling. National feeling, in particular English national feeling, has been ‘normalised’ by 70 years of relative decline and is now an expression of specialness rather than superiority or dominance. Hiding English dominance, within Britain and the empire, was one of the reasons for the shyness of Englishness in the past but it is now no longer necessary to hide itself and can speak its name quite openly.

The new Anglo-British nationalism is also underpinned by a substantial liberal shift on race, gender and sexuality, so meticulously observed by the British Social Attitudes Surveys, since the early 1980s. It is true that the strongest English identifiers, the old and the poor, provide some residual resistance to this liberal wave but there are now just too many people who sign up to most liberal attitudes and who sign up to Englishness for there not to be a substantial overlap.

One other trend that may help the normalisation of Englishness is the clipping of London’s wings. The Brexit vote was in part an English provincial rebellion against over-weening London, both economically and culturally. (Englishness does exist in the capital, often strongly held in places like Romford and Bexley, but it is now an increasingly minority identity.)

So expect to hear more from English radicals such as John Denham and activist Paul Kingsnorth, who has been bravely flying the flag for a left-wing Englishness as he tries to save pubs, orchards and independent shops and stop dual carriageways and airports. As he puts it: “It is time to reclaim both England and the proud tradition of radical nationalism, rooted but not chauvinistic, outward-looking but aware of our past, attached to place not race, geography not biology.”

The England and Labour project is being coordinated by Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, with an editorial group of Prof Mike Kenny (Director of the Mile End Institute, QMUL), Mary Riddell and Jonathan Rutherford. The Fabian Review will be publishing regular articles from the series, as part of the debate about Labour’s response to contemporary England.


David Goodhart

David Goodhart is director of the Integration Hub. He is also a former director of Demos and co-founding editor of Prospect magazine, as well as the author of The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration

Eric Kaufmann

Eric Kaufmann is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.


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