Last week in Newcastle I spoke at the first event of the IPPR and British Future Englishness festival “national tour”. Discussing “Who are the English,” I was in conversation with Baroness Joyce Quin, former Labour MP for Gateshead, actor and film-maker Shiraz Haq and north-east based poet and cultural critic Mark Robinson. The Discovery Museum in central Newcastle was full with over 100 engaged local people who had travelled from Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough on a cold night to debate what – if anything – it means to be English in the 21st Century north-east, writes Matthew Rhodes.
Kicking off the evening, Haq introduced his BAFTA-nominated film I am Nasrine, which follows a young Iranian girl Nasrine who is sent to the UK after falling foul of the Iranian regime. Once in the UK, she soon falls in with Nichole, a girl from the local travellers’ community in Newcastle, and begins to taste real freedom for the first time, much to the dismay of her brother, Ali. But the new culture is also affecting him more than he realises and soon both world events and personal traumas change their lives forever.
As with other pieces of work that deal with themes of belonging, alienation and attempted integration, Haq explained how he had drawn on some of his own experiences growing up in the UK as a Muslim from a Pakistani background. Interestingly, as a young Asian man, Haq was adamant that having been born here he has always considered himself to be English over and above the oft used British label which ethnic minorities living in the UK have historically preferred.
As a former MP from the region Quin talked about the local pride in being from the north-east – whether as a “Geordie” (Newcastle), a “Mackam” (Sunderland) or a “Smoggie” (Middlesbrough). Referring to her own “Celtic” heritage she described how for her Britishness has always been an important idea and one which she instinctively connected with. Meanwhile, her Englishness was perhaps an empirical identity, but one which she found worrying, if it means something which is too exclusive.
I addressed three main issues. Firstly, is Englishness on the rise? If so does it matter? And thirdly if it does, what should we do about it? Building on the themes of the London event I argued that Englishness is becoming a more salient and nascent political identity, which primarily sees itself expressed through culture, sport and a variety of other forms. It matters precisely because it is on the rise and it’s important that the majority of those who care about it and ascribe Englishness to themselves in some way (8 out of ten) define it as a positive, open, civic and multi-ethnic national identity, with space for others to appropriate it for themselves and integrate into it.
Englishness is something that is felt rather than “thought through” and cannot ultimately be reduced to constitutional tinkering by dealing with the “West Lothian Question” (although the need for political reform should not be completely ignored). Perhaps softer forms of cultural expression, where appropriate, would help the English to find a voice – a bank holiday for St George’s Day, being more confident about flying the flag of St George alongside (sometimes instead of) the Union Jack or even finally deciding that we should have our own national anthem.
Robinson commented that for him, Englishness was more about a sensibility than anything else, which informs what people “do” rather than defining who they are. Perhaps, he suggested, talking about Englishness is not very English, nor is imposing it on people who are quite happy not celebrating it.
In trying to answer “who are the English?” the audience, quite rightly, wanted to know what Englishness actually is – can it be defined? Several felt it could not – beyond mere platitudinous virtues, such as Englishness as tolerant, respectful, fair and open. My answer – whenever I am asked about what being English means to me – is to think more in terms of what makes me proud to be English. My answers are usually; our history, our culture, our landscapes, our inventions (particularly sport) and even sometimes our food (roast beef and Yorkshire pudding anyone?)!
As our chair Anna Turley concluded, discussions like this never come up with all the answers and are never likely to, precisely because we all have our own ideas about what our national identity means and how we want to express it. As David Cameron once said, we are not “flags on the lawn” sort of people – and to a certain extent he is right. We are however – as people who live in England – clearly a country where people want to talk about our Englishness, best evidenced by the 100 or so people who turned up in central Newcastle on a wet and windy night to do just that.
The Englishness Festival continues tomorrow in Manchester with the event England and the north. Click here for more information.
Matthew Rhodes is director of strategy and relationships at British Future.