1 February 2012

The English conversation has finally begun. What took so long?

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Englishness is finally finding a voice, after more than a century. Why has it been muted this long, and is it time now for a strong civic nation, or will an England of blood and soil emerge?

By Sunder Katwala

‘Why aren’t we even allowed to be English?’ has become an increasingly vocal refrain in the identity debate across the nations of Britain, and debated in depth in OurKingdom’s ‘For England’s Sake’ page.

‘What’s stopping you?’ is one fairly reasonable answer. The English have a self-image as a pretty anti-statist people. That should make it difficult to pin the widespread ignoral of St George’s Day, for example, purely on some great political conspiracy, from Whitehall to town halls, to suppress a bubbling up sense of English pride. Yes, there has been an official reluctance to articulate an English identity, but the relative lack of knowledge even of the St George’s day date, let alone the kind of self-organised voluntary activity common on national days elsewhere across these islands, must reflect a broader apathy across much of the English public.

That is changing. How Englishness is finally finding a voice is set out in the new ippr report ‘The Dog That Finally Barked  ’, published last week. A rebalancing of British and English identities sees the English (just about) joining the Scots and Welsh in giving primacy to their national identity over the multinational one recorded on their British passports. ‘England Arise!’ was also an implicit theme of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s Hugo Young lecture last week. As we decide, across the UK, whether and how we want to reshape, or to end, the British political settlement over the next three years, we will certainly find ourselves talking and hearing more about England and Englishness.

One useful starting point could be to understand why the English voice has been muted for so long.  There have been three main reasons to not talk about England, or to fear the consequences of doing so.  The first, and longest, silence about England, was primarily the product of political confidence. Englishness was under-articulated across the twentieth century largely because it rarely felt challenged. The big existential threats that England did face were directed at Britain as a whole.

The second period of a muted England arose from a desire to protect the Union. Devolution meant that the English question had to be asked, yet the reluctance to answer it was rooted in a traditional British Unionist instinct to see any rise in national allegiance as setting us on a slippery slope to the break-up of Britain. The ippr report offers persuasive evidence that this is a failed and mistaken strategy, which is doing more harm than good to its own cause.

The English conversation is now happening.  Yet, still, there remains some tangible anxiety about engaging in it. The most commonly voiced fear is that the English voice will be angry and atavistic, primarily a form of “them and us” grievance politics. Recent surveys on identity have consistently found ethnic minority respondents expressing the strongest sense of British pride and belonging of anybody, but that they have a weaker attachment to English identity. Must the rise of Englishness, then, mark a retreat from a British identity that is civic, inclusive and plural towards a ‘blood and soil’ politics of belonging?


“Few now sang ‘England Arise’. England had arisen all the same”. Those were the concluding words of AJP Taylor’s famous Penguin history of modern England, 1918-45. Well, it had and it hadn’t. Taylor was writing about Britain, and more specifically of how the people’s peace – the NHS and the Beveridge settlement – would shape post-war Britain’s sense of itself.  This offers a symbolic, though routine, example of the dominant, assimilationist approach to the English/British identity across the long era of unassertive English confidence.

That habitual conflation of being English and British, in England anyway, was often said to have been a clever and effective strategy to make Empire, and shared ownership of it, possible – especially once England made up 80% of the population of the United Kingdom after 1922. Scottish participation in the imperial adventure was often enthusiastic, while it lasted. But the conflation was less strategic, because it was often less conscious, in the post-imperial age. Attempts to rebrand Scots as ‘North Britons’ quickly proved futile, but the South Britons of England were happier to adopt ‘British’ as their primary identity.

Even George Orwell, who engaged with English identity more than any other major twentieth century writer, argued in The Lion and the Unicorn that challenges to the habit of using England and Britain interchangeably could be considered a “minor point” of local, and essentially regional, colour within the British family of nations.

‘… even Welsh and Scottish readers are likely to have been offended because I have used the word “England” oftener than “Britain”, as though the whole population dwelt in London and the Home Counties and neither north nor west possessed a culture of its own … It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European. It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish. To a Frenchman, the Breton and the Auvergnat seem very different beings, and the accent of Marseilles is a stock joke in Paris. Yet we speak of “France” and “the French”, recognizing France as an entity, a single civilization, which in fact it is. So also with ourselves. Looked at from the outside, even the cockney and the Yorkshireman have a strong family resemblance.’


Devolution, in the 1990s, did finally help the English to see the difference between being English and being British. Yet Englishness remained muted still, out of a fear of the consequences for the Union of articulating it. So the English question remains unanswered, and only fleetingly addressed,  some thirteen years after the Queen opened the Holyrood Parliament, not just because the English have not settled on an answer to it, but also because the Westminster parties have often shared an instinctive preference to minimise the scale of change wrought by devolution.

That helps to explain why the drive to finally address the English question now does not really come from the tangible but gradual rise in English identity. It has been triggered more specifically by new developments north of the border, and how they further mobilise the increasing English awareness of the current asymmetries. A Scottish vote for independence remains unlikely in the imminent referendum (with support having consistently been around one in three) but the debate will reshape the Union, with some form of devo-max likely to have broad political and public support in Scotland. (The intuitively attractive offer is essentially “in Britain, but not run by Britain” to adapt an old William Hague slogan about the EU, which was broadly popular if without any particular meaning as to its practical consequences).

Whatever the sources of evasion of Englishness, the question can no longer be avoided, as Anthony Painter has argued. It is increasingly clear that it would be impossible to again reshape the devolution settlement without beginning to deal with the central asymmetry at its heart: the missing English dimension.  There is nothing wrong, in principle, with uneven devolution, as long as the differences reflect different views, and are considered to be fair.

The late 1990s settlement reflected big differences in popular sentiment–Scotland confidently asserting its claim to a law-making parliament; Wales divided down the middle about whether to embark on devolution at all; and the English more indifferent, outside London. None of the competing answers and options for English governance have commanded any clear consensus. The last Labour government’s preferred answer – regional government – was decisively rejected in a north-east referendum. The range of reform options mooted – English votes for English laws; English grand committees; and how to link address the English question in tandem with reform of the upper chamber – are known only within the political classes. There has long been broad support for an English Parliament, but campaigners have never mobilised anything like the public salience or civic activism of the Scottish Constitutional Convention after 1992, which made pressure for devolution irresistible.

The ippr research shows that, if there is no dominant view of how to address the English dimension, pressure to address it seriously is likely to become an important political force. What was true of Scotland after 1992 is now quietly true of England in 2012 too: the continued suppression of national aspiration would threaten the Union more quickly than accommodating it might. As ippr director Nick Pearce puts it “the longer this debate is ignored or, worse, denied, the more likely we will see a backlash within England against the UK”.  Devolution can be advocated as a provisional and transitional demand by those whose long-term goal is separation, but it is sincerely advocated as an alternative to it too.

Those who have wished to defend Britain and Britishness have too often embraced zero-sum or forced choice thinking about British identity. That is to express a lack of confidence in what are proclaimed to be its civic and plural virtues, betraying instead the fear that it might easily be supplanted by more ‘authentic’ national allegiances. Such forced choice thinking is as often now found on the other side of the argument too.

So Norman Davies offers the eye-catching provocation in his “Vanished Kingdoms” that “the English in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922 and will probably continue”. Up to a point, Professor. The events of 1940-45, the creation of the BBC from 1922, the NHS in 1948 and the Coronation of 1953 were all moments when British identity was surely being strengthened and reinforced during that century-long process of apparently inevitable decline. Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain offered a brilliant and influential obituary notice for the multinational state which Nairn labels “Ukania”. This might be proved right in the end – that now appears to be the zeitgeist view among much of the Westminster lobby and some Tory MPs, as well as the Scottish political elite – but it is worth noting that his book’s first publication, now 35 years ago in 1977, is now closer in time to the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 than it does to 2012.

The Conservative Chair of the Welsh Home Affairs Select Committee, David Davies MP, now says that the UK is “holed below the waterline”, and that the Welsh are likely to follow the Scots in demanding independence. That is a strangely deterministic argument when support for independence in Wales has never risen above more than one out of four or five. We only stay British if we believe there are reasons to do so – which now includes a belief that it can accommodate national identities too – but if we choose to stay British we will. The demise of the UK cannot be said to be inevitable while there are sustained majorities to keep it across the British nations.

The ippr find, for the first time, more people put English over British first, if forced to choose. But we do not wish to be forced to choose. Only 7% of the English say they are “British not English” while 17% say they are “English not British”. Both identities matter to most people. 40% prioritise their English over their British identity, while only 16% do the opposite but, as 34% feel equally British and English, a majority still feel at least as British as English. Anthony Barnett, accepting Alex Salmond’s challenge, makes the case for a post-British England eloquently, but that remains a minority view.

British Future’s State of the Nation polling earlier this month found a persistently strong sense of belonging to Britain of 67% in England, 64% in Wales and 60% in Scotland, alongside an even higher score for strong belonging to England  (72%), Scotland (82%) and Wales (83%) respectively. What was particularly striking in the British Future polling was that English respondents were considerably more likely to say that they felt a strong sense of belonging to both Britain and England, or to neither. So 92% of those who felt a strong sense of belonging to Britain also said that they felt strongly that they belonged to England too, but this strong sense of English identity fell to just 27% among those who did not have a strong sense of belonging to Britain, with more than twice as many saying they did not have a strong sense of belonging to England.  Suppressing the English voice would be both wrong and dangerous, but an articulation of Englishness which believes the key is to throw off British identity will also appeal only to a narrow minority. Understanding that could be an important key to the civic Englishness that we need.


The remaining anxiety about Englishness is a fear that it will be atavistic, and more ethnic than civic. Whether it is possible to be black and British was once the subject of agonised debate. That question has been decisively settled. But the pluralising of Englishness remains a work in progress. This is an important challenge – but it must not become a final reason not to talk about England.

The ippr report shows that non-white Britons are a good deal less likely to identify themselves as “more English than British” than others. 19% feel more English than British, with 23% equally English and British, and 37% more British than English. This is, broadly, a mirror image of how the white English prioritise these two different identities. There is a note of caution about small sample sizes, but this confirms the findings of other polls, where non-white Brits have a marginally stronger sense of British identity than everybody else, but a weaker sense of English identity.

So some express the fear that a return to the traditional “blood nations” will leave the ethnic minorities as the last Brits standing, rallying around a flag that indigenous Brits have deserted. The idea of being “black British” is well established, while phrases like “black English” or “Asian English” have an unfamiliar ring. Why were we slow to pluralise Englishness? One, rational explanation would be that Britishness contained more space – its Celtic fringe and multinational nature making it civic and plural from the start. But I suspect it might simply have been that new Commonwealth immigrants joined the British/English themselves in tending to forget that there was a difference during those post-war decades of increased immigration, when any distinctive English dimension to British public life was largely absent.

That non-white Britons place most emphasis on British identity makes a lot of sense to me. It is British history which explains how we became the society we are today. I was born British, in Doncaster in 1974, in part because my father had also been born a British subject, 4000 miles away and three years before Indian independence, thirty years earlier. My mother is southern Irish, and both of my parents were among those encouraged and invited to come to Britain to help staff the National Health Service.  That is a distinctively British story of Empire, decolonisation and the NHS. I would go as far as to argue that is as British a background as anybody else who can trace their family roots here back to the Anglo-Saxons.  Is it just as English too? It doesn’t feel like it. That is a question where it sounds to me like roots and their longevity would count for more.  The ethnic lag on English identity can be easily overstated: the British Future poll found that 72% of the white British in England felt strong belonging to England, while 27% don’t, while this was 62% among non-white Britons, including 69% of Asians.

So I am also confident that the English conversation in 2012 will be about an inclusive English identity. I am English, but would prefer to keep a British passport, but there is no politically viable English project, which would refuse me an English passport in the event that the UK did fragment into independent states.  This may disappoint some of those who assert an English identity as an alternative to the multi-ethnic muddle, which Britain has become, but any English conversation is bound to reflect the reality of modern England as soon as it begins.

Our few English public symbols, express a civic and multi-ethnic Englishness already. It was an argument that took place on our football terraces. For my generation, the fact of multi-ethnic English team was a settled fact – since Viv Anderson had become the first black player to represent his country in 1978 – but that was an argument that we had to win too. I was only ten years old, watching the slightly fuzzy ITV pictures from Brazil, when John Barnes went on his brilliant, mazy run at the Maracana stadium to give England a two-nil victory. So it was only a few years later that I heard the story of the NF contingent of the England fans singing “one-nil” instead, because black goals didn’t count. It was an argument that they were always going to lose. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people” but an imaginary all white England has no team to cheer for.

I felt differently – and more confident – about England and Englishness after the 1996 European Championships, in which the Cross of St George decisively supplanted the Union Jack as the icon which the English understood to be their national flag. The English had both a decent team, for once, as well as a positive sense of who we were and why we were hosting the party too. The build-up to so many previous major tournaments had so often been dominated by fears of hooliganism from those whose idea of patriotism was to maraud around Europe singing “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts”. That contest between different ideas of England involved a lot of grassroots effort, as fans’ embassies and supporters groups tried to make it possible for the non-idiot majority to go to a game without being herded around like animals. Several times, during my twenties, I was part of a team of about forty volunteers who regularly turned up at Wembley at 9am to lay out a pattern of red and white cards on the seats for fans to “raise the flag” as the teams came out. We stood for positive English patriotism; against racism, and against booing the other side’s anthem. (Part of this very English initiative involved putting out cards at the other end for opposing supporters to raise their own flag too, including a short explanation of this gesture in, say, Swedish too).

The St George’s Flag is now an everyday symbol of participation and pride in a shared national experience – during our football summers at least, when it as likely to be flown from the people carrier of a British Asian family with 2.2 children as by anybody else. But the same flag might still have a more ambiguous meaning when fluttering from a South London pub on a rainy winter’s night.

So the idea of a mono-ethnic English identity will be stillborn in the England of 2012. A lot of Scottish energy has gone into establishing that the new Scottish patriotism is civic and inclusive, taking pride in how Pakistani Scots lay claim to the identity. If Scotland can have a confident civic patriotism, there is no reason to fear that this cannot happen in England too. After all, England has a good claim to have long been the most internally plural of the British nations, as Roifield Brown argues, containing not just 97% of Britain’s ethnic diversity but a broader plurality of English identities in terms of the mixture of many regional, class, urban and rural routes into England and Englishness. The many immigrant contributions to English literature take in George Bernard Shaw, TS Eliot, Tom Stoppard and Salman Rushdie, but they begin right back at the start, with Beowulf. Billy Bragg’s “English, Half-English” captures a globally engaged nation where hyphenated identity began with the Anglo-Saxons.

Many different voices will rightly now stake a claim to the English conversation that has begun. There will be some important contests over what we decide Englishness now stands for. That should be welcomed: we will all need to choose which English conversations we want to have.

This article was first published on OpenDemocracy.net. View it here.

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