A Nation Divided? Thoughts on English identity and politics'

29 Jun 2018
English and British flags fly side by side against blue skies

A recent YouGov survey for the BBC asked the population of England whether they identified as ‘British’ or ‘English’ and what they think it means to be ‘English’. The results revealed important revelations about the political and cultural landscape in the UK. Head of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, Professor John Denham, recently delivered a speech in Speaker’s House about the results of this survey and the importance of recognising ‘English’ identity as strongly held and the most widely shared. This blog is an edited version of his speech. 

England is deeply divided: by our poverty and our prosperity, between London and the South East and most of the rest of England, and within the wealthier regions too.

Poor white working-class children from towns and the seaside are now less likely to do well in school than most ethnic minority kids in the large cities. But race and faith still have the power to divide us.

Age, class and higher education are strong predictors of which of us may hold cosmopolitan liberal views and which a more communitarian social conservatism.

Older working-class voters may be less keen on rapid immigration and diversity than their university educated grandchildren, but they are strong supporters of public ownership and the NHS. Young liberals may to be less keen on redistribution and the welfare state and more likely to blame poverty on the individual.

England is where Brexit has torn us, as people, most violently apart from a political and cultural perspective. England’s politics are distinct within the union. And England, as we recently learned from the massive BBC/YouGov survey, believes that its best years are in the past.

The other parts of the union enjoy their own political identity and space, their own democratic institutions and their own democratic powers. England has none of these.

England is absent from our national political debate and conversation. Yet, what happens in England affects the whole of the union.

By any measure, Englishness is strongly held and the most widely shared national identity. Looking at the recent BBC survey, we have found that the major cities have higher numbers of British* identifiers, though nowhere outside London do the ‘more British’ outnumber the ‘more English’. In smaller cities, towns, suburbs and villages, the ‘more English’ markedly exceed the ‘more British’.

Our national identities reflect our sense of who we are; the values we hold, the symbols we recognise, the history we understand, and how we see our status and influence. It’s not the individual elements of those identities that explain people’s behaviour, but the overall world view that they reflect and sustain.

Just under 70 per cent of the English not British voted Leave; over 70 per cent of the British not English voted Remain.

46 per cent of the strongly English say they voted Conservative in 2017, 25 per cent Labour.

In 2015, English fears of SNP influence on Labour dominated the election and may have given David Cameron his majority.

We are not separate tribes; mixed identities happily co-habit in most of us. But there are real differences between English-only and British-only identifiers.

The English are more inclined to prioritise England over the union; the British to prioritise the union.

The British and the English describe England in different terms. Twice as many British identifiers chose ‘diverse’ to describe England compared to the English identifiers. Half as many are likely to say England has always been proud to stand alone.

On the other hand, well over two-thirds of the English believe we are tolerant, welcoming, friendly and generous. Just under half the British see the English in this positive light.

And a minority of the ‘not English’ are positively antipathetic to English identity. I’m struck by how many powerful people say they are British not English and express disparaging views about English identity. They seem blissfully unaware that being British not English puts them amongst just 8 per cent of the population and by being antipathetic to Englishness, in an even smaller minority.

They are the people who decided Remain should campaign as Scotland Stronger in Europe, Wales Stronger in Europe and – only in England – as Britain Stronger in Europe. The English were, apparently, not worth even speaking to.

Before the World Cup senior police officers described the St George cross as ‘almost Imperialistic’, and the Royal Mail – the Royal Mail - banned it from their vans. Yet polling shows support across the nation and diverse communities for both the England team and the flag.

The Prime Minister recently e-mailed English voters about health funding, but did not make it clear she was talking about the English NHS. Labour recently published eight policy consultation documents which were largely about England but only actually mentioned England in one. 

And more academics seem to have a fascination with the minority of English people who express their identity in racist and ethnic terms that the majority who do not. 

The cumulative impact is to delegitimise and marginalise Englishness by portraying it as so inherently reactionary and unpleasant that we should not engage with it in the same way we might with other identities. England disappears from the national conversation. No wonder people say: ‘you’re not even allowed to say you are English anymore’.

Yet, three-quarters of people believe you do not have to be white to be English.  If 80 per cent of the population is strongly English, how can Englishness belong to the far right?

There is a reactionary minority that expresses Englishness in ethnic and racist terms, but this does do not justify the marginalisation of Englishness as a whole. Indeed, fears can most easily be exploited amongst people who feel they are not being listened to. The shunning of Englishness feeds the populists.

Much good has come from the spread of socially liberal cosmopolitan values. This is a far less closed and less bigoted society than the one into which I was born. But the communitarian values of collective identity and solidarity that mark much of English identity also have a power and value that deserves recognition.

Exclude the English and we also lose the ability to draw on England’s radical and reforming traditions; our defence of liberty, our traditions of self-organisation, our history of struggles for rights and freedoms.

Those of progressive outlook should work to strengthen its progressive, patriotic and inclusive expressions. But there is a stark contrast between the pro-active efforts of the Scottish government to inculcate an inclusive Scottish identity and the lack of almost any public engagement with English identity by the UK government that runs England.

The need to address England as England is not for narrow nationalism or parochialism but to create the sense of shared identity, common interests and determination to work together we need to build a better society in this divided nation.  But for that we need somewhere for the debate to take place.

England is the only part of the UK whose domestic policy is set by the UK government and not by its own elected parliament.

English Votes on English Laws have given English MPs a veto on legislation, but it has not yet given England a voice. The Commons does not provide a forum and focus for the politics of England in the way that the elected bodies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do for those parts of the union.

England, uniquely within Britain, has neither been challenged nor enabled to re-imagine its position in the union, its identity, and its role in the twenty-first century. That England provided the lion’s share of the Brexit vote was not a pathological failing of the English people, but the outcome of England being denied any political identity, institutions and national debate of its own.

England’s centralised state is also unchanged. Decades of centralisation have produced a nation with dramatic variations in morbidity, mortality, education, life chances and social care - not just by region but by city, town, village and street. 

No wonder so few people in England feel they can influence local and national policy. Only 13 per cent feel that politicians in Westminster reflect the concerns of people in their part of the country. Only 23 per cent think local people have a significant influence on local government decisions.

To overcome this democratic deficit we need an English Parliament coupled to radical statutory devolution within England.

Westminster needs to allow English legislation to be fully made by elected English MPs, a demand that the majority have supported for twenty years. It should evolve, initially at least, as a dual mandate Commons in which English MPs sit both as members of an English Parliament and of a union parliament.

To overcome the regional disparities of wealth and opportunity we need a fundamental and statutory shift of power and resources from Whitehall to England’s localities. In the recent BBC poll, 62 per cent supported an English Parliament and 73 per cent support the devolution of power to combined authorities based on existing institutions in localities that we understand. 

The political parties have not reached this conclusion yet. It may still take them some time. Large sections of the public want change, they have a sense of direction.

Now is the time for civil society groups, faith organisations, unions, business and local authorities to lead that essential, overdue public discussion.


*The survey asked whether people were ‘English not British’, ‘more English than British’, ‘equally English and British’ ‘more British than English’ and ‘British not English, plus neither and don’t know. In the rest of this text then term ‘more English’ is used to refer to English and more English than British, and ‘more British’ to mean ‘More British than English and British’

(Photo credit: THOR on Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/49503154413@N01/2685939553/

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