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Our parties must respond to the rise of Englishness

One of the lost stories of the census is the growth of an English identity. Mainstream politicians need to find ways of embracing this trend.

Seventy per cent of residents in England regard themselves as English, not British. Photograph: Getty Images.

The main news stories that have been derived from the release of the census data have been about diversity, immigration and religion. But one other revealing and significant trend contained within it has not as yet been given its due.

For the first time in its history, the census allowed the inhabitants of England to indicate whether they considered themselves to be English as well as, or instead of, British.

And, the result? Some 70 per cent reported that they regard themselves as English, a finding that confirms IPPR polling earlier this year. Even more strikingly, only 29 per cent of English respondents indicated that they see themselves as British a figure that suggests a significant drop in affiliation for what was very recently the primary national preference of the English.

It would appear that the London-centric chatter sparked by the census about Britain’s cultural patchwork has missed a striking counter-trend -the increasingly widely shared desire to associate with Englishness, with the notable exception of London.

These census figures are in fact the latest of a growing number of indications that something very significant has been happening in terms of the national self-understanding of the English in the last two decades.

In recent years, this trend has been wished away by the mainstream political parties. But this can go on no longer. Instead, as I argue in the latest edition IPPR’s journal Juncture, they need to develop a more compelling, contemporary case for the Union which takes into account proper consideration of the nature and implications of developing forms of English identity.

While the main parties at Westminster still cling to the orthodoxies of British government forged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the new forms of English identity which are starting to loom into view bring with them major challenges to the core assumptions of this national story, not least the supposed disinclination of the English to develop their own sense of national identity.

This does not mean accepting the dramatic claim that we are living in a ‘moment’ of English nationalism.. A wide range of research finds very little evidence of a collective English desire to reclaim national sovereignty from the British state.  But there are signs that the idea of a new, more ‘delineated’ relationship between England and the UK is becoming increasingly attractive.

This suggests, in policy terms, the state providing greater recognition of the distinctive forms of nationhood that the English are developing. It also implies that a more concerted effort to reform the centralised and top-down model of state-led governance which is fraying the bonds between governors and governed in England, is overdue. The current system represents a major brake upon the prospect of renewing England’s cities as engines for economic growth and civic pride, as Lord Hesetline has most recently pointed out.

At the same time as Englishness has been kept at the margins of political debate and policy development, it is also the case that, thanks to devolution, British politics is becoming much more Anglicised in character. As soon as key areas of domestic legislation were devolved, the UK parliament began gradually to turn into a parliament for England, which reflects the priorities of English political culture above all.

But, important as it has been, devolution has not been the only, or even primary, factor altering existing patterns of national identification among the English. We need to appreciate the impact of a cocktail of deepening cultural anxiety, rising economic insecurity and growing disillusion with the political system that have made the organic and resonant language and symbols of Albion more appealing. Different strands of English identity re-emerged out of an extended bout of national soul-searching in the early and middle years of the 1990s, prior to devolution and prompted by the realisation that the pillars upon which familiar stories of the glory of Britain were fading fast.

This is not to suggest that the English have simply abandoned the institutions and emblems of the British state, giving up the Union Jack for the Cross of St George. As was clear during the summer, many of us are still responsive to the inclusive and progressive account of the Anglo-British story which Danny Boyle assembled during the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

Yet, we should not be fooled by this kind of one-off, orchestrated ‘ecstatic’ nationalism into ignoring the deeper-lying, slow-burning growth of a strengthening set of English identities. If these sentiments continue to remain unspoken within the mainstream party system, there is a greater chance that they will mutate into a harder-edged nationalism.. The dearth of meaningful forms of cultural and institutional recognition for English identity is bottling up emotions and ideas that need to be engaged and aired.

Letting England breathe a little, bringing decision-making and governance closer to its cities and towns, and re-engaging its people with the case for the Union, now offer the best available way of reinvigorating the United Kingdom as a whole.

A longer version of this piece appears in the latest edition of IPPR's journal Juncture.