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.

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.

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

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.