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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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.