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

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia