Cross faces: children with St George's flag painted faces at the England-Belgium friendly match, 2012. Photo: Getty
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St George’s Day is no time to ignore how people feel about being English

The past 20 years have seen the growth of a more deeply felt and prominent sense of English identity, going beyond a chauvinist form of nationhood.

Great Britain vs Little England” was the stark choice posed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in his debates with the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage. This pitch follows hard on the heels of the former prime minister Gordon Brown’s failed attempt – first as chancellor and then as prime minister – to promote and codify an encompassing Britishness. The aim was and is to negate the appeal of rival forms of nationalism within the Union, and to ensure that the English remained committed to the post-devolved UK.

Broadly similar sentiments echo more widely in liberal circles. The novelist Martin Amis recently decried the retreat of the English into a carapace of beleaguered whiteness in the wake of the recession.

There is a widespread suspicion that when the flag of Saint George is raised, it is a symbol allowing the white working class to express a defensive and inward-looking fear of the “other”. And this is but the latest in a long line of fearful and dismissive judgments about Englishness.

But the last 20 years have actually seen the growth of a more deeply felt and prominent sense of English identity. And there are two good reasons to doubt the characterisation of Englishness as an insular and chauvinist form of nationhood.

The first is that such arguments have a strongly self-fulfilling quality. The exaggerated sense that Englishness is a “forbidden identity” reflects the disapproval of politicians and public authorities who adhere to metropolitan liberal values. And so this tends to make Englishness a flag of convenience for those most angry with the political system and most demotic about issues such as immigration and welfare.

And posing this overly stark choice when it comes to national identity is also unwise because it goes against the grain of contemporary social attitudes. Because of this, it may well accentuate the deepening divide between politicians and public. Despite the current clamour about UKIP and where it garners its support, this is not actually the most important constituency for the idea of Englishness.

My research found there has in fact been a gradual shift among the silent English majority towards a greater sense of identification with England. This goes along with a slight weakening of the sense of affiliation to Britishness and the UK. Just as importantly, the ubiquitous question of what it now means to call yourself English appears to elicit an array of very different answers – as, frankly, it always has.

For the vast majority, finding a sense of English identity and tradition meaningful is compatible with both the conservative and the liberal values that have been at the heart of British political life. English people are for the most part proud of their own sense of tolerance and of the cultural and ethnic diversity of their country.

But they are also increasingly interested in the reclamation of an avowedly English set of traditions, and worried about the implications of the two Unions to which England belongs. Levels of Euroscepticism remain higher in England compared to other parts of the UK, and there are signs that it is not only the Scots and Welsh who are unhappy with the terms of the domestic union.

Indeed, the widespread assumption that the English do not really care about the outcome of the Scottish referendum represents a misreading of a national mood. And this misreading is dangerous – there is growing sensitivity to the question of how England fares within the Union, whatever the outcome on September 18.

What complicates this story is that this form of national identity remains strikingly divided along both geographical and ethnic lines. For many, especially those living in regions furthest from London, the imagined community of England exists outside the capital city of the UK. London is seen as the haven and beneficiary of political and economic interests that care little for the prospects and well-being of the remainder of the country.

It also remains true that whites are far more likely than those from ethnic minority backgrounds to identity as English. Ethnic minorities remain wary of this form of identification, and keener on Britishness. Their alienation from Englishness is often held up as an illustration of its inherently illiberal character.

And yet, here too there are indications that important changes may be underway. My research uncovered evidence suggesting that younger generations in some minority communities are more likely than their parents to identify with England as the place to which they belong.

Over the past 20 years a subtle and undramatic change in the way that significant numbers of English people feel about their own identity has been underway. This is arguably the most important shift in English self-perception since the 18th century. Without the constructive engagement of those from the liberal and progressive wings of politics and intellectual life, it is all the more likely that this uncertain and fragile sense of identity might morph into the kind of resentful populist nationalism promoted by UKIP.

So this time, Nick, what about “Great Britain and Liberal England”?

The ConversationMichael Kenny is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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