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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.