Cross faces: children with St George's flag painted faces at the England-Belgium friendly match, 2012. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland