“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”?
Michael Kenny is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust.