Young English identity is more diverse than the old – it can also be more invisible

Inspired by a Zadie Smith quote, a new campaign aims to “stretch the flag” of St George.

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It is the English, rather than the British, whose votes are taking us out of the EU. This was the voice of an older England; the voters most likely to be strongly English, proud of being English, more likely to say they are English than British, and Leavers. A debate rages about whether this was xenophobic English nationalism or a rebellious England too long ignored, but in the midst of that debate it’s easy to forget that there is a younger England.

There are young people who want an English identity that fits more easily with their own outward-looking and accepting values. Their sense of national identity is rooted in the lives they live today, rather than resting on tradition and continuity. The Englishness of this rising generation needs to find its own expression and stories. That’s the concern of Stretch the Flag, a new social media campaign initiated by activist Freya Laing.

The vast majority of young people in England identify as English, according to a June YouGov poll, but roughly one in ten say they are embarrassed to do so. Young people are more likely to associate Englishness with negative connotations, such as being “loud”, but more likely to say their identity stems from England’s diverse cultural life. They are also more likely than older people to see England as a place of diversity and modernity. Beyond football, where do we celebrate the generation that in their “diversity and their youth represent modern England”, as Gareth Southgate described his World Cup team? 

Laing’s focus is on a St George’s Day that reflects the best of English communities. She argues that “we live in one of the most innovative, liberal and diverse countries in the world” with much to celebrate. St George’s Day 2019 will fall just a month after Brexit; the challenge is to make sure it’s a day that celebrates what brings people together, not what divides them.

Stretch the Flag comes from a Zadie Smith quote: “All I want to do with my work is to take words like black, British or woman and stretch themselves so they’re big enough so I can live in them comfortably.” The campaign launches on 29 October 2018, six months before Brexit. Early backers include British Future, She Speaks We Hear, Better Shared, Prof Tariq Modood, and my own Centre for English Identity and Politics. Images of family, friends, or favourite places shared on social media will form a patchwork of a diverse country held together by one true likeness: people living in the same country.

The flag being stretched, of course, is the St George cross. Laing says the campaign is not so much about reclaiming the flag as lowering the barriers for individuals or groups who don’t currently feel comfortable owning the flag as theirs. A 2012 survey by British Future found that a quarter of respondents associated the England flag with racism, compared to 10 per cent when asked about the Scottish flag and 8 per cent for Wales. 

The youngest generation is more likely to emphasises their Britishness than older generations, but not to the extent that Englishness is about to die out. If anything, forging an inclusive English identity is all the more urgent. Ethnic minorities are significantly less likely to make English their primary identity. There’s still a danger of a long-term ethnic polarisation between the two identities. Britishness has its own problems of stretch, being associated with both a traditional patriotic British unionism and a very different liberal cosmopolitanism defined by loose attachments and obligations. 

Two years ago, a diverse working-class Manchester youth group, RECLAIM, published its own St George’s Day manifesto. “Being English also means connection to the rest of the world,” it declared and “pride in England means always working hard to make it better”. St George’s Day should be “an inclusive annual celebration that brings communities together” and “an opportunity to fly the flag, free of anger and tension”.

Such sentiments may not be as remote from older English ideas as many assume. Englishness is always changing, and while it undoubtedly has its reactionary, and racist form, it too has become more accepting, more liberal and more broadly adopted. A majority of all communities surveyed by British Future – 57 per cent of all the public, 57 per cent of BME groups and 58 per cent of Muslims – see the St George’s flag as something that belongs to all the people of every race and ethnic background in England today,

Nonetheless, the barriers to celebrating English identity on which Stretch the Flag wants to focus are real for large number of people. If the initiative works, it will be the first step towards lowering them. 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University