Is it impossible to feel both British and English?

A new poll suggests the identities are becoming mutually incompatible. 


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Fewer than half (45 per cent) of English young people feel proud to be English, is the top line from a ground-breaking BBC survey of England and its identities. This is in contrast to more than 70 per cent of the over-64 year olds who claim to feel so. One in ten young people is actually embarrassed to think of themselves as English, the survey found, as are ten per cent of the general population in a few major cities, including London, Manchester and Liverpool.

What on earth is going on? Is England, and in particular its young, turning against Englishness? Behind the headlines, a number of changes are taking place that should offset premature thoughts of a crisis in English identity, but which also highlight fault lines between Englishness and Britishness.

On the whole, the fall is not due to young people rejecting English identity – over three-quarters feel strongly English – but for an increased number being English is neither a source of pride nor embarrassment. These figures aren’t necessarily a surprise; we might expect any national identity to generate less pride amongst younger generations.

A YouGov poll back in 2015 showed a sharp fall, generation by generation, in self-identified “patriotism”. Although the pollster’s questioning could refer to feelings towards England, Britain, Scotland or Wales, the results nonetheless found only 45 per cent of the 18- 24-year-olds surveyed considered themselves very or slightly patriotic, compared with 83 per cent of over-60s – a similar gradient decline to that seen in the new BBC poll.

Most people, of all ages, feel both English and British and do so strongly, even when it is not a particular source of pride. But there are some important shifts taking place. The oldest generation feels its Englishness more strongly than its Britishness (68 per cent feel very strongly English, but only half feel very strongly British).

As we move down the generations, the disparity between English and British identity becomes less severe. More people identify as feeling more strongly English than British in every age group, but less dramatically each time. That is, up until the 18-24- year-olds, for whom the number feeling “more British” is greater than those feeling “more English”.

To a large extent, the shift towards a balance of Britishness and Englishness reflects the growth in demographics that are more likely to favour British identity – young students, graduates and ethnic minorities. Higher education has been seen as a key signifier of the cultural divide between the social conservative and the cosmopolitan liberal. Those who are black or from an ethnic minority, while often sharing some English identity, are much more likely to emphasise their Britishness. The same demographic shifts largely underlie the different patterns of between the major cities and the smaller town, coastal resorts and village of England.

None of that, of course, explains why Englishness might be a source of embarrassment to the English. And in fact, it turns out that the English are not embarrassed about being English. The problem lies with the British.

Just three or four per cent of those who consider themselves to be either English not British, more English than British, or equally English and British say they are embarrassed to think of themselves as English. Yet among those who feel more British than English, or just British, these figures leap to 13 and 16 per cent respectively. This feels like a significant polarisation. Until not long ago, we were used to thinking of English and British as broadly the same thing and largely interchangeable. Over the past 15 years it’s been recognised that the identities hold different meanings, even for many people who consider themselves both. But the latest evidence from this survey suggests that, at the extreme, the two identities are becoming mutually incompatible.

It’s often said that national identities are defined, in part, against others. In this case it looks like some British people are identifying themselves by othering the English.

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

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