Why London should embrace its English identity

How the capital can forge national unity and redeem itself.

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Towards the end of last year, Sadiq Khan gave a speech at the London Conference emphasising the capital’s need to make common cause with other cities and regions. London, the mayor reminded his audience, is “an English and a British city”.

In one sense, the statement was banal. But Khan’s remark was also oddly striking. London has its champions and its detractors, but both sides tend to agree that the capital is a quintessentially global city – one that has become increasingly detached from its home nation. I recently put the concept of London as an English city to a leading historian of the capital. He was dismissive: “London has become so cosmopolitan it can hardly claim to be English. It’s places like Birmingham and Manchester that continue to beat with an English heart.”

Is this a misreading of London and of Englishness? And does it matter?

There is no denying London’s international character. Of the city’s residents, 38 per cent were born abroad – more than twice the figure for any other region. Londoners have become increasingly conscious of their cosmopolitan identity, a process aided by the creation of the mayoralty in 2000. People speak of the capital as “another country” or even a nascent city state. The 2016 EU referendum led to a swell of support for a unilateral declaration of independence, with 180,000 people signing a petition demanding the capital leave the UK and remain part of the EU (London backed Remain by 60 per cent). “A great city with a crap country attached” is one sardonic quip.

And if London is a global city first, it is surely a British city second. London is home to the UK’s head of state and parliament, but no distinctly English political institutions. Most of London’s great cultural organisations were created after the 1707 union with Scotland and are more British than English: the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery among them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Londoners are more likely to identify as British not English, and less likely to identify as English not British, than their national counterparts.

Yet in the 2011 census, 44 per cent of Londoners identified as English. This figure was significantly lower than for any other region but it still represented 3.5 million people (compared, for instance, to Birmingham’s 600,000).

The city’s climate, landscape and wildlife place it within south-east England. To walk on Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park, or to cycle along the western or eastern stretches of the Thames, is to experience not just a part of London but a part of England. Many of the city’s most renowned buildings – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s – were built before the union with Scotland. London is the capital of English sport, including the three national games: cricket (Lord’s), rugby (Twickenham) and football (Wembley).

Above all, perhaps, a remarkable number of distinctively English writers and artists were or became Londoners. One thinks of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Dickens, Woolf and Orwell, and Hogarth, Gillray and Blake. As the author of the words to “Jerusalem”, England’s de facto national anthem, Blake did not spend his life walking on England’s “mountains green”. He was an unabashed Londoner, raised in Soho, and worked as an engraver in the capital for almost his entire life. The city’s theatre continues to explore themes of English identity and belonging, most brilliantly in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

I point all this out not just as a matter of cultural curiosity. England has become an increasingly powerful source of social and cultural identity and political mobilisation. This process has been aided by an uneven and incomplete devolution settlement. Scotland has its own parliament, and Wales and Northern Ireland their own assemblies. Who, it is now asked, will speak for England?

This renewed sense of Englishness tends to be depicted as a problem for progressive politics on the grounds that the politics of English nationhood is, or has become, firmly reactionary. Every Englander, some imply, is a Little Englander. England voted for Brexit in higher numbers than the other UK nations (53 per cent to 47 per cent) and support for Brexit is strongest among those who identify as English.

But liberals should not be fatalistic. There are many versions of Englishness, including progressive, inclusionary ones. According to Professor John Denham, director of Winchester University’s Centre for English Identity and Politics, 80 per cent of the English population describe themselves as strongly English and three-quarters believe Englishness is not dependent on skin colour. This was the England on display at last year’s Fifa World Cup, with a team that, in its “diversity and youth”, as manager Gareth Southgate put it, “represents modern England”. The terrain of national identity should not be ceded to the far right.

To forge unity, rather than division, London needs to understand and celebrate its Englishness. The capital will have to start to think and act differently. It needs to boast a little less about its world-beating success and abandon utopian fantasies of independence. The Centre for London (the think tank of which I am director) has argued that the mayor should launch a “London is Yours” campaign modelled on the current “London is Open” campaign. This would seek to defy perceptions of the capital as aloof and arrogant.

Over the past decade, anti-London sentiment has become a force not just in Irish, Scottish and Welsh but in English politics. London suffers from its association with our overcentralised and increasingly broken political system. Were Westminster and Whitehall reined in, the capital would appear less forbidding.

If London is to redeem itself, it must embrace its identity as an English city – as well as a global, European and British one – and put its might behind a campaign for English devolution and democracy.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London think tank, and the author of 10 Ideas for the New Mayor.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special