Beyond a 90-minute nation

John Denham

Although much progress has been made, English identity has lagged behind the inclusivity of Britishness. As a national identity, rather than a community identity, Englishness must be open to everyone making their lives in England. There are real dangers if we make progress too slowly. Sport has had to carry too much of the weight of projecting an inclusive Englishness. It is now time for many other organisations across civic society, politics and the media to step up and share this national responsibility. This chapter examines the development of Englishness as an inclusive national identity, and then looks forward to suggest some principles that should underlie efforts to articulate Englishness in a diverse nation.

England as a nation

England is a nation with well-defined boundaries. Since UK devolution it has very largely had its own separate domestic policy and legislation across education at all levels, in health and social care, in the provision of water, and in much of transport, agriculture and the environment. It has no national democracy nor machinery of government — that’s for another discussion — but its politics and governance are distinct from the other nations of the union. England is not a ‘cultural idea’, but a political and governmental nation.

English and British identities predominate here. Four out of five say they are strongly English and, with much overlap, a similar number are strongly British. Most hold these identities proudly. There is a slight tilt towards Englishness over Britishness, with around 35–40% saying they are equally English and British; 25%-30% ‘more English than British’; and 20–25% ‘more British than English’.

No one should feel they ‘ought’ to have a particular identity; nor that a particular identity is ‘not for them’. Major public policy debates should not be distorted by any sense that national identities are proxies for other divisions. In building strong and inclusive local communities in England, English and British must available as shared national identities, not stand-ins for communitarian or ethnic identities.

There has been much positive progress but there is no room for complacency. In the coming years England may well become more fragmented by geography, income and education. Major cities are rapidly becoming ever more diverse and the chosen home of graduates. Other parts of England are changing more slowly. A nation — or town — in which these divisions were reflected in different national identities would not be a happy or cohesive place.

It is true that over the past twenty years the extent to which an individual identifies as English or British has become associated with different views about the governance of England and Britain, and England’s relationship with the Union and the EU. But debates about England’s governance, the future of the union and the UK’s relationship with Europe and the EU will rage around us for some time. Whatever our views on these questions, a healthy political nation needs both of England’s national identities to be open to all.

The current state of play

Britishness is more widely adopted by BAME residents than Englishness, but the difference is not as stark as some suggest.

Around a third of BAME residents identify strongly as English and are proud to do so. That’s half the rate of the white majority but not an insignificant number. It demonstrates the potential for Englishness to become a much more inclusive identity. That potential is underlined by British Future’s most recent polling which asked BAME respondents about their ‘sense of belonging’ to both Britain and England: the responses at 30% ‘strongly’ and 35% ‘somewhat‘ were identical.

In recent years the majority population has become dramatically more open to a diverse English identity. Over the 7 years from 2012–2109, the number saying that English was a white identity fell from one in five to one in ten with the fall being most marked amongst older voters .

In 2021, a significant minority of visible ethnic minorities already identify as English. The majority population, including those who emphasise their English identity, are more open to an inclusive English identity than ever before. Before looking at how to make Englishness more open to ethnic minorities, it’s important to understand why Britishness is currently the more inclusive identity.

Englishness, Britishness and multiculturalism

A common myth claims that the British Empire’s cosmopolitanism makes Britishness the more natural identity for minorities originating from former colonies. But as late as the 1980s, British identity was widely seen in England as inherently racist, colonialist and imperialist. Today’s more inclusive Britishness was forged by the promotion of British multiculturalism by grassroots campaigns with endorsement from the state and civic society. British multiculturalism used a shared legal citizenship to demand equal respect and treatment. Englishness was neglected entirely and the surprise might be that it has changed as much as it has. (In Scotland and Wales, by contrast, political and civic society focused on making Scottish and Welsh identities more inclusive rather than British identity).

3 In 2018 85% of white respondents felt ‘strongly’ English compared with 45% of BAME respondents. 84% of white residents were strongly British compared with 73% of BAME residents. 61% of white residents were ‘proud’ to be English, and 32% of BAME residents (Less than 10% of either group would actually be embarrassed to be English).

A second challenge is that those who staff England’s most influential institutions such as the civil service, academia, the media, NGOs and cultural organisations are significantly more likely to emphasise a British rather than an English identity .

Organisations that could be taking the lead in promoting an inclusive Englishness often shy away from doing so. At worst they may perpetuate the worst and most out-dated stereotypes of English identity.

Looking to the future

The lesson of Britishness (and Scottish and Welshness) is that national identities can be consciously refashioned as inclusive, but that this will require the commitment of every organisation and institution that engages with England and its people. This includes non-government and civic society groups, arts and cultural organisations, the media, political parties, sporting organisations, and the state at local and national levels.

I suggest seven principles to guide this work:

1. Acknowledge the English dimension to our work.

Many organisations that engage with England often avoid naming it, using ‘ the country’ or ‘Britain’ or even the UK when talking only about England. (Nearly all political parties do this, for example). Some organisations describe themselves as ‘UK’ even when they have separate Welsh and Scottish branches. Making England invisible as a geographical, policy and organisational nation reinforces the idea that English identity is a cultural not a national identity.

2. Ensure that any visual representation of England and its people are fully representative of England’s population

A 2018 survey6 found that many St George’s Day events promoted by local authorities and even state-sponsored charities such as English heritage used overwhelmingly white images of activities. This not only reinforces the idea that Englishness is an ethnic communitarian identity but excludes the large number of non-white people who already identify strongly and proudly as English.

3. Sharing our stories in today’s England

At the heart of any national identity are the stories we share about who we are, how we came to be here and what we value in common. Englishness must be open to all who are making their lives here. Our shared stories of England need to include the stories of those people whose families may have moved here in the relatively recent past and those (some of whom will have their own migrant heritage) who have lived in England much longer. It is easy to underestimate the power of actually taking the time to share our stories, whether at work, in local communities or in national organisations.

4. Avoid deliberately or inadvertently promoting or reinforcing inaccurate or out-dated representations of English identity

It is commonplace to find English identity openly associated in the media and social media with racism, xenophobia, far right politics, nationalist politics, little Englanders and the like. Cultural representations of English identity often promote similar conceptions. These come not just from fringe sources but mainstream politicians, prominent commentators and powerful cultural influencers. This unfair misrepresentation makes English identifiers reluctant to say so and, of course, makes Englishness unattractive to anyone who would find such values understandably threatening. Exploration of historic and current manifestations of Englishness is, of course, legitimate and important, but this should be done fairly and accurately.

5. Find opportunities to celebrate English identity

St George’s Day is one opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate English identity (provided it is done inclusively). Southampton’s St George’s Day produced discussion material linked to the PHSE curriculum asking ‘what modern dragons need slaying’, worked with the local newspaper to run a St George’s community award whose nominees came from all sections of the community, and offered small grants to encourage community organisations to run St George’s Day events. Sporting events provide many other opportunities to ensure that the flag belongs to all of England. Organisations that serve England might look for an activity or event that particularly marks that relationship. Englishness should not be restricted to those born here but being born in England is overwhelmingly accepted as making someone English. This ‘birth-right’ of being born English may be woven into all celebratory activities.

6. Join the local with the national

Work to promote cohesive communities often focuses on local belonging and identity, understanding rightly than different communities may share a local allegiance even where national identities differ. But there are good opportunities to link the two. A distinct feature of Englishness is that it is usually also associated with a strong local identity. Being ‘from here’ can open the door to English identity to many. And the new British Future polling shows that BAME respondents are much more likely to agree that English identity is open to them in areas where different races get along well together and to disagree in areas where they do not. Promoting an inclusive English identity can be a positive part of promoting a cohesive local identity.

7. An inclusive Englishness benefits us all

For obvious reasons, the focus of inclusivity is on ensuring that people in England from an ethnic minority background feel that Englishness is fully open to them. But the British Future data also shows that a significant minority of white residents are not certain that the St George cross or St George’s Day are fully open. Some may feel they represent a reactionary Englishness that they reject. By building an inclusive English identity we can ensure that Englishness, including its symbols and celebrations, are fully shared.

8. Do not be afraid of engaging with English identity!

Because the staffing and leadership of many NGOs, arts and cultural institutions, academia and the media, are much less likely to identify as English than the general population, these organisations often lack confidence in engaging with English identity. Many internalise all the worst misconceptions of Englishness and fear that to associate with it is to endorse those imagined values. This challenge needs to be recognised and tackled. As more organisations do so, and share good practice, the collective confidence of these crucial ‘cultural influencers’ will grow.

What next for Englishness?

The continued development of an inclusive English identity, open to all, is essential to averting future identity-based divisions. It is a shared task that cannot be left to one organisation or one area of activity. Every organisation than engages with England has a role to play and, while some will take to this more easily than others, our ability to do so will grow as we work together

Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Southampton University. Former Labour MP and Minister. Director of the Southern Policy Centre