Rise now and be a nation again? The politics of Englishness.


Michael Kenny's The Politics of English Nationhood (OUP, 2014) supplies the first comprehensive overview of the evidence, research and major arguments relating to the recent revival of English identity, exploring its varied, and often overlooked, political ramifications. It examines the difficulties which the major political parties have encountered in dealing with 'the English question' against the backdrop of the diminishing hold of established ideas of British government and national identity in the final years of the last century. And it explores a range of factors--including insecurities generated by economic change, euro-scepticism, and a growing sense of cultural anxiety--which have helped make the renewal of Englishness appealing and imperative. Renewal gathers here some reflections on the book from Michael Kenny and four commentators.

Taking Englishness seriously

Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary, University of London

Both how the English feel about their national identity and the political implications of these sentiments have become much more widely and publicly debated issues than they were when I first began conducting research into them. The reasons for this are pretty apparent.

First, there's been the rise to prominence of UKIP, a phenomenon which is overwhelmingly English in character and appears to have tapped into a rich vein of populist nationalism. Second, all the main parties are struggling to respond to heightened levels of euro-scepticism. This, of course, is more prevalent in England than elsewhere in the UK. Third, the imminent Scottish referendum has indirectly raised a question that's been simmering on the back burner of British politics for some time: how does the largest nation within the UK, the English, who make up 87 per cent of its total population, now feel about the union?

This interest in Englishness in the political world is relatively new. Most of the time that I've been working on this, the subject has generally been viewed sceptically. 'What does this have to do with politics?' has been a fairly common response. This query reflects, I think, the enduring idea that Englishness is a cultural identity and ought to be kept separate from the loyalty the English people have shown, for the most part, to the British state.

Among progressives, this is translated into the familiar claim that the English never got around to crafting their own form of modern nationalism, and have been happy to remain the subjects of the antiquated British state. Those who did seek to politicise Englishness, it's long been argued, have done so by offering an insular, regressive and nostalgic fantasy. Many on the left continue to see this form of nationhood as politically conservative at best and xenophobic at worst.

In the course of writing this book, I've become increasingly sceptical about these assumptions. They do little, I think, to help us understand the nature and implications of a gathering sense of English identity or the emergence of England, rather than Britain, as the imagined community with which people are increasingly disposed to identify. There has been a considerable, demonstrable growth in the number of people who identify as solely or primarily English and a fairly marked decline in those who see themselves as British rather than English. There's lots of different polling but the most comprehensive poll of all is the census conducted a few years ago, which reported that, when people were forced to choose, 70 per cent of people in England regarded themselves as English, not British.

Recent polling also suggests that many of the English are increasingly disenchanted with the two unions to which England belongs: the EU and the UK. There has, in addition, been a proliferation of political ideas about, and claims upon, an English identity in the last twenty years. These are couched in a range of different ideological registers: populist and conservative, but also radical, liberal, and even occasionally socialist.

I argue, therefore, that we should consider these as competitive contributors to an emerging English imaginary, a rich and complex field of national meaning which endlessly harks back to long-standing myths, stories, and folkish ideas, as all nationalisms do, but which can also sustain a decidedly modern set of sensibilities and ideas among its subjects. There have always been different ways of expressing Englishness, and these reflect some of the geographically-rooted cultures and regional imbalances that have characterised this country.

A further defining feature of this form of national reimagining is the centrality within it of notions of place, locality, and landscape, the sense that the values and traditions associated with these are under threat, either from the globalised marketplace or from the large bureaucratic state. That sense of threat is a defining impulse within current forms of Englishness and is evoked in a very wide range of writings on the internet, in the media, and in a lot of cultural works. The iconic example of the latter is Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem.

The origins of this complex shift in consciousness, I argue, lie in the years before devolution. Its roots and underlying dynamics stem from a combination of the early wave of euro-scepticism, the early 1990s, the significant forms of dislocation associated with the rapid transition to a post-industrial economy, and a waning of confidence among the political and cultural elites in the economic and political prospects for the UK. These different factors interacted to render England a more organic and resonant identification, a trend that has developed for the most part under the radar of party politics. Taking the even longer view, it becomes clearer that this is a long-running process. The last twenty years look like the latest and most dramatic phase of a process that I would suggest began sixty or seventy years ago, as Britain waned, both as an imperial state and also as a viable state-nation.

In the decade that followed these trends in the 1990s, Labour's championing of a liberal British nationhood may well have accentuated the appeal of forms of Englishness that expressed the sense of recoil against the political elite, increasingly perceived as metropolitan, out of touch, and condescending towards popular sensibilities. There are interesting and, as yet, unexplored parallels between the populist currents that broke into the political systems of numerous European countries in the last few years, and a shift towards a sense of ethnic majority nationalism among sections of the English public.

But there are differences too. While it remains true that most people from ethnic minority backgrounds are much more likely to identify as British than as English, there are intriguing signs that things may be changing in some of these communities too, though much more slowly and partially.

Various studies also suggest that white English people are far more likely to see their non-white neighbours as being co-nationals but are highly unlikely to think in this way of those from Muslim backgrounds. The increasing focus, which I chart in the book, upon the development of a multicultural sense of English nationhood, carries a particular significance if the challenge of forging a civic English nationhood is ultimately to be embraced.

In order to grasp the kinds of resentment, anxiety, and hope that have been expressed through reference to English identity, I cast my net widely in terms of evidence and data writing the book. Frankly, at times it felt too wide, as this is a topic on which there is a voluminous range of material. While I have charted the endless polling on these issues that's taken place over the last two decades, I've also been drawn to make use of ethnographic and sociological studies and explored expressions of Englishness in many different parts of public culture. I've found that it has been in the worlds of cultural production, the arts, and popular culture that the quest for an English nationhood has been most powerfully expressed and negotiated.

There are clear signs of rising English grievance on such issues as the West Lothian question--the question of the anomalous position of Scottish MPs and their voting rights on English matters in the House of Commons--as well as the question of the distribution of public expenditure across the constituent territories of the UK. Yet it is tempting and I think misleading to overstate the populist cast of Englishness. For most people, being English and British remains an unexceptional fact, but the hyphen between these terms--Anglo-British is a clunky way of describing this form of identification--has come to acquire a much greater weight and significance as the English people are, contrary to expectations, starting to develop the kind of dual identification which has long been observed of, for instance, the Scots.

What then are the implications of these shifts for the political and policy communities that are primarily responsible for the governance of England? This, it seems to me, is an impossible question to answer with any degree of certainty at present. Some see the right answer as a separate parliament for the English; others favour some form of reform to the House of Commons--perhaps 'English votes for English laws'. Others, again, recommend the radical devolution of power within England. You might even extend this into the debate about Europe, where clearly, for some people, the holding of a referendum is one way of registering and responding to the rise of English grievance. There are a growing number of definitive answers to the English question.

My own conclusion is less straightforward and perhaps less satisfying....

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