Class and Majority English Identities


In this chapter we take a closer look at the construction of English identities, paying particular attention to the way class and ethnic majority status shape these constructions. Nations and national identities are often defined on the basis of inclusion and exclusion and the drawing of lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The criteria for defining national membership involve both ethnicity—common culture, language, ‘race’ or kinship— and political identity and participation conceived as citizenship. These two themes are distinguished from each other in the enduring debate over so- called ethnic and civic nations and nationalisms. In ethnic nations membership centres on descent-based criteria of blood and lineage and, by emphasising ethnic unity, demands that members place the nation ahead of other loyalties. By contrast, with civic nations, membership is defined by citizenship and territory rather than by descent group or cultural tradition and thereby affords the possibility of acquiring national identity by choice. Consequently, the civic version is considered to be potentially more inclusive of immigrants and post-immigrant minorities, at least to © The Author(s) 2017

R. Mann, S. Fenton, Nation, Class and Resentment, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-46674-7_3

the extent that it provides scope for multiculturalism and multi-ethnic identities (Meer and Modood 2009). In practice, all civic nations have an ethnic component (Smith 1986). The construction of civic nationhood itself can conceal a dominant ethnic ideology (Kaufmann 2004) which presents itself, often in quite tacit ways, within debates over the limits on immigration, on what counts as national history or in definitions of good or law-abiding citizenship. For these reasons there is merit in treating national identity and nationalism, along with racism and ‘race’, as a ‘historically specific manifestation of ethnicity’ (see Fenton 2010; Jenkins 2008 for extended discussions).

Of course, there is a significant difference between a national identity which privileges a taken-for-granted ethnic majority and a nationalism which attempts to construct ethnic homogeneity throughout the territory. In Britain a contrast is sometimes made between a British identity with the capacity to accommodate difference and an English identity which implies, amongst other things, whiteness (Kumar 2003; McCrone 2002; Parekh 2000). It is widely accepted that English-born people of Caribbean and South Asian descent see themselves as British; but whether they see themselves, and are seen by others, as English is not so clear. Black and ethnic minority people are much less likely to describe themselves as exclusively English compared with the White British population. Thus in the 2011 UK census, the vast majority of White British (72 %) saw themselves as English rather than British. Bangladeshi (8 %), Pakistani (12 %) and Indian (15 %) groups, in particular, were the least likely to report an English identity only, tending instead to see themselves as British only.[1] As one report on the census concludes, ‘English is predominantly a White identity’ (CoDE 2013a). But there are also indications that English identity is becoming more inclusive as a consequence of multiculturalism (Kenny 2014: 101), with one recent survey finding almost a quarter of ethnic minority citizens viewing themselves as more English than British (Wyn Jones et al. 2012: 24).

The historical scholarship on English national identity and nationalism also tells us that defining who is and is not English rests as much on the question of class as it does on ethnicity or race. Indeed, for a number of scholars it is class which underlies English nationalism, in a way that sets it apart from other nations across the UK and in continental Europe (Nairn 1977; Schopflin 2000; see also Aughey 2012 for a critical discussion of class and Englishness). Schopflin (2000) argues that whereas continental Europeans ‘have ethnicity, the English have class’ (2000: 317 cited in Aughey 2012). For Kumar (2000, 2003), the English, as an empire-nation, take great care to avoid expressing themselves in ethnic terms and are quite prepared also to include non-English groups (such as Irish and Scottish gentries) into British elite circles. But the salience of Englishness-as-class poses a dilemma for liberal and progressive politics (Aughey 2012). On one hand it promotes tolerance towards other cultures and acts as a civilising check on popular, vulgar and ethnic nationalist assertions of Englishness. On the other hand, it hinders the development of an inclusive sense of English national membership.

As qualitative research by Condor (2010) and others (Mann 2012) shows, English identity is defined not only in relation to external ‘others’ but also self-referentially through the making of distinctions between classes and regions—especially North and South—in England. These class and regional distinctions in England have, at different times, been articulated as a difference in ethnicity or race. Benjamin Disraeli, author and conservative prime minister between 1884 and 1890, remarked that the rich and the poor in Victorian England constituted ‘two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy’ (Disraeli 1844, cited in Colley 1986). A wealth of studies highlight the mobilisation of a language of race in elite and middle-class characterisations of poor whites and the working class in England (Bonnett 2000; Haylett 2001; Lawler 2012). These mobilisations, although not the primary concern here, do exemplify the way in which divisions within English society have a bearing on the construction of English national membership.

We open this chapter by discussing the centrality of class and racism for English nationalism, beginning with the work of Tom Nairn. We then contrast this with more recent scholarship in which a more plural perspective on English nationhood is offered. This includes recent identification of a progressive or multicultural English identity. The second part of the chapter then presents material from qualitative interviews with ethnic majority people in England. Our aim is to illustrate a broader range of popular and class-related attitudes and sentiments linked to English identity. Three empirical themes are examined. The first is a sense of shame, even embarrassment, in being English which is linked to a broader narrative of social decline and to a class-based society. The second concerns the way Englishness is rejected as a basis for self-definition as a result of its class imagery and ethnic exclusivity. The third discusses an antagonistic emerging popularity towards Englishness and pride in being English, in which, however, there remains a sense of not being wholly allowed to be English.

  • [1] The question asked in the 2011 UK Census was as follows: ‘How would you describe yournational identity?’ Respondents were asked to tick all that apply from a list of British, English,Northern Irish, Scottish, Welsh or Other. The figures reported here are obtained from the analysisundertaken by the Centre on Dynamcs of Ethnicity (
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