Popular Sentiments and Englishness

In this section we return to the qualitative interviews conducted for the “nation and class project” and which we presented in Chap. 2. In this chapter we will focus on a different set of themes to do with how an unequal or hierarchical social order forms part of people’s sense of being English and British. Themes of class/classlessness, equality/inequality and inclusivity/ exclusivity coalesce, we argue, along three lines: shame and embarrassment in being English, the association of Englishness with being white and class attitudes, and a contestation about popular pride in being English.

Shame, Embarrassment and National Decline

We begin with the articulation of English identity with a sense of shame or nostalgia over the changing nature of the country. Our first case is that of Alan, a retired banker in his seventies at the time of the interview. Alan grew up in the South East of England and worked in London. On retirement he moved to the small town site and has lived there now for ten years.

Do you see yourself as English, British or what?


Why English, rather than British say?

(Laughs) Because that’s what I am. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than anything else, but I think of myself as being English. I’ve never really questioned that. It’s something you just are.

Do you think anyone can become English?

No I don’t think so. You see, I, if they’re coloured. I don’t think they’re English; they may have been born here, but I don’t know you feel that distinction. It’s not being racist or anything like that, it’s just a distinction. I mean it seems very odd to me to see a coloured person speak with a Lancashire accent or something like that. I think ‘oh it’s funny that’. Whereas if they’ve got a British passport they’re British, aren’t they?

Alan reflects a tendency, common amongst the ethnic majority, to talk about their own English identity in factual and seemingly taken for granted way: ‘it’s just something I am and have never questioned it’ (Mann 2006; Condor 2000; Skey 2011). In addition, he associates Englishness with whiteness. But the taken-for-granted sense of being English can be contrasted to his animated account of Englishness as a set of values in decline. [1]

apprenticeship and you became qualified, in the end you did something and you see the end result and you say ‘I made this’ or ‘I did this’. Now we’ve become a nation of service industries, but you don’t have the same fulfilment at the end of the job, you haven’t created or made something that you can be proud of. You don’t think ‘oh, well my services did that’. It isn’t the same feeling. It’s lost. People have lost their pride in doing things.

After the war, the English or the British were on top of the world. We were the saviours of Europe. Everybody looked up to England then. But now we’ve sunk right to the bottom of the pile. People look down on England as a country full of yobs that go abroad and cause havoc nearly everywhere they stay. We’ve lost our image. It never was like that and that’s a shame. I regret that tremendously. That we’ve got that image that’s gone down abroad. It’s a real shock to me that we could have got to such a low status in the world.

Prior to expressing the preceding views, Alan was asked how he thinks Britain has changed as a country over the course of his life. It is notable that he begins addressing this question with reference to immigration. But the focus then shifts to work, followed by a sense of shame and regret over the declining place of England and Britain (he compounds the two) in the world. This sense of decline is central to Alan’s views on Europe:

I’m very anti-Europe. We’re English and we don’t want to be integrated, we don’t want to be ruled from Brussels. I don’t want it. Trade with them? Fine. But no, we’re not Europeans in that sense and I don’t want to be integrated. To think that we could have a governing body that could override our Houses of Parliament and overrule what they decide for us, that’s

not right. We should be able to rule ourselves____If the Scots and the Welsh

want to do that, I’ve no quarrel. That’s up to them. They decide.

And on Britain as a multicultural society:

I’ve not had any really great experience of that at all. But I’ve no quarrel with it. But if they come to live here, then they should accept our way of life to a great extent, and shouldn’t try and dictate what we should do. I do resent that. They must accept our standards If they’re happy with that, I’m happy with them. But if they want to start changing things over here, just because they feel that something should suit them, I don’t agree with that.

In Alan’s remarks we find the discursive intertwining of Eurosceptism and a strong sense of English identity. Not all of what Alan says is hard line; his attitude to devolution overall is laissez-faire (‘that’s up to them’; ‘they decide’). He is not against immigration per se, even if this is conditional. But he does resent the idea of an external body—whether Europe or foreigners—‘dictating what we should do’. Margaret, a retired female shopkeeper also living in the small town, shares many of Alan’s sentiments on Europe but expresses more anger at the prospect of Scottish devolution:

English now [laugh]. I’ve become more nationalistic. I’m very annoyed at the Scots. There are a lot of Scottish MPs who now believe that they can vote on English matters and we’re not permitted to vote on theirs. It’s making people more nationalistic. I don’t think I was before.

So do you feel more English now than in the past?

Yes, definitely. Yes, more aware. I belong to the UKIP, you know the UKIP party. Umm, because I’m all for.. .umm.. .coming out of Europe. Very much so. I don’t feel as proud to be English now as I used to. I suppose that’s again because of the media, football hooligans and lager louts. I think they give us all a bad name and I can’t say that when I go abroad now I feel very pleased. No. Standards have gone down, especially in education and the NHS has gone down terribly, all those things that—that at one time made me proud—quite proud to be English, but not now.

In the previous chapter we discussed survey research showing that English identity is felt more strongly amongst older age groups than amongst young people. Both Alan and Margaret provide us with some illustration of this. Margaret in particular feels more aware of being English now than in the past, and in relation to Scottishness, yet not as proud of it as she once was. We also note her support for UKIP Both Alan and Margaret held middle-class occupations and defined themselves as middle class. They lament the decline in national pride and share a disdain towards popular forms of English behaviour marked by football and drinking.

  • [1] mean the number of people that are coming here from abroad speaks foritself really. We are more than a fair country. That’s a good thing. But it’sdestroyed the Englishness. We haven’t got the same respect we once had.The actual standards of actual living and people’s attitudes has lowered. Wedon’t have the same respect for each other. Which is strange. I think it ismoney. Everybody wants to be rich now and they don’t accept their position in life. In the past, a farm labourer knew they were a farm labourer,and that was it. If you became an engineer or a plumber, you served an
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