Class Associations of Englishness

The next set of cases illustrate how being ashamed to be English is linked explicitly to sensibilities of class and status. Linda is a solicitor in her late fifties. She associates being English with a sense of shame and embarrassment:

It’s only recently it [being English] has become an issue. English has now

got tainted____It’s a negative thing to say you are proud to be English. You

have to be careful what you say. If anything, there is shame and embarrassment that we compare unfavourably. When our people go on holiday, they have a reputation for being lager louts and getting drunk. The English flag is something you are ashamed of. People don’t behave very well.

The same associations between class and Englishness appear in the following cases:

When I think of English nowadays, I immediately think of litter, and football hooliganism, ruffians, and it gives the country a bad name. (Rosemary, born 1937, retired homemaker)

Coming back from France once we pitched up to board the ferry and we saw these English, you know these English supporters in their St George Shirts. These fat, slightly blonde people, vaguely rotund and slightly obese, bright red. The problem is they think they are the English. They are what you associate with England today. The idea of being English now is about these poor deluded characters who don’t really understand where they come from and are fundamentally flawed. (Jim born 1950, retail shop owner)

If I wanted to demonstrate my English side, I would feel like I wouldn’t really be allowed to: a twerp with a bald head with a union jack and dog on a chain and all that stereotype. (Dennis, born 1947, information technology consultant)

Each of these respondents belongs to middle and older generations, describe themselves as middle class, and had middle-class occupations (professional and self-employed). They draw contrasts between con?temporary English identities and their own memories of growing up in England in the post-Second World War period. The contrasts they make centre on a shift in the location of Englishness, from associations with Great Britain, empire, pride and social order to connections with football, alcohol consumption and social disorder. These sentiments of what contemporary Englishness connotes are significant enough for each of these individuals to seek to disengage with being English. In none of the accounts do we find particularly positive identification with being English. Rather, we find a readiness to distinguish and differentiate themselves from those who now appear to represent the English national popular (‘these poor deluded characters’, ‘ruffians’).

At several points, the foregoing respondents associate being English with yobs, louts and the poor. In exploring these accounts further, we find instances in which respondents look not only downwards to the underclass but also upwards towards the upper class and aristocracy. In many cases these contradictory associations between Englishness and class form part of the same passage of text. Marie, a secondary school teacher born in 1975, illustrates this tendency when asked about her own English identity:

I would probably say English but I would not want to say English because that implies royalty based nationalism____It has become much more problematic. To say you feel English now means you have to immediately disclaim its negative associations. You have to say ‘I am not a British bulldog wearing a skinhead’. There is a shame and embarrassment now attached to English where you aren’t allowed to say or be proud of it.

Marie refers to English as implying royalty but also implying connections with the far right (‘British bulldog wearing a skinhead’). Because of both these associations, she is reluctant to describe herself as English. Mark, a chef born in 1970, makes a similar association between Englishness and class, also switching between upper and lower classes. Unlike the other cases discussed thus far, Mark defines himself as working class. He associates Englishness with both upper classes and yobs. Conversely, Britishness is described as ‘more working class’:

Do you see yourself as English, British or what?

Mark: British I suppose. I think there is a bit of a difference. English to me is you are the English gentleman, you are refined, and you are well educated. But British, it’s a bit of that but it’s more working class, isn’t it? To be British, it’s more everyone. Like I think the Queen’s English.

The fact that these respondents make such contradictory associations— both upper classes and ‘yobs’—draws our attention to the broader connections between Englishness and class. The decline in social deference to the upper classes and increase in contempt for the poor are both examples of change in discourse and attitude towards class (Sayer 2005: 170). Previous research into everyday class experience has shown how people engage in various kinds of ‘othering’ in order to define their own class identities (Lawler 2005; Southerton 2002). The significance here is that these sentiments of distance, contempt and disgust are also important for the way in which people talk about and identify with being English.

In the next section, we consider examples which show how English identification can relate to more egalitarian and liberal outlooks on societal membership.

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