Egalitarian and Liberal Sentiments and English Identity

Amongst our interviews are instances involving the adoption of liberal and cosmopolitan outlooks. Our first such case is a married couple, Helen and Matthew. They live in a cul-de-sac in the small town site and have two young children. For them the town represents a good place to bring up children, with good local schools and within easy commuting distance. Both are university educated and define themselves as middle class. Matthew is a manager of packaging firm, whilst Helen is a full-time mother who had previously worked in administration. They have lived previously in London and Birmingham and do not consider themselves to be ‘local’. This is what they have to say about their national identity:

Helen: I see myself as more British because my mother’s mother was

Scottish. I think if you go back far enough you will always have roots from other places. But I don’t really class myself as English and I don’t really support the football and so not in that respect.

Mathew: It’s not something I have ever really thought about. I am me and I live in this country and that’s about it, whether that country is England, Britain, UK or whatever you want to call it. I tend to view myself as a location. I’m probably very rationalistic about those kinds of things.

Neither respondent presents a particularly strong sense of English identity. Both view being English negatively and associate it with empire and class:

The other nationalities advertise themselves more as being important to them. People are in touch with them. English is slightly less strident than the others. It tends to be viewed with the bad side of things like hooligans at football matches or whatever. It’s a shame. The English never seem to come across positively.

People’s view of the English does tend to be an unsympathetic one: it’s either stiff upper lips or empire or its thugs and football hooliganism. But the world is becoming a much smaller place and there are a lot of similarities between various nations. I mean different nationalities are different in how they do things but I think the similarities outnumber the differences.

I think it is becoming a more peaceful world as some of the national traits are fading away.

Tom is a housing policy advisor for a local authority in his late forties. He also lives in the small town, although he is originally from London. Like Helen and Matthew cited earlier, Tom moved about ten years ago for the same reasons—a good place to bring up children and commute. He typifies the liberal rejection of national identity and finds little positive in being English, feeling that any positives either have been exported or are British rather than English:

It’s funny because British things become associated with the right wing. I don’t know—I think I’m English.

We’re really happy when we’re not identified as English; being identified as Dutch was a real high point for me when I was in France this year. I was so happy [laughs].

All the positive attributes of being English have been exported around the world, to many different cultures, and actually there’s nothing that’s very positive. Violence, thuggery and racism. These are all the negative attributes that are left. It’s difficult to ascribe particular values to being English; they have sort of given it all away. There’s nothing left because of the problems with the democracy in this country. There’s a lack of leadership around being English.

We’re in a tiny minority here, I mean the majority of the people read the Daily Mail and are very very proud to be English and behave en masse as the Americans behave. The kind of arrogance and belief that we rule the world still and that’s still the case even with people in their teens and twenties.

Julia lives on the outskirts of Bristol and has a strong sense of being European. She relates this to a mixed family background. Born in England, she prefers to see herself first as European, then British and, lastly, English:

I see myself as European. But my mother’s not English, she’s South African. I’ve got relatives all over the place, some in France as well, and further back there’s some Spanish in us. Got some Welsh. I mean I am English obviously because I was born here. But I think of myself first of all as a European because, although Europe is a complete mess in many respects, the European ideal is something that I would adhere to. British next and then English I suppose.

Ben is in his fifties and is a clinical psychologist. He was born in England. Both his parents were also born in England, but three of his four grandparents were Jewish and born outside Britain. In addition, he has lived in various parts of England. He reflects a common tendency amongst those with mixed backgrounds to prefer the British rather than English label: ‘ [1]

a family you can trace back through the generations living in England and to a particular place.’

For both Julia and Ben the concept of being British is important. This may be because it allows for the ‘complexity’ of their own background. Being English, on the other hand, refers more narrowly to descent. Several of our cases, when prompted, reported a non-English national background (e.g. ‘my father was born in Ireland’). A greater proportion of these individuals with such mixed national backgrounds prefer to describe themselves as British over English compared with those whose families were exclusively from England. For many, being British is seen as affording a wider perspective on the world, rather than one restricted to England. Angela, for example, born in 1946, is a city councillor for the Labour Party:

I always say I am British because I can see the wider British Isles, not just England. And I have lived in other countries too, so I have a wider British perspective. But I am also a citizen of the world, a European, so not very rigid.

Some of the pubs in the area celebrate St George’s Day in a very jingoistic way and try and eat roast beef or something and put up the red and white flag and they are ever so proudly English. But it’s mixed up with the BNP and racism and a very anti-foreigner attitude. I am very worried about that.

Although content with being British, Angela distances herself from popular celebrations (e.g. football, flags, St George’s Day) and pride towards being English, which is made problematic by its connections to xenophobia. Carol, 38 and a secondary school teacher, also has a weak national identity, which reflects England’s status as the dominant nation but refers to pride in the town and locality as a place: [2]

here. People have a strong sense of pride in the town, but I don’t think their national status is important.

Likewise, Carol does not see a need for English self-government: ‘

It’s pointless. Things are already mostly English anyway, so the need for it isn’t as great as it is in Scotland and Wales. I don’t follow it closely, but they seem to more successful with their own policies.’

She expresses pride in the country related to democracy and multicul- turalism, but this is coupled with an embarrassment in connection with football fan culture:

... Democracy, a certain amount of racial tolerance, being fairly well respected in the world amongst other countries. I’m not proud of the fact that we went to war with Iraq and I suppose football, the representation of England as football fans being in the world is not particularly impressive.

We ought to be part of Europe. I’d rather see us joining than being on the outside making a noise. I have no problem with joining Europe.

Martin is in his thirties and is a manager on a hospital ward. He lives in a prosperous urban neighbourhood. He also has a weak sense of national identity and is open to further European integration:

I don’t really think of it. I mean I am British, but I don’t really see it as a defining part of my identity. I am just who I am. I don’t ever think ‘I am [name] and I am British’. It is not really important to me to belong to a particular country. I don’t have massive amounts of pride in my country that I wish to portray. Not to say that I don’t like being British or anything like that. I just don’t feel the need to advertise it.

I have always thought we should be more part of Europe than we are, so I don’t really understand the reluctance to fully integrate with Europe the way the French and the Germans have. Yet, they are still able to retain their national identity and things like that.

Amongst those displaying more benign social attitudes—approving of multiculturalism, being open towards Europe—we find much weaker attachments to national identity and to being English, as well as a disdain for populism. This is not to say that such respondents do not define themselves as English, or indeed as English first and foremost. But as a statement of national attachment it is relatively weak and sits in contrast to other members of the ethnic majority for whom being English seemed to matter a great deal. Furthermore, progressive views are commonly associated with attachments to the broader categories of Britain and Europe. Within this, Britishness was viewed as a more inclusive category, whereas Englishness retains exclusive classed and racialised associations.

  • [1] don’t feel English, but I do feel British. I associate with Britishness. Britishseems to me to allow for the mongrel nature of many of us. English implies
  • [2] don’t feel strongly about it. If someone asked what my nationality was, Iwould probably say British, but I don’t feel one way or the other. I thinkyou’ve got to be Welsh or Scottish for it to be important to you. People tryto force patriotism on people when the England football team are playing,but apart from that I don’t think it’s important. People are proud to live
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