English National Identity—Roaring, Barking or Still Snoozing?

In what follows we shall consider the evidence for a rise in English national identity, especially with a view to a possible ‘English politics’. We have examined the mutual connection of Englishness to Britishness which either disguises or suppresses English national identity. If Britishness is weakened, for reasons we have discussed, then it opens up the possibility of English identity ‘detaching itself’ in a new way. The survey evidence largely comes from the British Social Attitudes Surveys and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). On the whole, the former do not show evidence for a decline in British identity and parallel rise in English identification; the IPPR’s view, distilled in research reports, is much more inclined to see a rise in English identity and a corresponding set of English national political concerns. The underlying problematic is the character or quality of this Englishness; is it a benign flowering of a refreshed and liberal progressive English identity, or a resentful nationalism capable of becoming allied to a populist national politics?

The British Social Attitudes report (Ormston 2012) considered two other possible indications of increased ‘Englishness’—a rise in resentment over ‘higher per capita spending’ in Scotland, and new demands for changes to the way England was governed—and they came broadly to the same conclusion. English people had not, on the whole, responded to devolution by expressing a backlash of resentful Englishness. They conclude that ‘the latest data from BSA provides little evidence to support the prediction’ of a heightened sense of English identity (2012: 16). Others have reached similar conclusions, either about a rise in Englishness or a related decline in Britishness. Englishness has, in Kumar’s (2010) view, an international aspect which is part of its make-up. It is therefore the opposite of an inward-looking nationalism. In his summary he makes the following statement: ‘

Survey evidence shows continuing Britishness among the English. The

expressions of nationalism remain relatively muted. “England for the

English” is neither a realistic nor a sensible strategy’ (Kumar 2010: 469).

Similarly, Bechhofer and McCrone (2007) conclude that ‘the dominant impression is that a majority of people in Scotland and England take some pride in being British and that, in Scotland, although people are more strongly “Scottish” they do not take a negative view of Britain’s past, its empire, or in “British” being seen as a multicultural unifying label’ (2007: 258). When the British Social Attitudes Survey 30 (Curtice et al. 2013) revisited the question of devolution vis-a-vis Britishness and Englishness, their overall view changed only slightly. When respondents are offered several responses, with combinations of English and British (the Moreno question; Moreno 2006), they show little change between 1999 and 2012 in the ‘English’ choices compared to the ‘British’ choices. However, when respondents are asked to distil their identity choice into simply British or English (the forced choice), there is an indication of a decline in Britishness:

It would appear that English has proved relatively more popular, and British less so, since and including 1999 (and) the proportion saying they are British has usually been lower than it was at any time before 1999. To that extent the advent of devolution elsewhere in the UK appears to have coincided with some increase in the relative popularity of Englishness as opposed to Britishness. (BSA 30: Curtice et al. 2013: 147)

Survey respondent replies differ when people are ‘forced’ to make the choice between British and a local national identity compared to when people are offered combinations of British identity and the local national identity. When the Moreno questions (Moreno 2006) with ‘combined choices’ were offered in Scotland in 2012, 71 % had British alone or in combination in their response (Curtice et al. 2013: 145, Table 6.1); in England the same figure was 74 % (p. 148, table 6.3, BSA 30). This is consistent with a historical ‘fusion’ of British and ‘local’ national identities, in both England and Scotland. Only the ‘forced choice’ question shows a clear decline in Britishness in both countries. This is precisely what we would expect, given the long-term mutual implication of Britishness and Englishness. If being English is so intimately bound up with being British, then even a rise in English sensibilities might not be accompanied by a wholesale decline in British identity in England.

Both in Scotland and in England, identity is not the only consideration, for there are other changes at work. In England, a ‘backlash’ reaction to devolution may be not be so marked in relation to ‘identity’. As the British Social Attitudes 30th report was able to show, there has been ‘growing discontent with some of the apparent “anomalies” thrown up by the asymmetric devolution settlement’ (Curtice et al. 2013: 155). This was shown by rises in the percentage of people in England who believed that Scotland got more than ‘its fair share of public spending’ and who thought that ‘Scotland should leave the UK’. Both these figures had more or less doubled between 2000 and 2011 (Curtice and Ormston 2012). As the 30th British Social Attitudes report comments, there is only a weak link between English identity and politically English attitudes (e.g. favouring a parliament for England) (2013: 161). And in Scotland the wish for independence is not ‘driven by identity’, even though those with a weak British identity are rather more likely to favour independence.

This could well indicate that the views of independence (Scotland) or dissatisfaction with constitutional arrangements (England) are indeed political attitudes and sentiments rather than mere manifestations of nationalist attachments.

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