The Case for Englishness

Since the publication in 2012 of the report ‘The dog that finally barked: England as an emerging political community’, a group of researchers has consistently argued both that we can see an increasingly distinct English national identity and that it is part of the story of an ‘emerging political community’ (Wyn Jones et al. 2012). Two additional publications, ‘England and its two unions: The anatomy of a nation and its discontents’ (Wyn Jones et al. 2013) and ‘Taking England seriously: The new English politics’ (Jeffery et al. 2014), reinforced and extended the analysis of a strengthened Englishness, with political import. In the first of these reports, ‘The dog that finally barked’ (2012), Wyn Jones et al. conclude that ‘the English component is increasingly considered the primary source of attachment for the English’ (p. 3). The proprotion prioritising ‘their English over their British identity (40 %) is now twice as large as those who prioritize their British over their English identity’, and the majority of people in England believe that ‘the English have become more aware of their Englishness in recent years’. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report (Wyn Jones et al. 2012) is also striking for two other arguments: first, that English identity is becoming politicised, and second, that this ‘political Englishness’ is being ignored by political elites (Wyn Jones et al. 2012: 3). The best support for the first of these arguments lies in the ‘English’ support for an English parliament; 52 % of those saying they are ‘English not British’ say they favour an English parliament (Table 5.9, p. 29), as do almost the same percentage (51 %) of those who say they are ‘more English than British’ (2012: 29). These opinions in the English identifiers are strikingly different from those of the British identifiers.

The 2013 report (Wyn Jones et al. 2013) extended the investigation to include attitudes to the union of the UK and the European Union. They confirm the findings of the previous year, with rising English national identity (but no higher than the previous year), evidence of resentment towards public spending arrangements with Scotland and disaffection with the European Union. They confirm that ethnic minorities are more inclined to Britishness than Englishness; regionally the much more ethnically diverse London is something of an outlier from other regions (see also Nandi and Platt 2013). This report also repeats the theme that ‘the English question’ is largely ignored by political elites and mainstream political parties (Wyn Jones et al. 2013: 37). They suggest that, on English issues, the two main political parties perform poorly; when asked which party best ‘stands up for the interests of England’, they show that the two main parties were chosen by 19 % of Labour identifiers and 17 % of Conservatives (Wyn Jones et al. 2013: 37). Indeed, the answer ‘no party does’ was almost as popular (16 %).

But Englishness does have a political home, and the evidence of England and its two unions (Wyn Jones et al. 2013) suggests that it is UKIP. First of all, UKIP supporters are more likely to identify as English, with 27 % responding ‘English not British’, more than other parties’ supporters (2013: 33). Indeed 55 % of UKIP supporters identify as ‘English not British’ or ‘more English than British’. Its nearest competitor in ‘Englishness’—the Conservatives - is 12 % further back (43 %) on these two responses. On the view of Scotland ‘getting more than its fair share of spending’, UKIP’s supporters are comfortably ahead of all other parties in resentment towards Scotland (2013: 34). Not surprisingly, they are well ahead in distaste for the European Union on all questions asked, and 69 % said they thought the European Union was ‘most influential’ in UK affairs (2013: 34). They rival the Conservatives in wanting ‘English votes for English laws’ (Conservatives 46 %, UKIP 42 %), but fully 32 % of UKIP supporters say they would prefer an English parliament (compared to 21 % of Conservatives) (2013: 35). They were the only group of party supporters to say they would choose English rather than British as the nationality to appear on their passport (2013: 33). This surely adds up to UKIP supporters embracing Englishness and pro-England positions more than other group of supporters. On this evidence alone, the UKIP is best positioned to become an England nationalist party, as the IPPR report points out. This is a source of anxiety for its authors:

‘For some Englishness seems to be regarded as a dark and chauvinistic force best kept under wraps. The evident association of English discontentment with the right-wing populism of UKIP may well reinforce that concern’ (Wyn Jones et al. 2013: 37).

As the authors astutely observe, the party ‘next best’ positioned to take advantage of increased English identity plus English political discontent is the Conservative Party. This picture of UKIP as the ‘party of English nationalism’ is confirmed in a further report (Jeffery et al. 2014). Based on 2014 survey data, respondents were asked: ‘Which party leader best stands up for the interests of England?’ Farage of UKIP was chosen by most (22 %), and even he was only just ahead of ‘none of the above’ (21 %). The report’s authors (Jeffery et al. 2014) conclude, with considerable conviction, that UKIP is uniquely positioned to establish itself ‘as an enduring force in English politics’ (2014: 32) embracing the cause of English nationalism. This too is a distinctly right-wing nationalism (even more so when compared with Scotland), with UKIP outstripping all other parties on ‘concern about Scotland, euro-scepticism, immigration and questions of English institutions’ (Table 21, 2014: 28). Except on immigration, the Conservatives come in a reasonably close second, but on questions of immigration, UKIP is well ahead, with 85 % declaring themselves ‘100 % in favour of restricting immigration’ (2014: 28).

If English identity is associated with UKIP, and UKIP is a rightwing populist or even ‘English nationalist’ party, then it might well indicate that those who identify as English are likely to adopt broadly right-wing attitudes. There is indeed some evidence, in the ‘Future of England’ research, to suggest that this might be so. In ‘Taking England seriously’, we find a comparison of English and British identifiers on attitudes. Of English identifiers, 57 % are ‘strongly in favour of restricting immigration’ compared to British identifiers (37 %) (2014: 17, Table 12, ‘Taking England seriously’). This kind of pattern appears too on attitudes towards the European Union and the government of the UK, with 42 % (Table 13) thinking that an ‘English parliament’ should have most control over the way England is run. It is not just a matter of UKIP, a right-wing populist party, finding more support—than any other party—among English identifiers. It is also that English identifiers, by the evidence of the surveys, adopt considerably more right-wing positions on Europe, immigration and the governance of the UK, including as expressed in attitudes towards Scotland and devolution. They find, intriguingly, that antipathy towards the European Union is linked to Englishness; half of those who identified as ‘English not British’ say that the European Union ‘has the greatest influence over how England is run’ (Wyn Jones et al. 2013: 19).

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