It's time to take English identity seriously—and make way for a new, 21st century nation

People in England are more likely to feel "English" than "British." Yet debates on everything from sovereignty to shared values focus on the latter—and it's holding the country back

July 18, 2018
Head coach Gareth Southgate of England reacts after the 2018 FIFA World Cup third place play-off match between England and Belgium. Photo: PA
Head coach Gareth Southgate of England reacts after the 2018 FIFA World Cup third place play-off match between England and Belgium. Photo: PA

If few predicted the success of England’s football team, fewer still expected it to spark a new and almost wholly positive debate about English identity.

Framed by Gareth Southgate’s observation that “We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represents modern England,” the matches have not only been marked by white men and women unreservedly celebrating a multi-racial team, but by crowds of supporters of all ethnicities.

From the New Statesman to the Spectator—via the Guardian and the Telegraph—this English coming together has been noted with warmth.

In truth, most English people had long abandoned ethnic and racist ideas of Englishness. The great majority don’t believe you have to be white to be English: for many it is being born here, or having parents who were born here, that matters most (meaning that Englishness may not be so readily available to the new migrant but will be to their child).

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to dismiss the fears of those minorities who have experienced the unpleasant other face of England; nor under-estimate the importance of their changed perceptions.

Many writers, including the historian David Olusoga, have testified to new feelings about an identity which once seemed barred to them. As Olusoga warns, this doesn’t mark the end of racism in England. But these moments of collective celebration and engagement mean that nothing will be quite the same again.

A new question now emerges: will this refreshed cultural identity begin to impinge on the politics of identity that have shaped so many contemporary debates?

Over the past two decades the meaning of English and British identities have diverged such that, by the extent to which people call themselves English or British, or balance the two, we can predict their likelihood of voting Leave or Remain, left or right; whether they will prioritise the interests of the union, or of England. Whether they believe the EU holds the whip hand over us.

National identities are not purely notions of inclusion, language, history or culture: they transmit values and provide narratives that help people make sense of the world and the people around them.

And, while English and British happily cohabit in most of us, Englishness is more clearly rooted outside the major cities and amongst those who have gained least and suffered most from the economic, social and demographic changes of recent years.

Britishness, by contrast, sits most comfortable on those who are—or at least believe they could be—the beneficiaries of change; the better educated, the more middle class and metropolitan.

Will a new understanding of an inclusive Englishness be reflected in the acceptance of England, the English and English identity in our political debates and institutions?

England, famously, has no state, no citizenship and no national political space. England is now the only part of the UK governed permanently on most domestic policy by the UK government and not by its own elected parliament or assembly.

Westminster may spend much of its time on English issues, yet it singularly fails to provide a forum for national debate. Devolution has given Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the chance to reimagine themselves as 21st century nations after the end of empire. England has not had the same opportunity.

A small but powerful anti-English fraction amongst the UK’s British identifying elite is entrenched in much of the media, politics, academia and corporate business. They insist on writing England out of the story—not just because of its supposed connotations, but because of their adherence to the remnants of the UK’s imperial unitary state.

English is the most widely shared national identity in England—as strongly as Britishness, with more people saying ‘I’m more English than British’ than vice-versa. Yet England and the English barely feature in the national debate

Government and opposition statements fail to name England when, as with university fees, the policy only applies in England. The idea that England doesn’t matter shaped Remain’s disastrous decision to campaign in England as “Britain Stronger in Europe.” In Scotland and Wales, of course, the campaign was Scotland (or Wales) Stronger in Europe. The English were not worth talking to. No wonder they voted to take back control.

That England provided the lion’s share of the Brexit vote was not a pathological failing of the English people, but the outcome of England being denied any political identity, institutions and national debate of its own.

Now the priority must be to allow the people of England to have their own democratic institutions and political space: not only so that they have the same democratic rights to determine the laws under which they live that are enjoyed in other parts of the union, but also to be able to to find the common ground from which 21st century England can emerge.