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 backby John Denham / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
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…