As Britain nursed a collective hangover incurred by the pomp and ceremony of the Jubilee weekend, Ed Miliband chose his moment to argue that Labour should re-connect with ‘Englishness’, and launch a debate on national identity in modern Britain.
He argued that Labour needs to “embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity” and convince the public that ‘British’ and ‘English’- and for that matter, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’- identities, need not be mutually exclusive.
This may be Miliband’s first foray into the hazardous territory of national identity, but it comes at an important time. With the Scottish referendum on independence a mere two years away, and the number of those describing themselves as English more than double the amount who describe themselves as British, it is understandable that Labour feels the need to construct a coherent narrative on identity politics.
However, Miliband’s motives for pushing this agenda seem suspicious. Undoubtedly, Labour’s top table have been pressed to address the strange phenomena of ‘Englishness’ in response to evidence that devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has made English citizens feel short-changed. According to IPPR, those who identify strongly as English are likely to be critical of the devolution settlement and in favour of the development of “an English dimension” to the governance of England. This poses a challenge to political parties that wish to preserve the union while keeping English voters onside.
Yet the rise of a strictly English national identity has been uneven across age cohorts and the ideological divide. A YouGov survey conducted in October 2011 revealed that while 63% of those questioned in total described themselves as English, only 53% of 18-24 year olds did. The discrepancies between Labour and Conservative voters are even more striking. 76% of Tories described themselves as English, while only 56% of Labour supporters said likewise.
It is fair to assume, therefore, that young, Labour-supporting people feel less attached to the ‘English’ national identity than their older, Conservative peers. Perhaps this is because young people have less awareness of the cultural and political distinctions between England and the rest of the UK; perhaps it’s because they do not pay taxes that are spent across the borders; perhaps because the curriculum teaches British history, rather than ‘English’ history. Maybe those familiar with ‘Old Labour’ rhetoric share the socialist view that borders are meaningless, and that it is class- rather than nationality- that divides us.
However, I believe the age cohort data points to the fact that national identity is acquired, not inherent. What is most likely is that as young people grow up, they conform to the identity impressed upon them by their education, peers, and local community. If you look back to the Young People’s Social Attitudes Survey conducted in 2003, nearly two-thirds of 12-19 year olds described themselves as British. ‘Britishness’ may be the identity first learnt by the majority of young people, absorbed through those symbols like the Union Flag, the Royal Family, and the map of the British Isles themselves, as well as through interactions with parents and other relations. Different identities are acquired later on. Sometimes these are other national identities, sometimes class or regional ones. It is strange that the Labour leader is selecting to emphasise this one English identity now, rather than focusing on others more readily grasped by the young and adults alike- especially class identity.
By pushing the ‘Englishness’ agenda now, Miliband may actually help perpetuate those narrow national identities that threaten the integrity of the Union. In fact, a glance at the data above suggests that those most likely to resonate with Ed’s new message are older, non-Labour voters. Perhaps his recent speech was a ploy to woo the same Middle Englanders that won New Labour its last three majorities. If so, it may come at the expense of truly connecting with Labour’s next generation whose concerns are far removed from squabbles about nationality.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog