A Question of English Identity

Last week, the Young Fabians Devolution and Local Government Network held an event with John Denham to discuss English Identity. Marian Craig, Chair of the Young Fabians Devolution and Local Government Network summarises the discussions.

Holding an event on English identity was something I had wanted to do for quite some time for the Young Fabians Devolution and Local Government Network. Some might think that strange (I am Scottish after all), however as John Denham said in his opening remarks, discussions on English identity tend to be rare. When they do happen, all too often they can descend into lazy tropes about bringing back the British Empire, conjuring up romantic images of rural England or simply just accusing some people of being racist.

Yet when asked to describe the traits of Englishness and Britishness, people tend to come up with the same positive characteristics. Identity is complex and unpacking a workable definition is incredibly difficult but the beauty of a national identity is that it allows us to feel a connection with people we have never met before. John also explained that national identity doesn’t have to be an “either/or”; it can be multi-layered. For example, you can be European, British, English and a Londoner.

So to set the scene, John conducted a quick poll to gauge where the room was in terms of our national identity. No-one said that they felt “English not British” and only one person said that they felt “British not English”; instead the majority rated themselves as feeling equally English and British - the same as around 40% of the population as a whole.

Unfortunately, English identity tends only to be discussed during major sporting events and although Gareth Southgate might have had some positive influence, both politicians and the media continue to erase England from the national conversation.

Ignoring the question of English identity has had profound negative consequences, particularly for the left. This was most clearly highlighted when the country was asked whether it wanted to leave the European Union. Failing to speak to English voters in their language was a major factor in the resulting vote as people felt that the government, and perhaps also the “establishment” more widely, simply did not care about them because England and Englishness was simply not talked about (contrast this with the Scotland Stronger In campaign and the equivalents in Wales and Northern Ireland).

This only served to amplify the dissatisfaction Leave voters had about politics and politicians and it is in those places where people have a stronger sense of English identity that Labour is currently losing the most ground. These people also typically see themselves as left wing on economic issues but lean more to the right on social issues. They have a strong sense of belonging to their community; unlike those who say they feel more British, who are less likely to say they have strong local roots to a particular place. These ideas are explored in much  more depth in 'Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour’, edited by Stephen Kinnock who discusses the differences between these ‘communitarians’ and ‘cosmopolitans’.

John was clear that there is a long way to go before discussions on English identity and Englishness become commonplace. He advised that we would do well to consider the effect of policies on place, for example the effect of closing coalfields in South Wales, from which many communities have struggled to recover. More positively, the setting up of municipal energy companies such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham can give people a strong sense of ownership in their local communities.

In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done while Labour is in opposition. John urged the Young Fabians to continue exploring and debating the issue of English identity as it is our generation who will be responsible for coming up with the answers to these difficult questions.

To find out more about the English Labour Network and get involved, visit https://englishlabournetwork.org.uk/.


Marian Craig is Chair of the Local Government Network. Follow her on Twitter at @MarianCraig 

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