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England, my England: why organise a festival of Englishness?

England, my England: A festival of Englishness takes place on Saturday, October 19, organised by IPPR and British Futures. Here, Tom Finch of IPPR explains why they decided this was important

Tim Finch
11 October 2013
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England.../Wikimedia

It’s called the Edinburgh International Book Festival and as any one who has ever attended will testify it lives up to that title in its programming and roster of speakers. But as well as being a showcase for international literary talent, the festival also unashamedly promotes Scottish writing and publishing. Pride in a distinct Scottish identity has obviously been renascent over recent years and the festival reflects that fully.

Compare that with, say, the Cheltenham Literature Festival which is taking place at the moment. If you look at the programme there are a few events that touch on English themes, but not in any organised or overt way. Indeed the only element of the programme that explicitly references one of the nations of the United Kingdom is entitled The Great Tapestry of… Scotland.

I suspect that if the organisers were taxed on their failure to promote specifically English writing at a book festival in England they would be baffled at the very notion that they should do so. Does it actually need promotion, they might say, given England’s dominance in these isles? English writing is heavily represented throughout the event without us needing to label or promote it as such, they might add. And, by the way, we do give local writing – the Gloucestershire Writers Network, for example - a particular platform, just as similar events in other parts of England do.

These are all fair points of course, and without billing itself as such Cheltenham will no doubt be quintessentially English – though perhaps more noticeably to a visiting American or Scot. Even so, the contrast between Cheltenham and Edinburgh illustrates a wider point: that while there is no lack of English cultural expression, there still seems to be some reluctance to make much, if anything, of its distinctive Englishness.

This is one of the reasons why IPPR has decided to stage what we are calling a Festival of Englishness – with a big event in London on Saturday 19th October and other events to follow in Newcastle, Manchester and Bristol. If you look at the programme you’ll see that we are discussing politics, books and films, sport and humour, history and society. Similar discussions are going on all the time, all over England. The point here is that the English dimension is not incidental, it is integral. England and the English are taking centre stage.

Still, there has to be more justification for holding such a festival than that is a paucity of such events held by others. Have we not heard of supply and demand? Do the English really want a festival of their own?

Our answer to this would be that for some years there have been signs that Englishness as a distinct and primary identity has been rising among people who live in England. Both the census data and IPPR's own Future of England Surveys have shown a remarkable rise in the number of people who choose to prioritise their English over their British identity.  By 2012 nearly a third of people living in England felt more English than British versus 17 per cent who felt more British than English. There also seems to be a thirst for greater recognition of distinct English nationhood through such things as national days and the flying of the St George’s flag. Nearly 3 in 4 of those in England believe St George’s day should be a national holiday while 62 per cent express pride when seeing St George’s cross fly. So the English are certainly stirring. 

But as yet the ‘demands’ of the English for greater recognition are somewhat inchoate.  There is an English militant tendency which is characterised by aggressive, as well as aggrieved, nationalism, and wants separatism from the two unions of which England is currently a part.

But this is a small, if vocal minority. Then are those arguing that the main way to accommodate growing Englishness, and give it due expression when devolution is happening elsewhere in the UK, is through the creation of an English parliament. This group is also relatively small (IPPR commissioned polling shows only 20 per cent opted for an English Parliament when presented with different constitutional arrangements for England), though support for its central notion may grow - not least as more powers are devolved to legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (the eminent historian Linda Colley believes the UK will require a federal constitution with an English Parliament should Scots vote No to independence in 2014.

However, it is surely the case that dwarfing these groups of English activists who know exactly what they want (and are not shy about proclaiming it loudly) is a much larger group (probably made up for the vast majority of English people) who quietly support the idea of a bit more recognition of Englishness but don’t quite know how that should be achieved. 

These are people who tick the box marked English in the census or a survey not because they are anti British or stridently English, but because for them their Englishness takes precedence naturally. They have some outlets for that sentiment - supporting England sporting teams and enjoyment of various cultural events, like the Proms perhaps, where Englishness seems stronger than overall Britishness. But even so they feel their ability to express their Englishness is unduly constrained. They have noticed that from Billy Bragg to Shane Meadows to Jez Butterworth to Daljit Nagra the character of the English as a subject for music, film and literature has been on the rise. But they also feel there is still a somewhat galling diffidence, even embarrassment, in these explorations and celebrations of Englishness – in a way that the Scots or Welsh (or for that matter Americans or French) would never feel.

If this festival is for anyone it is for them. Are they hugely grateful for the fact? What do you think? For all those who have greeted the idea of a day long event devoted to Englishness with enthusiasm, there have been as many who have regarded it with some bafflement – and many more with insouciance. But that’s the English for you. May be it is okay for a nation’s main expression of its distinct identity to be a certain carelessness about that identity, even if others find that stance infuriatingly smug. On the other hand, it may be that this approach makes the English look like a moody teenager, forever shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘Whatever’, and a more mature recognition of nationhood is required. These and many other questions will be discussed at the festival. It’ll be fascinating. Come along!

England, my England: A festival of Englishness takes place on Saturday 19th October at London College of Communication, SE1 6SB. Tickets can be purchased here

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