Image: England flags on the Kirby estate, South London, during the 2018 World Cup. Credit: David Mirzoff/PA Images, all rights reserved.
England is deeply divided. We are divided by our poverty and our prosperity; between London and the South East and most of the rest of England; yes, within the wealthier regions too.
In many parts of England, city centres may prosper while nearby towns lose their purpose and their able young people.
The lines that divide us are being re-drawn. Poor white working-class children from towns and the seaside are now less likely to do well in school, than most ethnic minority kids of the large cities. But race and faith, prejudice and discrimination still have the power to divide us.
We are divided by our experiences and our values. Age, class, and higher education are strong predictors of which of us is likely to hold individualistic cosmopolitan liberal views, and which a more communitarian social conservatism.
These differences don’t map readily onto the familiar divides of class, of ‘left’ and ‘right’. Older working-class voters may be less keen on rapid immigration and diversity than their university educated grandchildren but are strong supporters of public ownership and the NHS. Young liberals may be less keen on redistribution and the welfare state; more likely to blame poverty on the individual.
We sometimes lack the ability to talk to each other. One person’s resistance to change in their community is another’s clear evidence of racism.
England is by far the largest part of the union. It is here that the forces that have torn us apart on Brexit are most violent. And it is England – and England outside London in particular – that is taking the whole of the union out of the EU.
Despite the apparent return of two party politics in 2017, it was still the case that the elections in each nation were contested by different parties, won by different parties, and, to a large extent, fought around different issues. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales have their own cultural dividing lines that are different to those in England.
England, as we recently learned from the massive BBC/YouGov survey, believes that its best years were in the past, while other parts of the union believe the best lies in the future. Not a single English demographic in the published poll expressed optimism for the future rather than nostalgic pessimism. Confidence in Westminster’s ability to represent people where they live is catastrophically low, as is their ability to influence their local council.
The other parts of the union enjoy their own political identity and space, their own democratic institutions and their own democratic powers. England has none of these.
England, as England, is absent from our national political debate and conversation. What happens in England affects the whole of the union, but England is rarely mentioned.
Yet English identity has taken on a new weight and political significance.
By the extent to which people say they are English, British or both, we can predict their likelihood to vote Leave or Remain, to be left or right, satisfied or dissatisfied with the current constitution, feel empowered or disenfranchised, or prioritise England over the union, Brexit over the Irish border.
I’m not going suggest that all the answers to our current problems lie with England.
I will argue that we won’t meet the many challenges we face without addressing England: without engaging with English identity, England as a nation, with England as a place, as a democracy and as a political community.
I’ll ask why even though English is the most widely shared and strongly held national identity amongst England’s residents that ubiquity and popularity is marginalised? Why is it actively opposed and even suppressed in public life and the national debate: not by the British as a whole, but by elite liberal Britain?
I’ll argue that we cannot overcome our national divisions unless Englishness is allowed its proper place as an accepted, legitimate and celebrated identity within the multiple identities of modern England.
I’ll suggest that our historic attachment to the remains of the unitary imperial state has left England without political institutions of its own and with a level of centralisation quite incompatible with good governance
While those who feel strongly English must in future be fully included and represented, the future cannot belong exclusively to those who feel most strongly English. Reforms to England’s governance are needed but they must rest on sound, inclusive, democratic and civic foundations.
English and British
Around the turn of the millennium, when Scottish and Welsh devolution began, a marked change took place in England. The apparent assumption that English and British were pretty much the same broke down. Increased numbers of people began to identify as English as well as British. There was a sharp fall in those naming British rather than English identity.
The numbers bounce around a bit but, over the past 20 years a broadly stable position has emerged.
If asked about strength of identity, the great majority say they are strongly English and strongly British.
If asked to choose one identity, slightly more will choose English than British.
If asked whether English, more English than British, and so on, the largest group is equally English and British (35-40%), with the English and more English outnumbering the British and more British by around 3 to 2.
By any measure, Englishness is the most widely shared national identity; it is at least as strongly held as Britishness, and more people emphasise their Englishness than their Britishness.
The preference for Englishness over Britishness is strongest in the over 65s. As we move through the generations, it becomes more balanced, until, amongst the 18-24 years olds the more British exceed the more English, though even amongst the youngest, a large majority say they are strongly English.
The major cities have higher numbers of British identifiers, though nowhere outside London do the more British outnumber the more English. (And London is more polarised between English and British identifiers than any other region, with fewer ‘equally English and British’). In smaller cities, the towns, suburbs and villages, the more English markedly exceed the more British. Regional and county identities, particularly in the north and in Cornwall, are strong enough to present a major part of people’s identities.
As for the political salience of identity, just under 70% of the English not British voted Leave; over 70% of the British not English voted Remain.
46% of the strongly English say they voted Conservative in 2017, 25% Labour.
My survey of Conservative activists revealed deep scepticism amongst English identifying members about the benefits of the union to England. It prompted Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home, to describe the Tories as the ‘Conservative and just about Unionist’ Party.
Labour members are significantly more likely to identify as British than the electorate as a whole, which may go some way to explain its relative lack of appeal to English identifiers.
In 2015 English fears of SNP influence on Labour dominated the campaign and some commentators, and those close to the party campaigns, believe the issue gave David Cameron his majority.
There are many different takes on national identity, so let me explain how I understand it.
Both Trump in the US and Brexit here prompted a flood of analysis correlating voting patterns and individual pieces of data. Every week produced a new explanation: economic status; demographics of age or race; education attainment; levels of recent migrations, ‘open’ or ‘closed’ values.
These insights are very valuable, but in the search for the holy grail of the ‘real cause’; the single explanatory factor, we can miss the wood for the trees.
All these issues – our economic experience, our experience of migration, our levels of education, the values of our community – together shape our view of the world.
Our national identities become the repository of our experiences and perceptions. They offer narratives that help to make sense of them. They help to shape the way we understand the world.
Our national identities reflect our sense of who we are; the values we hold, the symbols we recognise, the history we understand, how we see our status and influence. It’s not the individual elements of those identities that explain people’s behaviour, but the overall world view that they reflect and sustain.
If there are echoes here of David Goodhart’s ‘people from somewhere’, and Will Jennings work on England’s divisions between cosmopolitan and socially conservative values, I want to emphasise the importance of national identity in organising, reflecting and expressing those different world views.
If, for example, your experience of 40 years EU membership has been of factories closing, jobs lost, status diminished, community weakened and now changed beyond recognition by rapid migration, you may be attracted to a world view, and its associated identity, that gives a particular explanation of why that has happened. If by contrast your experience has been one of expanded opportunity, stimulation and personal success, this is likely to be reflected in a different identity.
If people who feel English rather than British tend to vote in a particular way, it is because they share a world view for which that behaviour makes sense. And vice versa.
This understanding of identity goes some way to explain why the correlations in voting behaviour are so strong, yet identity is rarely ‘operationalised’. Few people, after all, said I’m voting Leave because it is the English thing to do, or I’m a Remainer because I’m British.
Anthony Barnett, author of The Lure of Greatness, highlights the word clouds of important Brexit issues from the British Election Study. For Remainers it was the economy, followed by rights; for Leavers it was immigration followed by sovereignty. This does not look like one group of people answering one question in different ways, but two groups, giving different answers to different questions.
It was not Brexit, of course, that divided us; Brexit highlighted the divisions that already existed.
Not two tribes, but divergent views
The recent BBC survey gives some new insights into the different world views of English and British identifiers. I don’t want to overstate the case. We are not separate tribes; mixed identities happily co-habit in most of us.
But there are real differences between English-only identifiers and British-only. And, by and large, there is a smooth gradient from one pole to the other as we move through more English than British and to more British than English.
One divide, of course, is whether someone’s primary allegiance is to the geography and institutions of Britain or the geography and political identity of England. The English are more inclined to prioritise England over the union; the British to prioritise the union.
The way that British unionist priority has been expressed politically has caused its own problems, but I will return to that later.
The British and the English also describe England in different terms. Twice as many British chose ‘diverse’ to describe England as do the English. Half as many are likely to say England has always been proud to stand alone.
On the other hand, well over two thirds of the English believe we are tolerant, welcoming, friendly and generous. Just under half the British see the English in this positive light.
And the survey at least hints at the emergence of minority amongst British identifiers who are not just ‘not English’, but positively antipathetic to the English.
The clue is in the people who say they would be embarrassed to call themselves English, about just 7% of the total sample.
The embarrassment is not felt by people who identify as English, or equally English and British, but by those who emphasise their British identity or who otherwise say they are not English.
This anti-English fragment of Britishness seems to be highly educated, found more in cities and university towns, and much more likely to identify strongly as European than the general population. Contrary to what you might expect, this anti-English outlook is not stronger amongst ethnic minorities than white people.
Minority though it may be, I’d suggest this anti-English fraction is over-represented within the institutions of government, within the leadership of the public sector, within the media, within corporate capitalism, and in academia (in short, a large part of what is sometimes called the elite). It is of course found within politics, and on the left in particular.
That observation is based on personal experience, rather than hard data, though I suspect most of you will recognise what I am describing. I’m often struck by how many people in powerful positions say they are British not English while expressing disparaging views about English identity. They seem blissfully unware that being British not English puts them in less than on in ten of the population, and by being antipathetic to Englishness, in an even smaller minority.
We saw their influence in Remain’s decisions to campaign as Scotland Stronger in Europe, in Scotland; as Wales Stronger in Europe, in Wales, and – only in England – as Britain Stronger in Europe. The English were, apparently, not worth even speaking to.
Given that the Remain campaign lost heavily amongst English identifying voters, this was a mistake with serious and far-reaching consequences.
Before the World Cup senior police officers described the St George cross as ‘almost Imperialistic’, and the Royal Mail – the Royal Mail - banned it from their vans. Yet polling shows support across the nation and diverse communities for both the England team and the flag.
England disappears from the national conversation.
The Prime Minister recently e-mailed English voters about health funding but did not make it clear she was talking about the English NHS. Labour recently published eight policy consultation documents which were largely about England but only in one actually mentioned England.
The UK government has recently produced a video for Scotland on a new UK child care policy, with the #deliveringforScotland. The same policy applies in England but, as yet, no video addressing England. No #deliveringforEngland.
I was pleased to take part in the York Festival of Ideas with David Willetts recently. Several of us discussed English higher education for a day – under a banner which read ‘the future of UK higher education’.
And it does seem that more academics have a fascination with the minority of English people who express their identity in racist and ethnic terms than the majority who do not.
During June’s World Cup Gareth Southgate gave a powerful interview in which he said, ‘We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represents modern England’ and talked explicitly about English identity. The Guardian headline today was ‘England team represents modern Britain’.
That’s not lazy reporting. You have to work extra hard to write England out of the story.
No wonder people say, as they do on the doorstep: ‘you’re not even allowed to say you are English anymore’.
The cumulative impact of this influential fraction is to delegitimise and marginalise Englishness; by portraying it as inherently reactionary and unpleasant we don’t need to engage with it as we do with other identities.
It claims that Englishness is an ethnic identity; is a racist identity; it belongs to the far right; and that any political expression of Englishness is both extreme and the product of English nationalism.
Three quarters of people believe you do not have to be white to be English (although it’s true that some are more accepting of those who were born here and have a local accent)
Far right groups do try to appeal to English identity. But fully 80% of the population is strongly English. How can Englishness belong to the far right?
Yes, the English do identify English issues and interests; they may sometimes feel they are ignored. But is this really a political movement we can call English nationalism when we find none of the things we might expect from a nationalist movement: there is no mainstream nationalist political party, no nationalist cultural institutions, nor nationalist public intellectuals? Supposed ‘English nationalism’ becomes another reason to exclude the English from debate.
Now, I’m not naïve. Englishness, like Britishness is not monochrome. Look for the more unpleasant edge and you will certainly find it. Its fears can be inflamed by populist right. The current ‘Campaign to Free Tommy Robinson’ trades on claims that the ethnic dimension of grooming has been ignored.
But this reactionary minority does do not justify the marginalisation of Englishness as a whole; indeed, the very opposite. Fears can most easily be exploited amongst people who feel they are not being listened to. The shunning of Englishness feeds the populists.
The English are more concerned about the cultural impact of immigration, though as many British identifiers share similar concerns it is largely a matter of degree. While some do reject migration for racist reasons, as trade unionist Paul Embery says about rapid migration into east London, ‘it wasn’t their sense of race that had been violated by the sudden upheaval in their community; it was their sense of order’. I would say the same about my old Southampton constituency.
But instead of engaging with this view, the anti-English fraction simply takes it as proof that Englishness is beyond the pale.
The marginalisation of English identity prevents us exploring the shared values and common goals that are needed to heal England’s divisions. The work of British Future has found a large centre ground on migration, valuing its contribution but wanting it controlled. Yet public debate does not allow this to be expressed.
Without question, much good has come from the spread of socially liberal cosmopolitan values. This is a far less closed and less bigoted society than the one into which I was born. But I would also argue that communitarian values of collective identity and solidarity – what we might call the bonds of belonging – that mark much of English identity also have a power and value that deserves recognition.
Exclude the English and we also lose the ability to draw on England’s radical and reforming traditions. Our defence of liberty, our traditions of self-organisation, our history of struggles for rights and freedoms.
We will also struggle to shape shared identities and challenge the less pleasant aspects of Englishness.
It is not actually a surprise that people from ethnic minorities are more British than English, and not just because of perceptions of English as an ethnic identity.
Being English is strongly associated with being born here, and it’s the younger generations that are more likely to be English.
And identities change their meaning. As Prof Tariq Modood reminds us, forty years ago many felt that association with the legacy of racism and colonialism would prevent ethnic minorities ever calling themselves British. That did not happen, and Englishness too is continuing to change.
The popular acceptance of a multi-racial English football team suggests an inclusive Englishness is being built as we speak. (It’s only a generation or so since some fans didn’t count goals scored by black players).
I wouldn’t argue for one moment that we should just take Englishness as it we find it. Just as the far right want to make it reactionary, those of a more progressive outlook should make every effort to strengthen its progressive, patriotic and inclusive expressions.
But once again, the anti-English elite does its best to get in the way; rather than help shape Englishness and counter its more reactionary manifestations, Englishness is absent from public policy. The contributions of high profile ethnic minority figures, including Sadiq Khan, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Trevor Phillips, who are all at ease talking about Englishness, are ignored.
There is a stark contrast between the pro-active efforts of the Scottish government to inculcate an inclusive Scottish identity and the lack of almost any public engagement with English identity by the UK government that runs England.
Instead of nation-building we have national neglect.
Identity, values and change
These divisions of culture and identity have huge implications for our ability to tackle England’s other divisions.
We cannot heal this divided nation without radical changes to our political economy that will reduce inequality, the gaps between regions, and raise productivity, innovation and the quality of working life. In the vision of the recent IPPR commission on Economic Justice: "an economy in which prosperity is joined with justice and builds the common good".
But that change needs more than technocratic policy; it will depend on a shared vision of our nation; a shared idea of the common good; shared values. In the search for those common goals we cannot ignore national identity.
National identities transmit values, and popular values determine how society can and can’t be changed. To take one example, the NHS is popular, despite its failings, because its core value ‘we all pay in and it’s there when we need it’ is not so much a funding mechanism but a statement of the sort of people we imagine ourselves to be.
Old identities of the unionised working class; and the conservatism of order, service and respectability have weakened. Across the West, the identities of people, nation and place have assumed greater importance. Sadly, it is the divisive and xenophobic right that has taken most advantage. Centrist parties like the SNP and leftist parties like Syriza have been the exception.
The urgent need to address England stems, not from a narrow nationalism or parochialism but as a necessary condition to create a strong sense of shared identity, common interests and a determination to work together to build a better society.
The governance of England
This place, this nation of England, will always belong to people with multiple and mixed identities. Yet the most widely shared identity is too often excluded from the national debate.
England and the English must be included if we are to overcome the divisions – of identity, culture, geography, values and economy; if we are to create the sense of shared identity and common purposes that is now so essential. But where on earth can that discussion currently happen?
This is where we must turn to the governance of England.
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.
It is the only unreformed element of the old imperial state and parliament. Reform that started with the division of Ireland in the 1920s and continued when Scotland and Wales took authority from Westminster at the turn of the century, has not yet touched England.
Nor, in the main, has it touched the political parties that dominate England.
Attachment to the old unitary state was embedded in the pretence that Scottish and Welsh devolution simply lent Westminster powers to the nations. This was used to justify the UK government continuing run England. That pretence about devolution has been dropped, but not the belief that England should be subject to the parliament and government of the UK.
Of course, people say that England is so big within Westminster that the distinction is a technicality, a matter of form not a matter of substance. This is to miss the point about what a national parliament is.
As Vernon Bogdanor observes, the Commons has now the semblance of an English Parliament – because it largely discusses English issues – without being made up of English MPs.
England is sometimes subject to the direct interference of non-English MPs (as when the DUP demands English revenues to sustain the Conservatives in power and prevent an early election, or when Labour Scottish and Welsh MPs tried to imposed higher university fees on England). English voters are denied the democratic right to determine national policy outside that is taken for granted in the rest of the UK.
English votes on English laws have given English MPs a veto on legislation, but, in the words of one authoritative study, it has not yet given England a voice. The Commons does not provide a forum and focus for the politics of England in the way that the elected bodies of Scotland, Wales and, (though temporarily incapacitated), Northern Ireland do for those parts of the union.
There is no crucible for England’s national debate.
This constitutional conservatism has shaped how England sees itself.
Scotland and Northern Ireland both delivered large Remain majorities. As did London. Wales had a narrow Leave vote, in line with the UK average but much less than England-outside-London.
The more pro-Remain parts of the UK have enjoyed civic processes, political debates, and political institutions that have enabled them to reimagine their identities in a post-imperial world. Scotland took that opportunity enthusiastically, Wales less certainly though there would now be no going back. Northern Ireland took it as a way of moving beyond its own tragic history.
London, of course, is the one part of England that enjoys statutory powers, its own elected leadership and political institutions to shape its identity.
These debates have allowed different parts of the union to see themselves as modern, European, post-imperial.
England, uniquely within Britain, has neither been challenged nor enabled to re-imagine its position in the union, its identity, and its role in the 21st century. It is split culturally, regionally, by age and education, because there has never been an attempt to articulate what the people English share in common.
The symptoms England displays – the Brexit vote, the regional imbalances, the cultural divisions, the obsessive centralisation – are rooted in the failure of England to reconsider our role and nature in the modern world.
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.
In the absence of that national debate, in the absence of any English political institutions, and with the widespread marginalisation of English identity, it should not be a surprise that the English more than anyone else wanted to ‘take back control’.
Scotland, of course, also enjoyed its own ‘take back control’ moments when it both threw out Labour and determined its relationship with the union.
Of course, many British unionists have actually worked hard to prevent England being allowed a political identity, including many in my own party. Unlike the liberal anti-England British, these opponents have often been motivated by concern for the union.
These British unionists – whilst often the staunchest advocates of devolution to Wales and Scotland – have feared that England is so big that allowing a political identity would inevitably wreck the union. Instead of working out how a reformed union could accommodate England’s democratic rights, and the rights of the smaller nations, they have resisted all change.
We can now see what a catastrophic mistake that has been.
It is the ultimate irony that the architects of England’s suppression are now seeing an angry England taking the whole union out of the EU, against the wishes of the majority in the devolved nations. The defenders of the union have triggered unprecedented threats to the continuation of the union itself. Instead of blaming a supposed English nationalism, it is time that they confronted their own responsibility for the current situation.
The attachment to the old imperial unitary state has a second consequence. It has consolidated the Whitehall centralist state. Wales and Scotland – and less certainly – Northern Ireland – have broken free of Whitehall micro-management. England again is unchanged, not just in the formal system of governance but in the entrenched in the pattern of thinking in Westminster and Whitehall.
Decades of centralisation have produced a nation with dramatic variations in morbidity, mortality, education, life chances, social care, and not just by region but by city, town, village and street. Yet propose the most modest devolution and yet within half a mile of here, the cry of ‘beware the postcode lottery’ will go up.
As the admirable Mark Sandford of the House of Commons library has documented, the much-hyped devolution deals, as with Labour’s regionalism, are primarily designed to co-opt and engage local stakeholders in the flexible delivery of Whitehall priorities. They are not intended to transfer the ability to set different policy priorities, or accountability for public money to a more local level, let alone give statutory backing to local democratic rights.
The longstanding Barnett funding formula requires the UK government to give relative protection to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by linking their spending to that of England. Barnett does not require the UK government to provide any similar protection to the poorest parts of England. Hence, since 2010, the UK government has imposed bigger cuts on the poorest regions of England.
If Barnett has been an essential underpinning of UK, devolution across the UK, English devolution requires fair funding within England. So stunted is the debate about England that I’m not aware of proposals from any party to entrench a fair funding formula for England.
No wonder so few people in England feel they can influence local and national policy. Only 13% feel that politicians in Westminster reflect the concerns of people in their part of the country. Only 23% think local people have a significant influence on local government decisions.
If anything, the English feel even less empowered than the British, and, according to the Centre for Towns, the most English towns feel least well represented. But this is a civic and democratic crisis across identities, not just for the English.
What is to be done?
If you are still with me, I hope the inter-related challenges I outlined earlier are beginning to take shape.
I want to foster an England that is more optimistic about the future than it is nostalgic for the past; an England in which there are shared aims, shared identities and a shared idea of the common good.
We need to enable the English and English identity to be fully expressed and accepted in the national debate, as legitimate as any other identity, and to encourage its development as inclusive.
We need to create the institutions in which those shared aims and the common good can be developed.
And we need to ensure that the average person in England feels far more empowered to shape their locality and their nation than they do at present.
There has been some talk by Gordon Brown and others of a new union of the nations and the English regions, but these proposals are inadequate, undemocratic and far from radical. They give other nations enhanced rights, including treaty powers; but English legislation and English finance would remain in the hands of the UK government.
The regions, a modern invention, bear only an occasional and coincidental relationship to real local and regional identities. And in a small, crowded, nation, English legislation needs to be made at English level by English democracy.
I would argue that the only system of governance that can meets our pressing is an English Parliament coupled to radical statutory devolution within England.
Westminster needs to move beyond the formal mechanism of English votes for English laws to allow English legislation to be fully made by elected English MPs. That is a demand that has been consistently enjoyed majority support, British identifiers as well as English, since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. It should evolve, initially at least, as a dual mandate Commons in which English MPs sit both as members of an English Parliament and of a union parliament.
At the same time, to overcome the regional disparities of wealth and opportunity, or to reduce the material divisions in England, we need a fundamental shift of power and resources from Whitehall to England’s localities. This devolution must be underpinned by statutory rights to take decisions locally.
Perhaps the moment for change may be coming. In the BBC survey a third expressed no opinion on changes of governance. This is a debate that is starting, not one that is ended. But exclude them, and 62% support an English Parliament. 73% support the devolution of power to combined authorities, a remarkable result given how new they are, but it strongly suggests that building on existing institutions in localities that we understand, is likely to be the best way forward.
Since Brexit, England is being taken more seriously across the political spectrum and amongst liberal and left intellectuals. The Constitution Unit has analysed options for an English Parliament. The very commissioning of the BBC’s poll recognised England’s growing significance.
The emergence of a network of symbolically powerful elected mayors, backed by business as well as local authorities may create a powerful voice for change for all parts of England.
Few people now argue that Whitehall can solve the regions’ problems. Just ask Northern Rail passengers. Yes, the call for an English Parliament raises questions about the future of the union, although less sharp if the first step is a dual mandate Commons. But, in any case it seems unlikely, post-Brexit, that we will get through the next few years without facing questions about the structure and future of the union; whether from the Irish border, renewed calls for Scottish independence, or the simple impossibility of the UK government representing both UK and English agricultural interests at the same time.
Those coming debates will not be able to exclude England. Lord Salisbury’s Constitution Reform Group has laid the groundwork for a serious re-founding of the union. The political parties have not reached this conclusion yet. It may still take them some time. But I would suggest that this is the time for the civic consideration of England’s governance to begin. Large sections of the public want change, they have a sense of direction. Now is the time for civil society groups, faith organisations, unions, business and local authorities to lead that essential, overdue public discussion.
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