Rule Britannia, Rue Englishness

I am British and this is a fact causes great confusion whenever I go travelling. People from outside the UK seem much more comfortable with the idea that this overly polite stranger from Oxford who uses very long vowel sounds is English. The notion of I might insist on being British seems rather a mystery to them and I reluctantly have to settle for describing myself as ‘English.’ It pains me to do this This is partly for autobiographical reasons; I have both English and Scottish ancestors. More important, however, is that I believe Britain represents something much more appealing politically than Englishness.

So it was with a certain delight that I saw that the ever magnificent Mark Easton has written a blog post about why British identity seems to be on the rise:

In England and Wales, the generation least likely to have ticked the box marked “British” to describe their national identity are those who lived through the war and watched the sun set on the British Empire.

More than 20% of people under 60 picked British as their sole identity. Among the over-75s, it was just 13%. Suggestions that the British identity is gradually dying out are contradicted by the statistics.

The analysis also reveals that those whose ethnicity is white British are the least likely to describe their identity as British – just 14%. About half of people with black or Asian ethnicity picked British.

It is a similar story with religion – the faith group least likely to describe themselves as British are Christians (15%) and the most likely are Sikhs (62%).

The British identity reflects the increasing diversity of our society.

Easton explains the rising appeal of Britishness thus:

It has always been an accommodating label, tolerant of complexity and difference. It may be that our increasingly mobile and cosmopolitan society sees the British identity become more popular than it has been in its 300-year history.

Britain is an inherently diverse identity reflecting as it does the bringing together of different polities. Even more influential, I suspect is the legacy of empire. It’s a paradox that an exercise in chauvanism can be the basis for cosmopolitanism but it is. It created links between the UK and huge swathes of the world. Plus the empire like Britain itself involved creating a united polity of diverse people.

An element that is Easton largely leaves implicit is the contrast with Englishness. It’s a typically negative and insular identity. It is typically defined against Scotishness and Welshness, and has a stronger ethnic component than Britishness. It thus no surprise that we have an English Defence League. Not all of this applies to Scottishness or Welshness but some of it does. And of course identity politics of Northern Ireland is even more toxic.

It is for that reason that I am suspicious of the idea of Scottish nationalism as a progressive force and regard the notion of Englishness with horror. I found it telling that the time my English/British confusion was resolved most easily was when I was discussing where I was from with a  young man in a tourist shop in Sarajevo. He was half Muslim and half Serbian, and chose to define himself by his Bosnian nationality – as an inferior substitute for being Yugoslav – because that allowed him to sidestep ethnic divisions in which he could not pick sides. Britain has less to fear from sectarianism than Bosnia but cannot be complacent about it. We should help ourselves build an inclusive, open society by opting for an inclusive, open identity. It is therefore reassuring to see that on this matter, time may be on the side of the angels.


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