Adam Evans explore the extent of the intertwining of Englishness and Britishness following recent survey results that found that 70 per cent of English respondents opted for an English predominant identity, as opposed to just under 30 per cent for a British predominant identity. He suggests that this shows that the English dog has been unmuzzled
Come, my friends. ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite / The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, / And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–/ One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tennyson’s invocation of a force that though in a material sense has been changed and perhaps diminished over time, still commands a resolve and unbendable spirit is not only a stirring call to arms, but a powerful story for the English nation that has become of growing interest since the dawn of devolution.
For decades it was taken as a given that whereas people in the Celtic fringe could talk of a Welsh or Scottish identity, in England Britishness commanded a monopoly over identity. This dislocation of a domestic English identity by Britishness, should not, however, be understood as meaning that no sense of Englishness existed. Rather, Britishness was conceptualised by many in England, as Englishness retitled, defined largely by English history, norms and institutions. The point was made by Gwynfor Evans in his claim that “Britishness… is a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish.” In this light, England’s contentment with the United Kingdom and its traditional attachment to a British identity can be largely explained by England’s hegemony of the commanding heights of Britain’s constitution, institutions and economy.
Despite unions with Scotland and Ireland, the pre-union English Parliament was retained, albeit now called the UK Parliament and with a more diversified membership and the centre of economic and political power was still in London. This dominance allied to the ancient roots of the English state, has enabled the preservation of what is commonly called the Whig view of history, namely a belief in an 800 year continued history of statehood in the United Kingdom that is thoroughly English in nature and has allowed Englishness to be subverted into Britishness.
An example was Hugh Gaitskell’s famous denunciation of Macmillan’s attempts to enter the European Economic Community as ending “a thousand years of history”. Another was John Major’s equally infamous depiction of Britain as a land of “long shadows on country [cricket] grounds.” Ironically enough, however, it was a Scotsman, Gordon Brown, who in his ill-fated Britishness project provided a true Whig tour d’horizon of ‘British history’. He offered a perspective of British exceptionalism and history that was limited to English constitutional developments from Magna Carta and the Parliamentary Bill of Rights in 1689.
It is this intertwining of Englishness and Britishness that has made the work of academics from Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities and the IPPR, spearheaded by Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre, so intriguing and indeed controversial. Their research, published earlier this year as The dog that finally barked seems to go against the grain of conventional understandings of Englishness. They found that 40 per cent of English respondents to the 2011 Future of England survey opted for either an English only or English predominant identity, as opposed to just 16 per cent who opted for a British identity.
Furthermore, despite high levels of attachment to both Englishness and Britishness, again the English dimension is predominant with 85 per cent having a strong attachment to this identity, as opposed to 76 per cent for Britishness. This suggestion that the ‘Anglo’ dimension of an Anglo-British identity is emphasized by the English public has attracted criticism from researchers on the NatCen British Social Attitudes study. On the other hand, it appears to be endorsed from the 2011 census.
According to the census (which included an intra-British identity question for the first time), around 70 per cent of English respondents, (67.1 per cent across England and Wales as a whole) opted for an English predominant identity, and 60 per cent for a purely English identity, as opposed to just under 30 per cent for a British predominant identity and 20% uniquely British identity. All the English regions bar London saw an English predominant identity record more than 70 per cent, with the highest English predominant identity being recorded in the North East of England with over 80 per cent, an area that the Office for National Statistics notes as home to a largely White-British population. This echoes the Dog that finally barked report, which claimed that 43 per cent of White Britons in England emphasized an English identity over a British one, as opposed to just 17 per cent of non-White Britons.
Beyond the census returns, the Cardiff/Edinburgh/IPPR’s argument of a growing English identity also appears to be reinforced by an analysis of the factors that traditionally underpinned English attachment to a British identity. Essentially it was an attachment predicated not on primordial or deontological grounds (basically Britishness is good in its own right), but on instrumental grounds, rooted in pay offs – with Britishness and British institutions flattering English sensibilities, rather than antagonising them.
Since devolution, it has been a constant theme of academic and media commentary that such underpinnings were bound to be compromised through the West Lothian Question and the perceived effects of the Barnett formula and alleged “freebie” cultures in Scotland and Wales funded, of course, by the English tax payer. The result, commentators and academics predicted, would be an English backlash.
However, this backlash has been slow off the mark. Yet as the Cardiff/Edinburgh/IPPR and even the NatCen research, The English Question: How in England responding to devolution? – which disputes the alleged predominance of English identity – has shown, there are overwhelming majorities in England for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on English matters (the West Lothian Question). Similarly overwhelming numbers believe Scotland gets more than its fair share and should raise its own revenue. These sentiments have become more entrenched and vociferous, with the idea that the UK government does not look after all areas equally commanding the support of 72 per cent of respondents in England (according to the Dog that finally barked report), with 57 per cent claiming that they have either not very much or no trust in the UK government works in the best interests of England.
These are hugely important findings. It is little wonder that with such overwhelming dissatisfaction, support for the status quo in England has plummeted from 49 per cent in 2009, to only 24 per cent in 2011. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Cardiff/Edinburgh/IPPR team has found a majority of respondents supporting an English dimension of governance when one combines the support for English votes for English laws (34 per cent), and an English Parliament (20 per cent).
Therein, however, lies the biggest problem and potentially the seeds of the starkest challenge facing unionists. This is the difficulty of answering the so-called English Question. Regionalism is discredited and unwanted. An English Parliament rarely commands significant mass and elite support. And whilst the McKay Commission has produced an elegant and sophisticated report, its emphasis on procedural reforms leaves Barnett unreformed and is unlikely to win over the public at large. Englishness, like the Great Achilles in Tennyson’s Ulysses, never died, but has increasingly emerged from the shadows of Britishness.
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Adam Evans is a Doctoral Student at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University and a member of the UK Changing Union project’s Our Future Steering Group.