Uneasy Englishness?

In 2011 I travelled to the French alps with some fellow Brits. We began talking on the bus and this inevitably led to questions of where everyone was from. I said I was British and came from Southampton, at which point the remaining travellers revealed their own hometowns and national identities. In all; four were English, two were Scottish and two were Welsh.

After 2 hours we reached the resort and were greeted by our French guide who asked where we were all from. Whilst the Welsh and the Scots had maintained their identity the English had, much to my surprise, rapidly abandoned theirs. One had become Scottish, a second Irish and the final two now identified as Cornish despite saying that they were originally from Bristol and now lived in Swindon. That evening I asked why they’d all changed with one of the more forthcoming of the group explaining; “there’s just a connotation with being English and British isn’t there, best to avoid when you’re on the continent”.

Fast forward to Spring 2017 and I’m sat in a coffee shop just outside of Colchester doing interviews for my PhD. Sat opposite me is an interview respondent from one of the nearby villages. She welcomes me to the area and sips her tea. She has an interest in politics having had frequent contact with her MP and at previous elections has supported candidates from across the political spectrum.

I guide the conversation onto her identity. She identifies strongly as English and firmly rejects the idea that she is British or European. She explains that she feels England is under threat from what she terms ‘loony lefties’ and ‘unfettered immigration’ and states her belief that foreign nationals have abused the welfare system at the expense of ‘ancestral’ Englanders like her. She’s all in favour of Brexit and voted to leave the EU, whilst by her own description she presently sees herself as right-wing and supportive of UKIP. Being English, rather than British, is put forward by her as a buffer against what she perceives as a changing world – a world in which she feels left behind.

To think that these views are representative of all English identifiers is undoubtedly mistaken. But she is not alone, with national identity becoming increasingly more relevant to UK politics. Recent academic studies and survey research have consistently indicated its relationship to electoral patterns and political behaviour. Specifically, recent studies have shown that Scottish and English identity become most politically relevant based upon strength of identification relative to British identity. Strong Scottish or English identification matched by timid attachment or full rejection of British identity relates strongly to key political outcomes – chiefly independence in Scotland and Brexit in England. With the outcome of Brexit remaining as yet undetermined and the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum re-emerging [1] identity is becoming more and more relevant.

Like my acquaintances in the Alps, should we be worried about the connotations attached to our identity in the UK? Certainly, I continue to identify as British and English amongst other identities – mindful of the fact that neither of these terms are defined by just one interpretation and that each has both positive and negative connotations attached. It remains to be seen as to whether identity will be taken more seriously as a part of ongoing political debates in the UK and whether views such as those of my interviewee in Colchester are going to become more common. Will English identity develop a more nationalistic tendency and if it does what effect might this have upon the UK? To explore this and bring it up to date this blog will be looking for identity-based trends in the aftermath of the 12th of December general election.