English people in the social and environmental movements often don’t like talking about English identity. It seems to be a source of embarrassment. When I speak to friends about Englishness, I find that many like to shift the conversation subtly onto the safer ground of Britishness. But there’s an irony here. This easy elision from Englishness to Britishness could only ever be sustained by those living in England. Where it’s unconscious, it’s an elision that arises through a sense of being numerically, economically and culturally dominant. Yet it is those who feel most uncomfortable about Englishness, and who appeal most readily to Britishness, who are also the first to consciously reject any possible basis for dominance.
All of this is changing. The stark difference between the attitudes of Scottish and English (or Welsh) voters towards Europe, thrown into relief by a referendum that forced a binary yes/no response, makes it increasingly difficult even for those living in England to confuse Englishness with Britishness. Theresa May’s insistence that “we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom” rings hollow.
It’s time for people who live in England, and who are working for a more humane and caring society, to stop hiding behind this increasingly untenable sense of Britishness. It’s time for them to begin to help shape what it means to be English. Only by doing so can they assist in the midwifery of a self-confident, outward-looking and inclusive English identity.
I was keen to explore this perspective with the theologian and philosopher Alastair McIntosh – someone who has given a great deal of thought to Scottish national identity. Sharing a dram over Skype we took a sideways look at English national identity: both of us were born in England, though we have each spent almost our whole lives living elsewhere (Alastair in Scotland, I in Wales).
Where might an inclusive and outward-looking conversation about English national identity start?
Here are three possible departure points that Alastair and I came up with:
1. Get the history right
Before he became Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnston delivered a speech entitled “What Would Maggie do Today?”. Thatcher, he said, “changed the self-image of the country”:
“To grasp what she did, you have to remember how far we felt we had fallen. Our country – Britain – used to rule the world – almost literally. Of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or at least invaded 171 – that is 90 per cent..."
Greatness, it seems, is to be found in the power to suppress. According to this perspective, advanced by an English MP speaking for Britons, we felt we had fallen when we stopped ruling the world. But the atrocities of British suppression of other peoples is not greatness, and to suppress our collective understanding of these atrocities is to keep the lid on our humanity. There can be no possibility of developing a self-confident and outward looking English national identity without coming to terms with the horrors of the empire. But this is history that we would rather destroy than confront.
Yet, at the same time, there are many great things that England has given to the world that we choose not to highlight, and that are largely overlooked in our history classes. One could start with the flood of radical ideas thrown up at the time of the English Revolution, and their global legacy today.
In the US, there are organisations dedicated to supporting the teaching of people’s history. Similar organisations are needed in England.
There is work here for teachers, and arts and heritage organisations – perhaps starting with the National Trust.
2. Treat nature as though it’s sacred
England’s “mountains green” and “pleasant pastures” of Blake’s Jerusalem (pictured above in his own version) are central to English identity, which is, for many, rooted in relationship with England’s woods, rivers and coasts, and the other species with which we share these.
Yet this is an aspect of our identity which is under profound threat. We all know – even if we don’t recall the precise figures – that our woodlands and farmlands are becoming quieter as song-bird populations plummet, the seas around our coasts are dying, and those “pleasant pastures” themselves are under threat – whether from fracking or road building.
At the same time, what is left of English nature is commodified as “natural capital”, robbed of its intrinsic value as its notional financial value is chalked up: often with the complicity – if not outright enthusiasm – of conservation organisations. What untold and unconscious psychological damage is being wrought by the denigration of English nature as a resource to be “sustainably exploited” or “harvested”?
England’s environmental and conservation organisations need to mount an effective defence against the desacralisation of English nature. To embrace its commodification is to shoot themselves in the foot.
Alastair recently drew these threads together for BBC Alba, speaking about the crucial interplay of history, sense of place, community and the shared national imagination.
3. Talk about English diversity
The myriad ways in which English culture is enriched through the contribution of people of diverse background or faith needs to be talked about. If we don’t talk about it, then we silently strengthen a more narrowly circumscribed and impoverished perception of what it means to be English.
Take just one example: look at the Google ngram chart I've generated below. The phrases “British Christian” and “English Christian” are used with comparable frequency. But there's a wide disparity in the frequency of the use of terms “British Muslim” and “English Muslim”. Is it that we prefer to use "British" in relation to Muslims because of a tacit fear that "English" is less inclusive of faiths other than Christianity? It seems possible. But if this is happening, then it is also likely to be self-reinforcing. A more inclusive sense of Englishness is going to be best nurtured by consciously talking about, for example, English Muslims.
Any English person who worries about what Englishness stands for could ask whether she or he is working to help address the source of these worries, or is rather retreating behind her or his simultaneous identity as British. It’s time to start celebrating all that’s great about Englishness – and, yes, finding in it things of which to be proud.
English identity and today’s big challenges
It seems clear that if England is to become a caring and open society, celebrating the diversity of the English, caring for the disadvantaged and looking after the planet – both the bit called England and the rest of it – then we need to talk about English identity differently.
A lot is known about the intersection of people’s identity and their social or environmental sensibilities.
Take climate change.
If accepting the gravity of the problem that climate change presents risks leaving you ostracised by your ‘in-group’ (the people with whom you closely identify) then it is ‘rational’ for you to shore up your group-identity by rejecting the climatology.
After all, the chances are, whether you accept or deny climate change, your stance on the issue is going to have next to no impact on whether effective policies to tackle climate change are adopted.
But (depending upon the worldview of your in-group) accepting the science may come at a very high social cost – that of being criticised, or ostracised, by friends and family. The social scientist Dan Kahan calls this “identity-protective cognition”: whether we accept facts depends in part on the impact of this on the identity we’re striving to preserve (even where this effect is not something of which we are consciously aware).
It’s known – Tim Kasser and colleagues have shown this – that reflecting on different aspects of our national identity leads to different outcomes when we’re subsequently asked about our support for environmentally-friendly policies.
It’s because identity is so important in shaping collective responses to social and environmental challenges that Common Cause Foundation is working on our perceptions of what matters to others. Collectively, and across all English regions, people typically underestimate the overriding importance that fellow citizens place on values such as social justice or environmental protection.
These values are core aspects of the identity of most people who live in England. We need to start making them part of what is understood by Englishness.