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The fall and rise of Britishness and Englishness

Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research

September 2018

Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, UK politicians were quick to warn of the threat of English nationalism to the existence of the Union. Jack Straw, the former Labour MP, went as far as describing the English as “potentially very aggressive, very violent … and will increasingly articulate their Englishness following devolution”. Almost twenty years on, were they right and is Brexit one of the consequences?

Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, UK politicians were quick to warn of the threat of English nationalism to the existence of the Union. Jack Straw, the former Labour MP, went as far as describing the English as “potentially very aggressive, very violent … and will increasingly articulate their Englishness following devolution”.

Almost twenty years on, were they right and is Brexit one of the consequences?

The British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) remains the best barometer of changing public attitudes over time. It asks the Moreno question (Moreno 2006) on national identity of respondents resident in England. The question is as follows:

Which, if any, of the following best describes how you see yourself?

  • English, not British
  • More English than British
  • Equally English and British
  • More British than English
  • British, not English

In 2000, 32% of the public said they were either English or more English, than British. In the recently published BSA 35, the equivalent figure for 2017 was 23%; twenty years earlier in 1997 it was 24%.

British vs English identity

However, there’s nothing like a Royal Wedding and a World Cup in the same year, accompanied by the waving of Union Jack and St George’s Cross flags, as well as our on-going deliberations on Brexit, for commentators to contemplate whether the predicted tide of nationalism is now upon us.

The BBC’s recent work on “The English Question” suggests that 80% of residents of England identify strongly as English. A relatively similar proportion, 82%, of English residents strong identify as British. Exactly the same proportion (83%) of both 18-24 year olds and 50-64 year olds report a powerful association with Britain.

In some ways, the recent BBC figures are remarkable for being so unremarkable. For organisations branding themselves as “British” or with “British” in their name, and who might be contemplating rebranding, I would recommend a pause. Not only do the figures suggest our association with Britain remains strong, British identity is also seen as more “inclusive” than English identity; for example, British identity is felt strongly by three quarters of those in ethnic minorities in England, a little less than the overall figures. But whereas about 6 in 10 people overall say they are proud to declare their English identity, under a third of ethnic minorities are.

It would certainly be a stretch to claim that the most recent BSA and BBC figures support a hypothesis that the Brexit vote signals the onset of a growth in English nationalism.

Nor do these latest data fuel the fear that English nationalism is likely to break up the Union, as was the worry of politicians at the start of the millennium. More pertinent perhaps is that there was a belief then that devolution would provide an antidote to Scottish nationalism. The evidence continues to support the view that whether the United Kingdom is working sufficiently well for Scotland remains the biggest issue for those who support the Union.

At the time of the political concerns about the rise of English nationalism in 2000, Tony Linsell, founder of the Campaign for an English Parliament, encouraged the English to “wake up” and rather lamented our apathy towards English devolution. “We’ve got trouble getting any publicity, but someone must care” he concluded.  Perhaps they do, but the evidence from the public remains unconvincing.

The 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey, for example, showed that while in England a majority (over 60%) do say they support the notion of English votes for English laws, a significant minority still don’t. The English also support England being governed largely as it is now through the UK Parliament. Only a minority of the public have typically supported England having its own parliament with law-making powers or even for each region of England having its own assembly. One reason for this may be that the population of England is so much greater than the other British countries combined, so the UK Parliament is seen as representing the views of the English most of the time.

English parliament

Our strong on-going attachment to being British is worthy of attention. What do we mean by Britishness? Extensive research into national identity was conducted on BSA in 2013. The survey looked at the importance of different attributes for being “truly British”. It is clear that in the public’s view, factors such as an ability to speak English (95%), having British citizenship (85%), respecting our laws and institutions (85%), living in Britain (77%), being born here (74%) and feeling British (78%) are particularly important in making us “truly British”.

What makes someone truly British

I was struck at an event earlier this year on the British “brand” that those around the table felt proud to be British because of factors like our global influence, our openness, diversity and respect for minorities, our natural environment and our innovation. The event was in London and attended by figures from what might be called the “establishment”. All of these are valid views, of course, but not necessarily those at the front of the public’s mind. The BSA study in 2013  suggested the areas that four in five of us were particularly proud of included: our armed forces; our history; our achievements in sports; our scientific and technological achievements; and our arts and literature. Somewhat fewer were proud of our influence in the world, our democracy, fair and equal treatment of all groups in society, economic achievements or our social security system.

Should any of this really surprise us? I doubt it. While commentators may seek out new narratives, and a tide of English nationalism would be one, the public in England has perhaps got used to switching between being English and British, depending on the context (for example, whether it’s the Olympic Games or the World Cup we’re watching).

Add to that the difference in the population size of England, compared with Scotland and Wales, and you conclude that the strong association with both a British Identity and an English one among those resident in England, and the somewhat interchangeable and intertwined way they are used, is perhaps inevitable. The evidence continues to support that view.

Follow me on Twitter: @GuyNatCen 

This blog post has originally appeared on The Times.