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The fall and rise of Britishness and Englishness

Posted on 28 September 2018 by Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive .
Tags: BSA, British Social Attitudes


Following the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, UK politicians were quick to warn of the threat of English nationalism. 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 widely recognised Moreno question on national identity of residents in England. The equivalent figure for 2017 was under a quarter.

However, there’s nothing like a Royal Wedding and a World Cup in the same year, 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 strongly identify as British, with the same proportion of both 18 to 24 year olds and 50 to 64 year olds reporting a powerful association with Britain.

In some ways, the recent BBC figures are remarkable for being so unremarkable. Our British identity remains strong but also more inclusive than English identity; it is felt strongly by three quarters of those in ethnic minorities in England. But whereas about 6 in 10 people overall say they are proud to declare their English identity, under a third of ethnic minorities are.

Nor does these latest data fuel the fear that English nationalism is likely to break up the Union, as was the worry at the start of the millennium. There was a belief then that devolution would provide an antidote to Scottish nationalism, but the evidence continues to show that whether the union is working sufficiently well for Scotland remains its biggest threat.

But what do we actually mean by Britishness? Extensive research into national identity was conducted in 2013. In the public’s view, factors such as an ability to speak English (95 per cent), having British citizenship (85 per cent), respecting our laws and institutions (85 per cent), living in Britain (77 per cent), being born here (74 per cent) and feeling British (78 per cent) are important in making us “truly British”.

The 2013 study also  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 national identities depending on whether it’s the Olympic Games or the World Cup we’re watching. Our strong association with both a British and an English identity, and the somewhat interchangeable and intertwined way they are used, suggests so.

This blog post has originally appeared on The Times.

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