What does it mean to be English? For some, it is about tradition, history and glory. For others, it is about exclusion and prejudice. For many it is about secretly getting over-excited about England’s World Cup chances before moaning about how you knew they never stood a chance when they get knocked out at the group stages.
Football aside, the concept of English identity seems to receive a lot less attention than the more universal British identity, or that of the other nations of the UK. With this in mind a new YouGov poll commissioned by the BBC has shed some light on the nature of English identity, particularly where and with whom it is strongest.
Some of the results are to be expected. In particular, it comes as no surprise that English identity is stronger among older people, with over-65s 10% more likely to strongly identify themselves as English than those aged 18-49. Such identification is almost always more common among older people, who would have had far less access to other countries and people of other nationalities in their youth.
It’s as if we’re teaching young people that any sense of English identity is racist. For everyone else it’s a good thing to be proud of who you are. https://t.co/w9iBBpcQhB
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) June 4, 2018
"It's ludicrous that young people associate white English identity with thuggery and racism," shout a bunch of people who cheer a gang of white guys wearing St. George crosses chanting England football songs and racist slogans, attacking police in the street.
— D Gore (@GoricHistoria) June 10, 2018
Those who live in England’s major cities, meanwhile, are far less likely to consider themselves English than those elsewhere. Being the areas of the nation with the most diverse and international populations, it may be the case that those most exposed to the social and cultural effects of globalisation hold a cosmopolitan identity alongside or even above an English one.
Perhaps most striking, though, is the difference between white and non-white people in their views on English identity. 85% of white respondents said they identified strongly as English, compared with only 45% of people from a ‘BME’ background. While 61% of white people also described themselves as ‘proud’ to be English, the same was true for only 32% of people of other ethnicities. These people were also far less positive about what it means to be English, with significantly fewer people associating the terms ‘tolerant’, ‘welcoming’ and ‘outward-looking’ than white people.
The picture this paints about England is an interesting one. In particular, it appears as though the tolerance celebrated by white English people as a part of their nation’s identity is not felt by the very people who are meant to be tolerated. Many such minorities appear to view Englishness as an identity as exclusionary by definition.
Members of the English Defence League, an organisation which for many sums up the exclusionary nature of English identity (Source: Wikimedia)
This seems to be distinct to England. According to the survey, British identity does not elicit the same negative responses from non-white people. Many more ‘BME’ respondents, around three-quarters, considered themselves British. While this is still below the figures for white people, the difference is nowhere near as large. In some ways, this is intuitive. The idea of Britain and Britishness can be seen to conjure up more images of tolerance and diversity (even if some of this is the result of the country’s imperial past), or at least less important but still benign things like politeness, tea and the Royal Family.
In comparison, Englishness, particularly a pride in being English, evokes images of football hooligans, skinheads and racists. English patriotism can be seen to go beyond usual love for one’s country seen all over the world, perhaps because England is already by far the dominant and most powerful nation of the UK. Needing to assert that identity can come across as aggressive and even violent when the nationalism of other UK nations is more about asserting the need for equal recognition alongside England. Embracing an English identity, given the relative power of England in the UK, is in many ways not dissimilar to embracing a white identity, which in countries like the UK has historically been dominant over other races, perhaps explaining the apparent link between whiteness and Englishness.
Many appear to see English identity as necessarily regressive, where Britishness and – perhaps even more so – moving identity beyond national boundaries altogether, represent open-mindedness and tolerance. Whether this is true or not, though, it is worth remembering that the more people who identify as English feel marginalised and isolated from these others, the more they are likely to assert themselves and make their voices heard. Englishness may seem like a backward-looking idea, but don’t expect it to disappear quickly as we go forward.