English national identity?

Who are the English and what do they think they are?

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What is England's national identity?

By Joe Harker

What is a nation and what characteristics can be applied to the people of that nation? There are certain things associated with people from different countries, though accounts differ depending upon who you ask. More than a language or borders drawn on a map, the thing that brings people together in a nation is a sense of identity, an idea that everyone can get behind and rally around.

The BBC has been attempting to find out what the English national identity is. Mark Easton suggests that the focus on devolution in the United Kingdom has helped exemplify national identity in other areas, while the use of St George's Cross from certain far right groups has made England "an embarrassing uncle at a wedding".

Easton believes understanding the English and what they are is important for understanding modern politics in the UK. He conducted a survey seeking to get to the bottom of "The English Question", aiming to understand what the country means to the people and therefore be better able to predict the future that may lay in store.

The survey found English identity and British identity were two very closely intertwined things, though the places where they split were telling. While 80 per cent of the people of England said they identified strongly as English, 82 per cent said the same of identifying as British.

At first glance being English and British would appear to be one and the same, though that could be changing. Just 45 per cent of young people in the survey said they felt proud to be English, compared to 72 per cent of old people. Contrast that with Scotland, where all age groups score higher than 80 per cent on being proud to be Scottish.

The biggest divide on English identity is ethnicity. While 61 per cent of white respondents to the survey said they were proud to identify as English, only 32 per cent of ethnic minorities could say the same, instead strongly associating themselves with being British.

One very significant factor in the study was that the English felt the best days of their nation were behind them, while the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish think the best is yet to come.

As far as politics goes, the voters of the main political parties are rather split on whether they like being English or not. Conservative voters do, while Labour and Liberal Democrat voters do not. Former Labour MP John Denham believes this is a problem for his old party, suggesting that they were alienating English voters. He said: "Voters who most strongly identify as English are much more likely to reject Labour as a party and key Labour messages, like support for the EU.

"Without a change in Labour's appeal, rising English identity may make attracting key groups of voters even harder."

Writing in The Guardian, Martin Kettle argues that the parties on the left need to find a way of engaging with the English. He writes that England "can't be treated as more or less the same thing as Britain". People might feel proud to be both British and English, but thinking that one means the other is a mistake.

Kettle suggests that the left has preferred silence in regards to England for too long, instead preferring to talk about Britain. He doesn't want to criticise Labour specifically but reports that many of their policy documents don't even mention England, even on issues where the matter is devolved in all other parts of the UK. He suggests that a devolved English parliament would force the parties on the left to change their outlook and engage with the country, something they sorely need to do.

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