Posted by Sophie Yarker, 13th November, 2013
Last month, The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and British Futures hosted a ‘Festival of Englishness’ in London. In explaining the rationale for the event, Tim Finch (IPPR) pointed to data from the census and IPPR’s own Future of England Surveys as showing a marked rise in those choosing to prioritise their English identity over a British one. In 2012 nearly a third of people living in England felt more English than British versus 17 per cent who felt more British than English, nearly 3 in 4 of those in England believe St George’s day should be a national holiday while 62 per cent express pride when seeing St George’s cross fly. The English, Finch concluded, are stirring.
However amongst such stirrings there continues to be a nagging sense of unease surrounding discussions of English identity; a sense which was addressed head-on in reference to the St George’s Cross bunting strung around the room. “It reminds me of rough Luton pubs where I grew up” one panellist said. “To me that just brings back memories of the National Front” commented another. This quickly brought the festival to the nub of the issue; the question of whether there could be an English nationalism that was inclusive and progressive and one which ultimately could reclaim the St Georges flag from its appropriation by some on the far political Right.
The sense of confusion and awkwardness around the concept of Englishness was apparent throughout. Panellists and audience members alike slipped between talking about Britain and England; Britishness and Englishness, maybe a sign of the interrelatedness of these identities but maybe also a sign of the unfamiliarity of talking explicitly about the latter. The organisers PowerPoint was bordered with red, white and blue and a question raised of whether London was the appropriate location for such a discussion at all. Some appeared ambivalent toward expressing an identity of either English or British, insisting it didn’t matter. Others asserted the relational nature of identity; in Scotland you may feel more English for example whereas in the US you are very definitely European.
What was most intriguing was the way both place and class infused conversation. The influence of class was demonstrated clearly during the panel on ‘humour and the English’ which opened with a poll from the IRRP Future of England survey of which TV comedy characters respondents felt best represented Englishness. Top choice was Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy, with Hyacinth Bucket and Basil Fawlty also polling highly. The following discussion addressed the prominence of class within British TV comedy and its dealing with the contradictions and complexities of the English (or British?) class system.
The classed nature of cultural references of English identity was also evident in the artefacts panellists brought with them to summed up how they felt about Englishness. There was a fair amount of eye roiling when John Redwood MP produced a cricket ball and spoke of the significance of fair play, and a ‘spirit of cricket’, as well as a gentle mocking when Vanessa Whitburn, demonstrated Englishness with a ‘Marmalade clip’ from the Archers. True, these artefacts may speak to a very particular, classed understanding of Englishness, but couldn’t that very need to differentiate on class terms be seen as part of Englishness itself? The need to differentiate oneself from the ‘other’ though cultural tastes could equally be added to a list of common English traits and a middle class need to distinguish between ‘other middle class people’ is no exception.
The role of place; the regions and regional and local identity also came to the fore. At first, John Redwood MP dismissed the prevalence of any sense of regional identity in England; “I never go to bed at night thinking, goodness, I am proud to be from the Thames Valley”. This caused controversy on Twitter as well as in room itself. Many commentators were quick to point to the proud traditions of regional identity outside the M25 corridor leading to Mike Kenny, in the closing panel, to state that such questions of national, regional and local identity in England look very different when you step outside of London.
Some in the room introduced themselves as not being from England, but from Yorkshire or Liverpool or some other named region or locality highlighting a sense that any notion of English identity needed to compass a sense of local identity as well. John Denham too made the case that English nationalism needed to draw on the tradition of pride in place and in localities before it looked to Westminster for structural answers to this.
Understanding the English question therefore requires an understanding of both the local and of class in how we form, maintain and express a sense of national identity and with similar events taking place in Newcastle, Manchester and Bristol it was interesting to note the different shape such discussions took when moved outside of London. If any consensus was reached by the end of the day it could be summed up by Mike Kenny’s statement that we really are at “the nursery slopes” of discussions on Englishness and that such debates “need to be given time to breath”.