Defining Englishness

By Tanja Bueltmann

The existing historiography on ethnic groups in North America and the wider British World documents an absent or weak diasporic or ethnic identity among the English. While the major recent academic study of English identity recognises the importance of Empire in the shaping of identity, it does not explore Englishness in the colonies or America [Robert Colls, Identity of England (Oxford, 2002), ch.6.]. Jeremy Paxman’s evocative description of an ‘English Empire’ solely examines England’s relations with the ‘Celtic Fringe’ [Jeremy Paxman, The English (London, 1998), ch.3.]. It was this absence of scholarship on Englishness overseas, and the failure to recognise the English as ‘ethnic’, that motivated us to study the English Diaspora in North America. Of equal importance, however, is that the apparent absence of an English Diaspora ties in with wider developments in England itself.

While England is one of Europe’s oldest unitary states with a strong, historical sense of nationhood, contemporary English identity is weak and bitty, with little of the dynamic associated with Scottish or Irish identities. English identity is one under increasing pressure in a dissolving United Kingdom, drifting, almost self-consciously, between tub-thumping populism and teary-eyed public spectacle. While the patriots at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ wave the union flag, the past ten years has seen increasing public and  popular uses of the flag of St George, particularly in connection with sporting events, and also on St George’s day. This new usage highlights some of the problems of Englishness more generally: the flag may be seen fluttering on cars or draped around football fans, but Englishness remains a highly contentious identity. While attempts have been made to define Englishness culturally, see for instance the ICONS: A Portrait of England project, Englishness loses out politically in the recent vogue for what we now term identity politics.

Englishness has received renewed attention in the light of the SNP’s historic victory earlier this year in Scotland. What would being English mean if there was no United Kingdom? A BBC Newsnight and Radio 4 World at One poll from earlier in the month found that 48% of voters in England want Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom. At the same time, a Life and Times survey claimed 52% of Catholics from Northern Ireland want to remain in the United Kingdom–a group who has not traditionally held this view. So how fluid are identities within the United Kingdom, and what is the place of Englishness? Here are a few interesting links to articles and discussions on this and related issues:

‘If Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise’ (The Guardian, 2011)

‘The holy grail of English nationalism’ (The Guardian, 2011)

‘Nearly half of English oppose Scottish independence – poll’ (BBC, 2011)

‘Northern Ireland Catholics are now more unionist than the English. Can the United Kingdom last?’ (The Telegraph, 2011)

‘Englishness needs more than a corny festival’ (The Times, 2009)

‘Growing sense of Englishness explains why less than half of country feel British’ (The Guardian, 2007)

‘Proud patriots or just football fans?’ (BBC, 2006)

‘In search of identity: Government decides Englishness needs icons’ (The Independent, 2006)

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