Understanding the resurgence of English national identity


On 14 December Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, spoke at a Unit seminar on English nationhood and the current debate around the English Question in British politics. Sally Symington reports on the event.

Michael Kenny’s talk ‘Understanding the Resurgence of English National Identity’ placed the current policy debate about the English Question in a wider context and brought to bear some of the values associated with English national sentiment upon some of the proposed solutions. Kenny drew on the results of his research project (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust) which are detailed in his recent book ‘The Politics of English Nationhood’. The analysis triangulated quantitative polling data and qualitative research regarding the kinds of meaning people attach to their English identity in order to give a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issues. Kenny also discussed the territorial political dynamics which have contributed to the situation whereby the Conservative party makes the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) a salient part of its political and electoral appeal.

Kenny argued that it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a politicised English nationalism (apparent in attitudes of about 25% of the population) and a much broader and more significant pattern involving shifting forms of national self-awareness. In his opinion, the rise in English national consciousness pre-dates devolution; indeed it can be traced back to the early-mid 1990s and arguably even to the 1930s. The European issue, the bumpy shift to post-industrial economy and debates about the viability of the UK all contributed to growing English consciousness and since 2006-07 have been supplemented by a populist, grievance fuelled notion of a ‘golden-age’ for England. However, Kenny saw the broad consensus of ‘English’ identity break down in London where the prevalence of ethnic minorities results in a much higher rate of self-identification as ‘British’; this is one of the antinomies of England to which Kenny referred in respect of English nationalism.

Kenny claimed that his findings are supported by a number of researchers using other methods who agree that, from the middle of the 2000s, ‘Englishness’ has become more salient and has taken on a more political cast. He evidenced this by showing a significant correlation between Euro scepticism and pro English attitudes; the emergence of UKIP and high levels of pro English sentiment among its supporters; and the development of the Scottish referendum debate and gathering focus on territorial issues. The Future of England Survey 2012 data suggests there are significant and rising levels of irritation amongst the English about public spending and the West Lothian question. When asked which of the policy options associated with the English Question appeal most, the pattern of results suggests support for any kind of change; the two outlier positions in terms of their polling are, at one end, regional government (which is now very unpopular) and EVEL which polls more strongly than other options such as an English Parliament or Secretary of State for England.

Kenny went on to highlight that the English Question and its potential solutions are affected by the territorial bifurcation of the pattern of representation of the two main parties at Westminster. The Conservatives are predominant in the South/South East of England, hardly represented in Scotland and fairly marginal in Wales, whilst Labour are strongly represented in Scotland, Wales and former industrial cities of the Midlands and North of England. This has been accentuated by the first past the post electoral system and Kenny suggested its effects could be ameliorated by a change to proportional representation. Looking to the 2015 general election, the collapsing appeal of the Scottish Labour party and likelihood of a significant rise in SNP representation in the House of Commons after 2015, (plus some UKIP MPs) means that the SNP could play a pivotal role either as coalition partner for Labour or more plausibly as supply and confidence partner for either of the two main parties. Under these circumstances, Kenny foresaw the English Question returning with a vengeance.

Kenny discussed how the question of distribution of public expenditure across the UK is closely associated with the West Lothian question of national representation. The English believe that a fairer financial model needs to be devised but are also keen for a new deal within England too. Kenny suggested arguments for reform should not rest solely on estimates of what public opinion appears to support or not, both because the latter is fluid and febrile on these questions but more importantly because other values and arguments should count as well.   He felt that these values needed to be articulated by politicians and a way found to give the English agency and voice in these debates; having seen the Scots given both, Kenny believes there is understandable disgruntlement.

Kenny argued it cannot be ruled out that a more wholeheartedly nationalist body of convictions will grow in England, as elsewhere, and that in England it is more likely to do so as a result of resentment at London than over greater devolution to Scotland; furthermore, he suggested there is serious debate to be had about where national self-consciousness stops and nationalist starts. There is a real imperative to inject into current policy debates the questions of how to channel shifting forms of English national consciousness into the constitutional structures of the UK; left unaddressed, they are ripe for populist mobilisation. Kenny concluded that the solution needs to take account not just of Westminster processes and norms but also a citizens’ eye view in order to face the challenges of disenchantment and alienation.

Watch the full presentation on our Vimeo page here.

About the Author

Sally Symington completed an MSc in Public Policy at UCL in 2014 and has been working in the Constitution Unit as an Intern on the Parliamentary Candidates Project, PCUK2015.

One thought on “Understanding the resurgence of English national identity

  1. Pingback: Understanding the resurgence of English national identity | The Constitution Unit Blog | In Search Of The English

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