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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

David Goodhart

“An Englishness open to all”

31 March 2017

University of Winchester

David Goodhart, Author and Journalist


This is a corrected transcript of talks given at the ‘An Englishness open to all’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 31 March 2017.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speak

Thank you, John, and thank you for inviting me and your endeavours in this whole field which I think have been very important. 

I want to agree with Tariq Modood, something I don’t always do! I agree with you Tariq that I think Englishness will follow Britishness out of the shadows into normality both for the ethnic majority and for minorities over the next few decades. I would very much want to disagree with Maria to say that there is not a positive story to tell, there is the positive Danny Boyle story which is after all an overwhelmingly English story; we did in the name of liberty chop off the head of a King 150 years before the French did; the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; we created the Industrial Revolution with legal, political and social rights gradually spreading through the whole population; we established this extraordinary Empire with both benign and malign consequences; we spread liberal constitutionalism around the world; it has some claim to being the most influential national story of all in modern times and I think much of it is positive. 

But it is also true that it in the way that it has emerged in recent years it’s been largely reactive which has given its perception of negativity even disaffection. Englishness is a reaction to devolution in Scotland, it’s a reaction to the much deeper encroachment of the European Union into national sovereignty than was envisaged back in the 1970s, which is one of the reasons why we have just voted for Brexit, and it is indeed a reaction to high immigration and dramatic demographic changes in some places.  On the other hand, there is also the creeping everyday normalisation of Englishness in our language, we now talk about the English NHS, we talk about English schools, it’s just there in front of us every day in the newspapers and in the way that we discuss things.  And I think and hope that we will, as we have in a way done with Britishness, we will go through a similar process of trying to blur the distinction between ethnic and civic forms of attachment. I think both are perfectly legitimate and most people end up with some sort of a mixture of the two, though there are certain parts of the country where that is harder, in the mill towns for example, where if you’re English it means your white.  It is a very strongly racialized identity but if Scotland does become independent then at a stroke Englishness, having been supposedly an ethnic identity, literally overnight becomes a political identity, so it must in some way be a sort of nascent political identity for that to be possible at all. 

Incidentally, just in response to Nasar’s very interesting paper first thing this morning I do think there is a temptation in Scotland towards a certain self-righteousness on the national question, painting England as closed and illiberal, but I would just like to point out that a higher proportion of Scots think that you have to be white to be Scottish than English people do.  What Nasar didn’t point out was that the non-white proportion of the Scottish population is 4.5% and the non-white proportion of the English population is about 16% now, so we are actually living a multi-ethnic society in a way that the Scots are not.  It is also easier for Scottish national identity to embrace minorities or for minorities to embrace the Scottish identity, I think because it is not exactly an oppositional identity but it’s a small country in the shadow of a big country national identity.  And that has allowed the Scots to escape from the shadow of the idea that national identities are about superiority and particularly in the case of Britishness and Englishness, the attachment to Empire.  Of course, as we know the Scots were disproportionately involved in the Empire, so it’s been rather a convenient way to kind of wriggle out of these historic responsibilities. 

But of course, Empire is also the reason for English shyness, for shyness about Englishness, because it makes sense to downplay your dominance when you are trying to run a very large Empire. If you are the dominant group, both within the British Isles and within a much larger Empire it is logical and functional to play down your own identity, which is what has happened.  But I think Scotland does provide us with useful lessons too, and what it shows is that national identities are pretty plastic, I mean not completely so, but they can be shaped and when you have a political class, and a kind of intellectual class in Scotland that is very positive about their progressive and civic form of nationalism, that starts to be the story that people tell, even if some of your data suggested that it may be at odds with the reality of some Scottish life.  

What is pretty clear I think from Charles’ paper and just looking at polls and listening to what people say, English identification is at the moment overwhelmingly working class. It is the people in my book, The Road  to Somewhere, that I call the Somewheres, I talk about the value blocks in British society, the Anywheres, 25%/30% of the population who tend to be more mobile and educated, and there is a bigger block of 50% of the population, the Somewheres, who tend to be more rooted, less well educated and more attached to group identities. This is not just a working-class thing, but it is predominantly a working-class thing, and the overwhelming proportion of strong English identifiers voted for Brexit.  

So Englishness needs to obviously break out of this sociological limitation that it currently lives with and that means winning over two key groups in particular to identify more as English, one is the ethnic minorities and the other is the liberal middle class. Hitherto the national political class, as the English parliament gentleman was suggesting, have had a very weak sense of Englishness and I think that needs to change and I think will change for reasons I will briefly describe. 

Just first on the English minorities I think things are shifting, we saw some figures earlier to show how relatively low English identification is, but it is rising, and we also saw some figures that showed national identification in general remains pretty strong amongst minority Brits and minority English. The sense that how you sound is more important that how you look is increasingly a feature of English multi-ethnic society. Still English identification remains very low amongst people from south Asian backgrounds, around 15% I think, it’s more than a quarter for African Caribbean’s, and it’s 40% for mixed race Asians and 63% for mixed race Caribbeans. Those that identify as Jewish more than half identify as English. And I think not unimportantly, influential members of the minority intelligentsia are starting to think about it being possible to be English, Gary Younge, George Alagiah, have both written about their feelings about being English. For this normalisation process amongst minorities to continue, as I hope it will, it requires a broad openness and acceptance and welcoming on the part of the English majority and Maria showed us some figures that you might think are actually a little bit depressing in that respect. Around 29% of white English people I think it is, say that minority opportunities have gone too far, but I think one should be a bit cautious about how one interprets that. There are genuine racists and xenophobes, of course, but I think for many people especially in left behind parts of England it is more an expression of hostility to London and an elite that has demoted them in the national story. 

The liberal middle class might be a tougher nut to crack but I think you will also see a shift there. In my language the Anywheres tend not to have very strong group identities, they have achieved identities based on educational and professional success and tend to see attachments to place and group as regressive. But it is only the more extreme Anywheres, the people I call global villagers, who have a more universalist cosmopolitan outlook and tend to actively shun national identity. Most Anywheres do identify as British even if not very enthusiastically. But the way people think about racism is also a dividing line. Most conservatives and centrists think that racism is about feeling hostility to or superiority towards a minority outgroup.  Liberals obviously agree with that definition, but they add another element to racism, which is too strong an attachment to your own group whether ethnic or national.  Liberals are made uneasy by that.  Now of course it is possible to have too strong an attachment to your own group, that is why we have race discrimination rules to make sure that people don’t only hire people from their own group or rent their houses to them and so on.  But I think the idea of more benign forms of group attachment is something that liberals struggle with.  A good example of that struggle is in Jonathan Freedland’s review of my book in last Saturdays Guardian in which he acknowledges that hostility to mass immigration can be a legitimately cultural thing as well as an economic thing, but then much of the rest of the review he contradicts that and admonishes me for worrying too much about rapid demographic change.  

Yet I think things are moving, and maybe the English elite are becoming more aware of how unusual they are. If you go to a dinner party amongst the chattering classes of Dublin or Edinburgh or Cardiff, you would not find a shyness about national identity, but you would in London. Of course, the difference is that English has been a dominant national attachment. But as sociocultural themes become more central to politics the squeamishness about national identity will come to seem rather anachronistic. It will be more widely acknowledged even among liberals that there can be benign national feelings, indeed useful national attachments, and national attachment is no longer about superiority. Specialness but not superiority. And as Empire fades further and further into history too that helps us to see English national identity as about specialness not superiority.  And indeed with the fear of hyper individualism and the dissolution of social bonds and of high levels of trust and all those things that we know make for a good society, all of those things that liberals rightly worry about, moderate forms of national identity, in this case Englishness, are part of the answer. So this is about making Englishness not just an oppositional working class identity, but opening it up in the way that Scotland has so that even liberal progressives can be proud Scottish nationalists now. I look forward to the day when we can say the same thing about England. 

Thank you.


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