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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

David McCrone

“Stories of England”

28 March 2018

University of Winchester

Prof David McCrone, University of Edinburgh


This is a corrected transcript of talks given at the ‘Stories of England’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 28 March 2018.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker. 

Taking the view of The Other is always an interesting exercise; to see ourselves as others see us, to quote Robert Burns, our national poet. It can, of course, be an off-putting exercise as they tell you things you would rather not know, but at least you can retort: what do they know of us? If the us is demographically dominant in these islands, that can be tricky, even painful. 

I come to this as a sociologist who has studied ‘national identity’ for over twenty years, with funding help from The Leverhulme Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, and other research funders. I am also a Scot, so that looking over the garden fence, as it were, is always an interesting if slightly bewildering exercise. What are they up to now? one often wonders.

The conventional wisdom used to be that people in England (I prefer that descriptor to ‘the English’ because the latter assumes too much self-identity, just as I tend use ‘people in Scotland’ rather than ‘Scots’) didn’t think much of being English, which is deliberately ambiguous: they didn’t consider it much, and when they did, they didn’t think much of it. Briefly, there are four connected myths about being English. (I use ‘myth’ in a social scientific way, that it is a truth held to be self-evident; not something which is patently untrue.) 

The first myth is that people in England haven’t thought very much about being English, at least in comparison with their neighbours, the Scots, Welsh and Irish, all of whom seem to define themselves vis-à-vis ‘the English’, as The Other. True, all forms of social identity, be it social class, gender, ethnicity, involve saying who you are not. Furthermore, usually the dominant social group, middle class, men, and white, say, are far less likely to be explicit about social identity than their antithesis: working class, women, and people of colour. Minorities are far more likely to be aware of who they are. There is also the intriguing question as to when, and to what degree, non-white people in England consider themselves to be English, and whether they are thought of as such. The English, however, who represent over 80% of the UK population have had little reason to puzzle out who they are, especially in relation to others in these islands. 

The second, and related, myth is that people in England can’t tell the difference between being English and being British. The political commentator Anthony Barnett once commented that ‘The English are more often baffled when asked how they relate their Englishness and Britishness to each other; they often fail to understand the two can be contrasted at all’. The assumption is that being English is an implicit affair, rarely talked about because there is no need to. I once asked the late novelist Helen Dunmore why people in England seemed reluctant to talk about being English. She replied that they were no more likely to talk about it than to discuss sex and religion. It was not on the agenda in polite society. Nevertheless, there is the old (somewhat rusty) saw by G. K. Chesterton, which keeps getting resurrected: ‘Smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget, for we are the people of England that have never spoken yet’. Think about that. For the rest of us in this state and on these Islands, the answer has been ‘Oh really?’, because we have been too well aware that the people of England because of their numerical advantage, have mostly gotten what they want. Size is almost everything. And you risk something by poking the bear with a sharp stick. There is also something quite threatening about that Chesterton quote. 

The third myth is devised to explain why, ostensibly, people in England are unable to tell the difference between being English and being British. The late Bernard Crick (who wrote that marvellous biography of George Orwell) argued that the confusion was deliberate, because the British state (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to give it is full Sunday title) would fall apart if the majority people asserted their ‘national’ identity over their ‘state’ (i.e. British) one. In other words, the British state cannot afford, in this view, for the English to prioritise being English in case the state, that contradiction of being multi-national but yet unitary (not federal), comes apart at the seams. 

The fourth myth follows on from this; that the assertion of national identities at the peripheries – in Scotland and Wales in particular – have forced the English to consider their national interests. This has relied upon a reading of surveys and opinion polls to the effect that in the light of ‘devolution’ to Scotland and Wales in 1999, England too should have its own parliament. Furthermore, and as a result of this view, people in England have become ‘more English’ at the expense of being British. Significantly, the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s first act in the morning after the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence was to assert that now it was England’s turn at self-government: and so came about EVEL – English votes for English laws. 

We have, then, four myths connected in a chain: (a) that ‘the English’ haven’t thought about being English very much; (b) that as a result, they can’t tell the difference between England and Britain; (c) that there were geo-political reasons for the British state to discourage ‘being English’ lest it erode national/state identity; and (d) that devolution in Scotland and Wales has stirred up the hornets’ nest, and that people in England have become more English on the back of it. 

What’s wrong with that? Actually, quite a lot. These myths may be the stuff of newspaper columns and punditry, but the evidence is to the contrary. Doing systematic and rigorous social science has the merit of holding up such myths to the light, which is why we spent twenty years examining them using a variety of research methods: social surveys, ethnographies; intensive interviews (and re-interviews); experimental testing, and so on. The results were published mainly in the book by myself and Frank Bechhofer called ‘Understanding National Identity’ (2015). You can read the book for yourselves – or bits of it – but the work helps us to confront those myths. So what did we find of relevance to the English question?

First of all, the English were, and are, quite capable of distinguishing between being English and British according to cognate research by Susan Condor, and her social psychology colleagues at Lancaster and Loughborough. It’s not a kind of cognitive puzzle that they do not know how to solve. Rather, their reticence, such as it is, reflects awareness that there are more people on these islands than the English. The researchers concluded that there is no evidence that, if you talk to people on the ground, they are not able to talk about being English. So, I share Susan Condor’s rejection of the view that the English are simply apathetic to national identity, constituting, in her words, ‘a moral or motivational failure, often seen to be the product of arrogance or complacency or lethargy’. She is right.  It is not the way to read the data.

It follows, then, that English people have indeed given it quite a lot of thought, but that it didn’t come up much in conversation but when it did, they usually had a worked-out and nuanced view of being English and being British. It is, however, part of more general puzzle. The late Scottish writer William McIlvanney once likened national identity to an insurance policy; we have one, we can’t immediately lay our hands on it, and we are vague about what the small print means. It was a general point which McIlvanney was making, and if that vagueness was attributed to Scots (he was writing in the context of voting for a Scottish parliament in 1999, another referendum), it also surely applies to other people in these islands and beyond.

Only in moments of social and political crises, by and large, are national identity matters elevated into the explicit. Writing 30 years ago, the cultural critic Kobena Mercer observed: ‘Identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty’.  There is no shortage of opportunities in the last thirty years to mobilise matters of national identity.

Then there is the view that the English were somehow not allowed to be English. Who says? How does that work? Would you imagine that if England is by far the largest demographic component in these islands, they could happily bore for England if needs be? And doesn’t more recent history confirm that? We wrote in our 2015 book that we have lived through a period where national identity was not about England, to one in which national identity is about to become only about England, at least in these islands. And David Cameron’s EVEL seems to have died a political death, only to be transmogrified into Brexit and all its works and pomps. More later.

But haven’t the English become more English? It does not seem so if by that you mean that more people in England are choosing to say they are English more than British, or even that they are not British. Compare these figures. In 1997, 24 percent said they were only or mainly English, 45 percent equally English and British, and 23 percent only or mainly British. Twenty years later, in 2017, the proportions had changed very little: respectively, 23 percent, 41 percent and 23 percent. Again, to anticipate, those who did prioritise being ‘English’ seemed much more susceptible to Brexit appeals. In other words, claiming to be English was significantly associated in statistical terms with voting Leave in 2017. That one-quarter of the population in England who said they were only or mainly English were now much more likely (a) to want a specifically English parliament and (b) to vote for Brexit. That does not mean, of course, that only one quarter of the English population voted for Brexit; but that they had a much higher propensity to do so than others who mixed English and British differently. They were, if you like, the bedrock of the Brexit vote.

To summarise the argument so far: there is little or no evidence that people in England cannot tell the difference between England and Britain; they think about being English, and indeed about being British, not a great deal of the time, but then neither do the Scots, the Welsh or the Irish. National identity is a taken-for granted identity which is only activated in certain circumstances, and these are usually ‘political’. That is why referendums such as the 2014 Scottish one on independence, and the 2016 Brexit one on EU membership, were so significant. They magnified and catalysed the connection between national identity and ‘politics’ in the broad sense of the term.

Let us approach this through the Scottish question. Much has, rightly, been made of the similarities between Scotland and England. They share the same language, ‘English’, by now a global lingua franca, and as such no longer the ‘national’ property of England. We look in vain for significant political-social differences between the two countries in terms of social values. People in Scotland are marginally more at the left-liberal end of the spectrum compared with people in England, but insufficiently so to account for major differences in voting habits over the last 50 years. As Anthony Heath and his colleagues pointed out in their studies of voting behaviour in the 1980s, people in England voted Conservative in spite of rather than because of their social and political values. What mattered was the perceived competence of parties to govern.

What really matters, however, is how the various political parties reflect and refract issues of identity and values. It mattered that since 1945, in terms of which political parties formed a government, Scotland got a UK government it had not voted for more than 60% of the time. And England? - 3% of the time. Hence, the term ‘democratic deficit’ entered the vocabulary of Scottish politics. What about EVEL? What of the demand for an English parliament? The answer is that it has one: it’s called the Westminster parliament. Do not take my word for it. The majority of people in England consider that the UK parliament, is de facto an English Parliament.  At the time of devolution in 1999, that view had about 60%, support in England, and has remained about that ever since. So, you may think that people are fooled, or naïve, or whatever, but there is no huge increase in demand for a separate English parliament as opposed to a UK one. Cameron’s EVEL never got off the ground; there is no groundswell for such a move, assuming it could be constitutionally put together. For those who argue for federalism in these islands, on paper a good idea, but foundering on the rock of English exceptionalism. The defeat of modest devolution for NE England in a 2004 referendum was its kiss of death.

So what are these ‘political’ matters which have elevated national identity in this way? Undoubtedly, Brexit has been the catalyst. There is something undoubtedly going on. There is something in the mentalité, to use the French term, among people of England about the rise of Englishness. And what is it?  We have moved, as I said at the beginning, from a position where national identity is certainly not about England to appearing that it’s all about England. It’s the elephant in the room, in these islands, certainly.  So, I welcome the interest in Englishness.  It’s a real and proper puzzle for social scientists like me but it raises the whole issue of what national identity means.

National identity is not straightforward.  It’s not something that we bring into the world tattooed on our foreheads at birth.  It is a set of claims frequently implicit that are made in certain contexts for particular purposes; what we have referred to as claims made in contexts. Englishness in all forms of national identity is something of a floating signifier, a term associated with Marcel Mauss, the French anthropologist, and developed by another, Claude Levi-Strauss. That is to say, it is vague, under-specified and highly variable. Meanings come to ‘settle’ on the signifier rather than being inherent to it. We might conclude that it is simply a matter of chance, but this is not so. For example, being English has a long historical and cultural pedigree (recall Chesterton’s ‘Smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget, for we are the people of England that have never spoken yet’). It can be dipped into, assembled in different ways, imbued with powerful rhetoric in the political market-place.

Of all the English political parties, the Conservative party has the most successful history of mobilising a sense of being English. This is not to say that the Tories are inherently an English party; after all, in 1951, they received 50% of the popular vote in Scotland. It has become an English party, as its support has receded to England, by design as well as default. It is much more of an English party than its competitors. The Labour party, on the other hand, is much more of a British party, not least because it did (no longer) proportionately better in Scotland and Wales, and had leaders from those countries: Hardie, MacDonald, Kinnock, Smith, Brown and even Blair, although he was never taken for a Scot. Labour also introduced the post-war British welfare state. It has eschewed playing the ‘English’ card; and as a result has never come to terms with the rise of English nationalism.

Brexit captured and crystalised those dilemmas. The Conservatives, with UKIP, a more radical English party hard on its heels, were better able to appeal to people in England on the basis of being English. ‘Take Back Control’ was a wolf-whistle for English nationalism. Its ‘Other’ was not the smaller countries of these islands but ‘Europe’, imagined as the significant other in this slogan.

And it worked. in England people who felt ‘English’ were far more likely to vote Leave, while those who felt ‘British’ were more likely to vote Remain. You might argue that other factors like age, social class, education, and political preferences also explain the Leave vote in England, and you would be right. Indeed, all these factors had their separate effects, but ‘national identity’ remains a significant factor even when we take those other factors into account. We can use statistical modelling to show that, but I will not do so here. If we put all factors likely to affect Brexit vote (such as age, social class, education and political preference) into a statistical model, ‘being English’ still stands out as significant, suggesting that it has an independent effect on Brexit vote which is not explained simply by people’s other characteristics, preferences and behaviours. And Scotland? There was something of an identity alliance north of the border between being Scottish, and being British, both driving to produce a Remain vote, and so it transpired.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is something inherent and inevitable about the relationship between national identity and political behaviour, but this is not so. It is a matter of what national identity comes to signify. And where does that come from? The mobilisation of systems of meaning which are refracted through political ideologies and practices. Think of it in terms of setting the frames of reference. Parties are successful when they domesticate people’s concerns, when they frame the suitable solutions to their problems. They act as a prism through which issues are refracted to their advantage. That can seem like a ‘natural’ thing to do, but it is the consummate political skill. It is not a question of juxtaposing ‘identity politics’ against ‘material politics’ either. These dove-tail together.

Looking over Hadrian’s Wall, I guess that we Scots are intrigued by the language of English nationalism, recognising that there is a new force in that land, albeit inchoate and unfocused. How it will play out will affect all of us who inhabit these islands. What forms it takes, progressive or reactionary, will depend on how those in the game play their hands.

Further reading:

1)      David McCrone and Frank Bechhofer (2015) Understanding National Identity, Cambridge University Press.

2)      David McCrone (2017) ‘Explaining Brexit North and South of the Border’, Scottish Affairs, 26(4), pp.391-410.

3)      David McCrone (2019) ‘Who’s European? Scotland and England Compared’, The Political Quarterly, 90(3), pp.515-540.



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