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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

John Denham

“Stories of England”

28 March 2018

University of Winchester

Prof John Denham, University of Southampton


This is an uncorrected 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  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker. 

I'm going to trying and give a bit more context by talking about four years of running the St George's Festival in Southampton, to talk about where it came from and what the experience was.  The centre at Winchester's sort of interesting in a way because although it tries to do academic events, Winchester University describes itself as a values-led university.  So, I've been able to build into the aims of the centre, exploring how one might create a progressive and inclusive English identity. 

So, it's not simply interested in studying; we have some values behind what we're trying to do.  So back in 2014 when I was still a Labour MP, I organised the city's first St George's Day Festival.  At the time, I didn't realise I would ever be talking about this to an academic conference, so I'm afraid I'm largely working off sort of my memory, which is with all the unreliability, rather than any sort of things I wrote down at the time. 

A couple of things though about English identity.  David's right, there hasn't been a sort of constant rise in English identity.  There was though quite a big switch, I think, between sort of mid-1990s and the early 2000s, of people in England beginning perhaps to emphasise the English side of their identity rather more than their British, although most are equally English and British.  We don't know, but that may have been to do with the debates around evolution and the sense of sort of, well, British quite work well enough if there are going to be Scottish and Welsh, so who are we if they're going to be who they are. 

The other issue which is I think also clear from political science studies is that immigration, and we've heard this earlier, is tied up with current conceptions of English identity.  Certainly, it would be wrong to say the English are worried are worried about immigration and the British aren't, I mean it's fairly consistent right across the piece that most people say immigration levels are too high in the surveys. 

But it's the English identifiers that tend to be more concerned about the… have the highest concerns about the impact of immigration, both culturally and economically.  But also, significantly, they're also more likely to say they feel disempowered, less able to change the world around them.  And I think that that hasn't been given enough weight, and certainly my experience in Southampton underlined its importance. 

Just briefly to sketch the sort of post-2000 migration experience in Southampton, 200,000 lived in the city in the year 2000.  30,000 non-UK migrants came to the city in the following six years, about half of whom were refugees being settled as the asylums program was wound down and about the other half (AA) migrants who largely came in a period of 18 months after 2004.  So that's a 25% increase in population in six years, and because most were of working age, probably a 25% in the working age population.

So, however you looked at it, it was a big shift in the shape and the demographics of the city, and so the city, to a degree, found it looked, felt different to the way it had looked before.  I mean several thousand homes for example went from family housing into HMOs, because certainly nobody builds new houses to accommodate the new arrivals, so they became multiple lets.  Schools had far more children who didn't have English as their first language, and the labour market was restructured. 

So, a lot was going on, so it would be wrong to suggest this was a kind of marginal change that nobody should have noticed, it was quite big.  Over that period of time, I had lots of discussions with constituents about migration and what was going on.  What I think is interesting is that there was no national public debate about what was going on, and the famous encounter between Gordon Brown and Mrs Duffy in the 2010 election revealed a Prime Minister who didn't even have the language to begin to have the discussion about what was going on. 

And I felt in my discussions that that absence of a public debate was a major issue in its own right, and I came to some judgements which may or not be right, that firstly the public antipathy to that migration was not in the main driven by racism or xenophobia.  Now I've picked my words carefully because that doesn't mean that people didn't hold quite commonly stereotypical views of people's values and behaviour and what people were like, because they undoubtedly did.  Sometimes they were positive, those Poles don't have work hard is one you would hear a lot after 2004, sometimes negative. 

But I think it was actually the rate of change that was the bigger driver of the antipathy of what was taking place.  As one woman put it to me, Mr Denham, it's not the migrants I mind, it's the migration, drawing that distinction, and actually explicitly between the individuals and the others.  The other thing I think too, is that there was a huge social and economic change taking place, about which no one had been asked and no public debate was apparently allowed. 

And this was only the most recent change, because within a generation all of the big industrial workplaces that used to be trade unionised had disappeared as well, and so the city seemed to be changing in lots of ways.  And so, you would be widely told that everyone else had a voice, whether it was migrants, whether it was minorities, whether it was middle-class people, they had a voice, they had the ear of the media and politicians, but that we do not.  And the phrase that I began to hear repeatedly was, you're not even allowed to say you're English anymore, and I heard that on many, many conversations, in groups and individuals. 

And from my recollection, I wasn't writing it down at the time, it was that.  It wasn't people saying you're not allowed to say you're English; it was you're not even allowed to say you're English anymore.  And it seemed to be expressing a sense of everything had been taken away and the one thing that you were left with, which was to say who you were, wasn't allowed to you anymore because there was seen to be no legitimacy of having a public debate. 

Quite hard to find evidence of that; some people would cite ethnic monitoring forms that enabled you to be white British but not white English, for example.  But more widely is the sense that discussion of migration was beyond the pale.  To some extent, it seemed to me that English – and this echoes what we heard earlier – was being used by people who felt marginalised, voiceless, not listened to, at a time of great economic and social change, almost a badge of powerlessness. 

John Harris, The Guardian journalist, was here a couple of years ago, talking about the 2015 elections.  He said in the long run-up to the General Election when a lot of people said I'm English, it seems to me they often meant something like I'm not middle-class and I don't want to be; it might have gone on with, I'm also white and coupled with the fact that I'm working class, I somehow think that puts me at the bottom of the heap.  Well, it's important to say that this view that you're not even allowed to say you're English anymore wasn't actually the exclusive property of the most economically marginal. 

You would hear it, for example, quite often from retired members of Southampton's once and powerful and successful industrial working class, the former shipyard workers, engineers, sometimes ex-shop stewards, usually with an occupational pension, usually owning their own home.  Objectively, you might say, it would be fairly easy to see that they were better off and more secure than many of the people they thought had more power and influence than them, but that was the perception they had of their position. 

So, my response, I have to say, was a fairly sort of transactional one.  I thought there was not much point in saying to people, firstly you're wrong, and secondly, you're bad.  My experience as a politician is that neither of those things work terribly well as means of political communication.  So, I thought there is one way, let's address this particularly issue, one way you can show your English is to have a St George's Day Festival. 

I was being quite pragmatic about it, I thought it would enable Labour canvassers to say on the doorstep when they heard this, well it can't be true 'cause John Denham's organising a St George's Day Festival.  It wasn't really much more sophisticated than that, and that's how it started, an apparently simple idea.  But of course, it's more complex than that. 

Firstly, it's not the sort of thing you can organise on your own.  So you start to reach out to voluntary sector organisations, councillors, including Satvir, local universities, FE College, you come across the first set of problems, which is a whole set of people who are not sure that they should be involved in organising something which is about being English, because their fear is that English means the far right, the fascist, the racist, so should they be associated with this. 

And they distinguish between themselves feeling English and not sure that their organisation should be engaging with Englishness, so we had to overcome a lot of… or do a lot of reassurance with people.  And that reinforced one of the conclusions of a seminar we had last year, that one of the biggest obstacles to an inclusive Englishness is middle-class liberal people who insist on saying Englishness is an ethnic identity, and actually themselves saying this is not something that's open to anybody who's not white. 

Our second problem though is that if we wanted to have an event, I wasn't interested in running an event that was for only one ethnic group or class within the community.  The dangers of doing that are fairly obvious.  So, we had to create a festival that was clearly open to all and yet was distinctively English.  It was an evolving journey, but we started by developing a story: Southampton is a great English city built by all the people who made their lives here. 

One of the advantages for Southampton is it's a port city, so that builds diversity into the story of the city from the very beginning.  It enables to us everyone's got a stake in this.  The festival was a sort of community festival type event held at the local FE College.  I think Satvir and I compared the show.  They had Army Cadets and things of that sort, but we put a lot of thought…  I mean the organisation was actually quite slick, but it wasn't meant to look slick, if you like.  And then we thought how do we build on this story. 

So, by saying the city's built by all the people who live here, we made films through the local university, Solent University, of lots of the community organisations that were part of the city.  This guy runs the major radio station aimed at the Near Eastern community within the city.  We made films about iconic local families, the manager of the football team which had won FA Vase that year, there's a family called Diaper who were boat people on the river, going back hundreds of years. 

But we also had films about the Cagno family who had come from Italy in the 1880s, and on the left there, the patriarch of the family was a D-Day veteran who used to do the dedication at the Remembrance Sunday Festival.  So, we were able to tell the stories of the city in a number of ways.  The Echo weighed in - this was an idea that Satvir had – with St George Community awards, so we had a thing in the city of commemorating people who had made a big contribution, and that enabled us to have people from right across the city engage with and identified with St George's Day events. 

Those are the winners there, pretty diverse group of people.  Bloke in the middle's a legendary Southampton Football Club manager and former England Deputy Manager, Lawrie McMenemy, so he fronted the thing up.  The point about this really was that we were creating an event which was clearly around St George's Day and branded with English, but we worked very hard to find ways in which all sections of the city could be part of that story, rather than just aside from it. 

We did work with schools, we did work with voluntary organisations, small grants to do things in the community.  That's something sort of environmental walk, that's the Black History Group.  We had schools involved and did work that related to the national curriculum.  The City Council flew the flag on all of the flag posts, about 20 that they've got across the city, so the city was quite well branded. 

In the final year, last year when we did it, we actually did a film about the Spitfire built and flown from Southampton, but in a further step forward we focused the film particularly around the Polish squadron who had been the best exponents of the Spitfire, and actually the event was attended by quite a few people from the new Polish community, as well as the post-war Polish community that has settled in the city.

So, we had the inevitable folk singers, we also had the Cross-Cultural Fusion Band.  We asked people what made them feel most English.  This was one of the earlier ones, this was quite interesting.  The English countryside and the English humour and culture.  We asked what England meant to me.  A proud country and a tolerant country, which was interesting.  We asked who the English were, and these are people who came to the festival, obviously.  Everyone who feels English, a large group of everyone born in England. 

That reflects all the national polling, the English identity is associated with patrimony.  You can't be an English citizen, so English identity is seen pretty much across the board as something that it is harder to become as a first-generation migrant but becomes more so in second and third generations.  And we've surveyed the people who took part. 

This was in the most recent year, and we did have the involvement of the Polish community, but not too dissimilar of the population of the city as a whole, just over three-quarters born in the UK, about a quarter not.  For 70% of people, it didn't make them feel more English, but significantly for nearly 30%, the event did.  How important is it to celebrate St George…?  Most towards the more positive end of the celebration and everyone's always up for a bank holiday, so about half the people there thought St George's Day should be a bank holiday. 

I think that's rather more than the people who felt strongly English, actually.  //So just briefly, what lessons do I think we learnt from this event?  Firstly, it's important not to overstate it, probably about 250 in the core event perhaps, 1,500, 2,000 people took part in other events across the day, but it was also covered in the local newspaper.  I'd love to tell you that sort of 20 English Defence League members turned up and were so impressed by that they went away promising never to be nasty to a Muslim again, of course no, it didn't, and it didn't attract that core of people. 

It did attract a significant number of those people who said they had felt voiceless and not included, and that I think was significant.  This sort of exercise, if it has a value, in some ways it helps to minimise the territory of the far right's view of Englishness, and to maximise the more inclusive view of Englishness, and that is a value.  What was very clear in the events themselves was that the participation of non-white people who wanted to be there was overwhelmingly welcomed and not resisted. 

The key part was, it was an English event and if it was an English event, then people were happy for anybody who wanted to feel English to be there.  It's largely an audience that wouldn't have gone to a multicultural event that was advertised as a multicultural event, so it's a different type of thing.  We learnt that it's possible to reassure nervous liberals, that it is possible to celebrate English identity, English national day, without pandering to right-wing stereotypes of Englishness. 

We found that it was possibly through the films, the artists, the community awards, to find roots to participation into an English celebration for people who would otherwise not be sure they were invited. The experience reinforced the importance of stories, the stories that we tell about ourselves.  And just to end on this point, Satvir and I were discussing at one event how to introduce actually what was a defiantly traditional (citation) cultural dance group.  We thought we were getting a bhangra band and we ended up with this, and we said how do we introduce this group at a St George's Day Festival. 

And actually, the story was – Satvir's already mentioned it – her grandfather was in the British Army in the Second World War, my uncle is on a war memorial in Southampton.  And as you tell the stories side-by-side, then you're not always telling a story about migration, you're telling a story about shared family histories.  And these stories we told were enormously important.  Does any of this matter?  Well, I think it does in this sense, and it's why I'm interested in change, not just study. 

I think it's unlikely that British identity will ever reassert itself again as a satisfactory national identity for most people who live in Britain.  It will always be part of it, but it's never likely to be all of it.  And so, the English identity is one that actually we have a vested interest, if we're interested in community cohesion, about developing as an inclusive and sharable identity and not allowing it to become defined nationally, because the dangers of becoming polarised about different views of national identity and different values aligning behind national identities I think are quite real. 





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