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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Richard Wyn-Jones

“England and the EU”

12 March 2016

University of Winchester

Prof Richard Wyn Jones, Cardiff University


This is a corrected transcript of talks given at the ‘England and the EU’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 12 March 2016. Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

Good morning. Thank you very much, John, for the invitation to participate. It’s a real honour to be part of your first one day conference; it looks like a really interesting programme. 

As mentioned, John and I have been kind of collaborators-at-a-distance for quite a while in the - I guess - the project of taking England and in particular Englishness seriously, and I’m delighted that the Centre is now active, and I’m looking forward to cooperating more in future. 

Now my accent, even if John hadn’t already alerted to you the fact, my accent will already have alerted you to the fact that I’m defiantly definitively non-English.  In fact, I’m part of that rather strange tribe that has been defying the English stubbornly for centuries by insisting on speaking a different language.  I’m a Welsh-speaking Welshman.  And so you’d be entitled to ask in what way am I qualified to begin a conference focusing on the political consequences of Englishness? And I’m going to respond - you’re far too polite to ask that out loud – but I’m going to respond to that rhetorical question, not because my biography is interesting inherently interesting, but I think the story of you know how I get to talk about this brings us to the heart of some of the issues that I want to focus upon. 

It’s a striking fact that very, very few political scientists are interested in England or Englishness, at least when England isn’t being used as a synonym for Britishness and Britain. The same is true of social scientists more generally.

This is a pretty curious anomaly, after all since the advent of devolution at least, most of that very, very large group of scholars working on social or public policy in English universities are actually studying policies that only apply in England.  And yet I’d hazard a guess that very, very few would call themselves, would view themselves as specialists focusing on England; they would view themselves as focusing on Britain. 

And in the world of political science, in particular, there’s been almost no interest in the way that English national sentiment might intersect with and influence political views.  Rather national identity politics is seen as the concern of scholars focusing on Britain’s periphery, those interested in Scottish politics or Welsh politics or of course Northern Irish politics. Identity politics happens ‘over there’, not ‘here’, which is where my colleagues and I in Cardiff and Edinburgh, who’ve been doing most of the work on English national sentiment and politics enter the story. 

A few years ago, it became increasingly obvious to a group of us that there were major changes afoot in English sentiment, so not only where there lots and lots of visible manifestations of Englishness appearing around us. The time that this struck me most forcible is actually when I was living in Aberystwyth, which is a small seaside town in the wild west of Wales where we still have something called the ‘Birmingham fortnight’. 

Now the ‘Birmingham fortnight’ was when they used to close the factories in the Black Country for a couple of weeks and people would head for the nearest seaside location, and some would end up, and still end up, in Aberystwyth in the wild west of Wales.  And so for a couple of weeks at the end of July, beginning of August Aberystwyth is packed with people from the Black Country. 

And it became you know very, very apparent that many, many of them were wearing visible badges of Englishness: you know England football shirts everywhere, England flags on cars… You know you’re kind of sensitive of this stuff if you’re a Welsh speaking Welshman living in Aberystwyth. 

There were lots and lots of often quite kitsch manifestations of English identity, but also it was pretty obvious that this appeared to be linked to dissatisfaction with the road that devolution was taking in terms of policy differentiation within the UK, and in particular a real resentment being manifested in all kinds of opinion kinds of fora where you can hear unfiltered opinion. Lots of resentment of policy differentiation in particular – “you get things for free in Scotland and Wales and that’s terrible.”  A real sense of resentment around that. 

So, there was something going on and yet contemporary political science was resolutely uninterested.  Which is why we decided to do was start surveying English opinion using questions pioneered in Scotland and in Wales, and some in Catalonia etcetera, to look at English politics. 

So the attitude was ‘don’t assume that identity politics happens “over there”.’ Let’s rather use the concepts and questions that we’ve used to study identity politics to look at English opinion. Which is why we established something called the Future of England Survey.

We’ve now conducted four very large-scale surveys specifically designed to explore patterns of national identity in England and how these then relate to social, political and, in particular, constitutional attitudes.  And it’s on the basis of these data, these surveys that I am going to make my kind of core argument for this morning. 

That core argument is very simple indeed and it is this: English national sentiment is likely to be a largely unacknowledged yet key determinant of voting behaviour in the forthcoming in/out EU referendum.  I will now show you some data which I think supports this and discuss what’s going on. 

‘Unacknowledged’ is really important: I chose the title of my talk deliberately, and you’ll notice that I’ve got this idea of ‘hiding in plain sight’. And this is one of the really interesting things about political Englishness: it’s something that is so often unacknowledged by members of the commentariat. One of the few who gets this is sitting in the audience and you’ll be hearing from him later. Otherwise, very few of the commentariat recognise the importance of Englishness even after a general election where, as John pointed out, many people active in political campaigning were well aware that this was a big issue.   

And there’s a particular blind spot then among what I would call the liberal Left who really struggle to understand what’s going on in terms of the growth of a politicised English identity.  And my contention is that, even if very few people will notice this and talk directly about it; and even if it doesn’t figures directly in the referendum, it’s nonetheless important –  it is really vitally important – in terms of voting behaviour. 

And the fact of the matter is that the Leave campaign –  and this stuff is actually complicated for the leave campaign as well, we’ll come back to this in a moment.  But even so, the Leave campaign are far better placed to capitalise on the emergence of a politicised English identity than their Remain competitors. Not least because the remain side in particular struggle to find a vocabulary for communicating with the politicised English. 

I have made some pretty bold claims and I want to show you some evidence in support of them. Now I don’t have very long and John has heard me speak at a number of occasions when I tend to throw lots and lots of data at people. I’m going to try not to do that today.

One of which will show that in terms of Britain, and I’ve got no Northern Ireland data at all to show you, but in terms of Britain ,England is the most Eurosceptic of the nations, and then secondly within England it’s those with the stronger sense of English identity that are overwhelmingly the most Eurosceptic part of the electorate. 

Now there are different measures of Euroscepticism out there in the social attitudes surveys, but because we have the referendum coming soon I thought I’d just do Remain and Leave, let’s just keep it simple for today.  These data are from last September. The reason that I don’t have more recent data is twofold. First of all, I wanted decent sample sizes in England, Wales and Scotland and very few all-Britain surveys have big enough sample sizes in Wales and Scotland because we’re tiny. So I wanted the same question wording, the same methodology, and with big enough samples in the three countries.  And because very, very few people actually ask the national identity questions that you need to ask within England – we’ll come back to this in a moment – September (2015) is the most recent data there is available to me. 

And what you see is a very, very clear pattern in these 2015 data (the 2014 figures are in brackets beside them). 

What you see is that there is very clearly is a big contrast between Scotland and England: Scotland votes overwhelmingly to remain, England at this point votes pretty narrowly to leave with Wales just on the other side in terms of remain.  But you know there’s a striking difference there, certainly between England and Scotland. (Actually, interestingly on these figures if we remove Northern Ireland from the equation this outcome would have led overall to a tiny Remain outcome; so England would be staying in the EU on the basis of votes in Scotland and Wales. Which would be, well, ‘interesting’ shall we say.)

I can show you there’s all kinds of other bits of evidence on Eurosceptic sentiments which support this overall argument and show that England stands out. 

Then there is this, namely one of my favourite slides of all time. This looks at the situation within England in terms of the impact of national identity. As John hinted at this earlier, people tend to have ‘nested ‘identities: people can feel English and Britishness. So while you have some people who feel exclusively English and some people feel exclusively British, lots of people have some kind of mixture and emphasise one more than the other. 

One survey question that attempts to get at that kind of ‘nested’ reality is the so-called Moreno question. This asks people to place themselves on a scale where the scale is from an exclusively English identity through a More English than British, Equally English and British, More British than English, exclusively British, and then you have the Other category. 

And actually one of the interesting things about the work that I’ve been doing over the years is that this question…well, you couldn’t really ask this question in England in the mid-nineties, because you got rubbish data back. People didn’t really understand what the question was all about. It always made sense in a Welsh context: we knew that Welsh and Britishness they weren’t the same. But many people in England viewed them as synonymous, and so even in the mid-nineties you asked this question and you got garbage back.  But you ask it now and people absolutely know what you’re talking about, so there’s been quite a big change and this question is now a really useful question. 

So this is the Moreno scale with referendum voting, yellow is Leave, blue is Remain – a nice European blue for remain!  Now what you see here is an extraordinarily strong relationship. You know in social attitudes work. to get this strength of relationship is really very striking. 

So pace the rhetoric of UKIP and all the…you know, the Union Jack symbolism…the more exclusively British you feel the more pro-European you are, the more exclusively English you feel the more overwhelmingly hostile you are. we’re up to 80% of those who feel English not British voting to Leave.  The beauty of this slide, if I can say so myself, is table one on top.

Because that one on top gives you the relative size of the population groups in England; that is, the relative proportions of those people in England who place themselves in those different identity categories.  And what that shows you is that the table below is quite misleading because the English population as a whole skews towards this [i.e. the English] side of the spectrum. So that’s the challenge, if you like, for the Remain campaign, and it’s the bedrock of the Leave campaign.

So in England, then, there’s this really striking relationship between senses of national identity and attitudes to the European Union. 

Now what do we make of this? And in particular how do we explain this? Because I think in terms of the politics we’re going to see over the next few weeks and months, this is where it gets really important and interesting. 

Why do we think that we find this relationship? What is it that is making people who feel strongly English view the European Union in such hostile terms? Again I could have… there’s all kinds of data and it’s probably not very good of me to be talking about data that I don’t put up on the screen!

But I can’t resist telling you one piece of evidence or telling you about one piece of evidence that we have. One of the questions that we’ve asked now in 15 different nations across, or regions across the European Union is a question which asks people about their perceptions of the power and influence of different levels of government OK. 

So you ask people which level of government has most influence over X (that is Wales or Scotland or England) and the way that that country is run? And you offer then an option of, you know, the European Union, the UK government (in the English case), local councils, and then you ask which level of government ought to have most influence over X? So there is an ‘is’ and then there’s an aspirational ‘ought’.  And what you find in England is that the power of the European Union looms incredibly large, or the apparent - the ostensible power – looms incredibly large. 

Around a third of people in England say that the European Union has most influence over the way that England is currently run, and that is ‘off the scale’ compared to anywhere else.  I think we got up to 9% in Brittany once! England is off the scale in terms of perception of the importance of Europe.  And those people by the way are almost all hostile to the idea: this is not a good thing, These people overwhelmingly vote no [i.e. Leave.]

And within England those people on this side of this scale [i.e. towards the English end of the identity scale in the second slide]; for them the European Union looms incredibly large.  So there’s something going on here about perceptions of European influence and hostility towards the European project if you like.  

Now in terms of understanding this, these kinds of data are not particularly helpful because you know they’re not very good in terms of identifying causality. But what we find is a really interesting pattern; and that is that hostility towards the European Union goes hand in hand with hostility or a perception that England is losing out within the UK as well.

So it’s dissatisfaction with the two unions of which England is part.

Devolution has changed the UK in ways which people resent deeply; a perception of unfairness in terms of public spending levels in particular is acute, and then there’s a perception that also Britain, but England specifically, loses out within the European Union.  Interestingly also, this ties to a very, very strong commitment to the traditional centralised states, undifferentiated public services. One of the things which seems to be closely related to strong senses of English identity is hostility to public service delivery being different from one area to another. 

And indeed, there’s quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that people in England were not really bothered about devolution until about 2007/2008. There was a lot of work in the early years of devolution by people were looking for the ‘English backlash’. And there wasn’t one, the English were benignly not bothered about what we were doing. 

It starts to change 2007/2008, and the pet theory I have – unfortunately I can’t make this stand up in terms of the data, because we don’t have data from this period – but my theory is that this is when people began to become aware of things like free prescriptions in Wales and these kinds of things in Scotland; different regimes for students and so on and so forth.  This is something which really upsets English – specifically English – opinion. 

There’s a whole list of issues here; migration also then ties into this. This is why this becomes so interesting and, I think, important in the referendum context; because also the people on this side of the spectrum [i.e. the English side of the identity spectrum] are the most concerned about migration as well.

I’ve been speaking for too long and I’m going to have to draw my remarks to a close. 

We have this position where this unacknowledged politicised Englishness is really crucial in terms of the way that people in England understand the European Union.

The Leave side don’t always find it easy to talk about this because you know it’s the symbolism of Britishness and Britain and that’s the rhetoric too. However it resonates with this particular [i.e. English] segment of the population. 

The Remain side, on the other hand, find all this incredibly difficult to understand or relate to in any way whatsoever.  I’m still struck by the fact that some of the people running the Remain campaign are the same people who thought it was a good idea for Nick Clegg to say that he was for a Great Britain not a Little England.  Insulting England is, you know, the one way that you lose this referendum if you’re on the Remain side.

But because people don’t understand this, don’t have the conceptual vocabulary to talk about it, in a sense John’s Centre is ten years too late. I think that this is going to be hugely important [referendum] and I think that, you know, from a perspective of somebody who’d quite like to Remain in the European Union, I think this is extremely, well, dangerous. Sorry if this sounds as if I’m hostile. I’m not hostile to English sentiment. I think the problem is that there’s no progressive articulation of it at the moment. 

And I’ll stop there.  Thank you.


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