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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Robin Mann

“Stories of England”

28 March 2018

University of Winchester

Dr Robin Mann, Bangor University


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  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

What I am going to do is focus primarily on the qualitative interview research that I’ve been doing over a period now regarding how people talk about their sense of English and British identity. So, I want to focus in.  Focus quite directly on a particular theme within this data. And I call that disreputable Englishness which I think is a theme which has risen in some of the earlier talks as well.

In John’s earlier presentation he talked about this idea of not being allowed to be English or not even being allowed to be English anymore.  And that was coming up in some of the interviews that I was doing over a period. I would like to just say something about how we actually try to make sense of qualitative interview data.  So, we are talking about how people talk, doing quite in-depth interviews with people about their sense of national identity. And in many ways, it’s quite a difficult thing for people to talk about.  So, when we are asked questions about “Do you see yourself as English, British?” and often just a lot of people kind of go “Well, I don’t know, I don’t really know what to say about this. It’s not really something I think about”.  So, in many ways it isn’t necessarily something which, and I think this has also arisen today. In some of the talks about how Englishness in particular is not necessary a framework for how people, for people to kind of everyday material concerns and kind of the things that kind of, that are of interest, materially to them, about getting on in life effectively. 

But I also think that when you do actually ask people about it, they actually have quite a bit to say.  They actually have quite a bit to say about the country, they have quite a bit to say about nation. And I think that tells us something about the difference particular, what I would refer to as form and content or the difference between focusing perhaps too narrowly on the side of what Englishness is and what does it mean and then simply the fact that the nation is actually grounded in people’s lives and everyday life in lots of different ways. So, I think that would hopefully come through in my talk today. 

And I want to kind of say as well about, such as try to talk to this theme of class and class and English identity to try and perhaps highlight some of the ways in which class, class distinctions, class identities do appear to have a bearing on people’s sense of English identity too. 

I want to highlight the way Englishness is performed. Ok, so it’s how it is performed in everyday discourse through, particularly through this disreputable Englishness.  The idea that people sense of Englishness is primarily one that is expressed through shame and embarrassment in lots of ways.  And this isn’t the only theme.  This isn’t the only way people talk about being English, but I think it is quite a big theme. Quite one of the main ways in which this kind of takes place. Often the people I interviewed had quite, seemingly quite weak or quite weak senses of national attachment.  They were quite indifferent.  Lots of kind of levels of indifference to their sense of national identity.  And the tendency probably to disengage from it.

So, on one hand we have this kind of focus on perhaps, not only of not being allowed to be English, but not wanting to be English because of its negative characterisations and negative connotations. And I think such performances of not wanting to be English, not wanting to be seen as English, are, you know, can be linked at least in part, due to class sensibilities and the way people wish to make class distinctions and class, draw boundaries between classes in their everyday life as well. 

I’m always quite struck when I ask people about their sense of national identity.  I’m always quite struck how seemingly non-national; quite mundane aspects can arise.  So, when I ask people about being English or being British, somehow the conversation and talk about litter or talking about the pensioners club or talking about other kinds of community or associational concerns about manners.  Holding the door open for someone. I’m quite interested in the way people make those kinds of connections between, what seems quite an abstract idea, and which in several respects is grounded in everyday experiences as well. 

I think this has relevance, contemporary relevance in terms of how different senses of English identity connect to support for Brexit.  So, lots of surveyed evidence for example, has shown quite a strong correlation between a strong sense of being English and the LEAVE vote. I mean many of the people that I am going to be, I did obviously encounter those as well. But many of the people I want to focus on today had quite weak senses of English identity.  So, I think that is quite interesting to.  Ok. Here we are.

So, this research was actually done some time ago now between 2004 and 2008. It’s based on, I did hundreds of conversational interviews over you know a 5-year period in three localities.  One in a place called Wotton-under-Edge, which is in Gloucestershire. In two different places in Bristol and then in Oxford as well.  So, all if you like middle England territory in a way.  So, it’s kind of a nice contrast compliment to lots of the discussions about working class communities too.

So, what I am doing now, is kind of revisiting this data in the kind of post Brexit period.  Looking back at what people actually said about Europe, at that, which is really interesting.  And focusing perhaps more on the middle classes and focusing more on perhaps differences within the middle classes within these communities as well. 

So, shame and embarrassment.  It’s just a couple of extracts from different quotes.  What I do I have put the gender, age and occupation at the bottom of each quote. So, you can give a bit of a contact there.  I should probably say as well; the vast majority of my respondents were white English respondents.  That’s because we were very interested in this idea of the ethnic majority at the time. But here’s a couple of quotes.  So, the first one, who’s a female, 58-year-old, female solicitor.  “It’s only recently that’s become an issue.  English has now got tainted.  It’s a negative thing to say that you are proud to be English. You have to be careful what you say.  We compare unfavourably. When our people go on holiday, they have a reputation for being larger louts, getting drunk. The English flag is something you are ashamed of. People don’t behave well”.

So, I am quite interested in the way people’s if you like sensibilities around behaviour or around values, about how people should behave, or their appearance seem to have a kind of bearing on their understanding of English identity. And at the bottom as well.  “When I think of English nowadays, I immediately think of litter. hooliganism and roughians.  It gives the Country a bad name”.

Talking about class and perhaps classes, more accurately.  There is this broader kind of context around social change, if you like, which is the shift in the main way in which economic changes or societal changes have a kind of cross class impact if you like.  So, if you think about the deindustrialisation, or in many ways these kind of material changes. the shift from the way people’s identities might have been focused in around occupations and the way that then shifts, and the way people’s identities might be focused more around their lifestyles and consumption.  Then again, that is something that seems to kind of pride an opportunity for English, you know, the expression of English identity.

Something happened roundabout year 2000 when you could buy T-shirts with the English national flag on them.  You could have your number plates with little flags on them as well.

So, I am quite interested in the way, if you like, the proliferation of you know national symbols within people’s everyday lives, in the everyday context.  You know, so this person is talking about their holiday. A tourist experience, you know so coming back from France.  Once you pitched up and boarded the ferry we saw these English supporters. So, you notice the distancing, the disassociation if you like on the grounds of class or status if you like.  This person is a 67-year-old shop owner. You know he’s putatively English, but he is talking about “these English”, if you like.  So, there’s this sort of distancing going on. “These fat, slightly blonde people, vaguely rotund and slightly obese, bright red.  The problem is they think they are the English.  They are what they associate with English today”.

So, the idea of being English, is now these core deluded characters who don’t really understand where they come from.  At the bottom here.  “If I wanted to demonstrate my English side I would feel I would not be allowed to.  “A Twerp with a bald head and a Union Jack and a dog and chain”.  So, in many ways quite contemptuous.  Quite disdainful views amongst English people themselves. People who are, you know would deem, whose sense of English presumably be an unchallenged one.

Again, a bit more evidence here. 32-year-old female teacher. “I would probably say English, but I would not want to say English because that implies, Royalty based nationalism”. So, this has become much more problematic.  It means you have to immediately disclaim its negative associations.  You have to say I am not a British bull dog wearing, so you also get the interchange don’t you between English and British. You know in that kind of environment as well. 

Ok secondly then “British I suppose, I think there is a bit of a difference.  English to me is you are the English gentleman. You are refined.  You are well educated but British is more working class”.  So, I am quite interested in the way different kinds of class invocations seem to kind of, seem to be entering into people’s talk about being English or being British.

One of the points earlier was about how you know, whether people are confused about distinguishing between English and British.  And I do think people do interchange them in a variety of ways.  But I also do think as well that in many ways, I think we did kind of find quite a lot of a kind of an argument where people see English as primarily as, or they did see British as something that was more inclusive.

And they did see British as something that was a bit more open to kind of everyone, if you like. So, people did often make that distinction. You know as well.

This top one is interesting because it again, kind of talks to that issue, it talks to about how, ethnic majority people but having if you like diverse national backgrounds themselves.  So, this person talking about their mother’s mother being Scottish. That was a common refrain.  “Well, I prefer British rather than English because my mother’s mother was Scottish.  Well I spend a lot of time living in Dublin.  I’ve got a lot of family in Dublin, so I prefer British rather than English”. That did seem to kind of, I am not saying that was the case in you know every time but I did come across that quite a lot.  Where British seemed to be more a kind of a name which seemed to be much more suited multi-cultural or multi-national, highbred type backgrounds than English.

“It’s either stiff upper lips or Empire or it’s thugs and football hooligans”. So that’s interesting how you can go from look up and look down at the same time.  A sense of not people like us but these dominant representations of a kind of class system of you know Royalty or stiff upper lip or the gentleman at the top and yobs or thugs, football hooligan’s underneath.

Last quote is got a bit more detail in this particular one case. It’s Tom, he’s a housing officer from the small town that we did some interviews in.  He’s 46-year-old.  He’s from Wotton-under-edge in Gloucestershire. He says “It’s funny, British things become associated with the Right wing.  I don’t know, I think I am English.  We are really happy when we are not identified as English.  Being identified as such was a real high point for me when I was in France this year”.

So again, this interestingly for middle classes there is a transnational context, ok.  I think that is interesting. And also, this kind of concern or what’s at stake to kind of, what’s the kind of threat here for this respondent in terms of being over identifying with being English. If you like.

It goes on. “You know, all the positive attributes to being English have been exported around the world”.  So again.  This transnational or imperial context.  “You know, let’s be blunt around English identity and English nationalism.  Nothing that’s very positive.  Violence thuggery and racism” These are all the negative attributes that are left.  “It’s difficult to ascribe particular value to being English”. He goes on “We are a tiny minority here”.  He is talking about the small Gloucestershire town where he lives.  “We are a small tiny minority here.  I mean the majority of the people will read the Daily Mail and are very, very proud to be English and behave en masse.  The kind of arrogance and belief that we rule the world still”.

So, I think what he is doing there, is drawing boundaries between himself and what is effectively another middle-class fraction within his community.  He is wishing to identify as a kind of liberal Left middle class but with reference to kind of the rest of the kind of perhaps English conservative. You know side of that middle class as well.

Ok, this is from a younger male who actually lives in the same street as the previous one Tom. So, this could be what he is referring to in terms of being in a minority and he says “I don’t care if its English or British, what bothers me is people referring to me as European.  I’m not, I’m British.  You are no longer allowed to be proud of your nation”.  He is a 25-year-old self-employed IT consultant. Where does this come from.  It kind of suggests a number of things doesn’t it about, where popular ideas about nation come from. And how the extent to which they are drawn on everyday experiences and the extent to which they draw on a historical or you know, national imaginations that are kind of available to people.

I have got just a couple more slides then.  Is the time ok.  Just a couple more slides just for some points for discussion.  So, what I’m focusing on is how the kind of middle-class respondents I focused on here engage in various kinds of othering.  In order to define their own class identity.  So that’s been picked up in previous research about how middle-class identities are defined. Often through othering the working class or othering the poor. What I am saying is that these kinds of othering practices have a bearing on how they talk about being English.

Ok. So, English is defined, not only in relation to external others in terms of, questions about race and why this is also defined in terms of the imagining of a class society.  The imagining, and often that is kind of regionally organised.  So, I was quite interested also with what Anupe was saying earlier about the North East being, people there seeing that, seeing themselves as not particularly English or seen as such.

I think everything that people say about being, you know, their sense of national identity takes place within the kinds of choices and the kinds of ideologies that are available to them. So, I think what we have here is a disavowal of Englishness, you know, weak national attachments. In some cases, that’s essentially how they are trying to establish themselves as progressive.  As progressively English by actually disengaging with it.  Ok.  Not in all cases because some of this is quite reflects, quite classically English. Ideas about not demonstrating your Englishness, about being non-demonstrative etc. as well.  But I think in some cases it does reflect, perhaps the way, the way, how you kind of establish a progressive sense of nationhood.

So, I think there are some distinctions that are evident in this data between, distinctions within the middle classes around liberal authoritative attitudes and values. So here we have a liberal professional middle class, you know some of the respondents you know quite liberal attitudes, you know they are professionals and they are quite pro EU, pro remain. But quite understated or quite weak in their orientation to being English.

Finally, just some broader points here that are quite important to make that classes, and in the context of Brexit. I mean one of the points that was raised at the start of the day, was about the difference between quantitative approaches and qualitative approaches.  To me one of the most, I guess frustrating aspects of some commentary and some opinion poll evidence is, as Charlie was eluding to in his talk.  A very kind of, very crude and unsophisticated way of dealing with the question of class.  Often simply working versus middle if you like. Or ABC 1 versus C2DE. I mean, they just don’t reflect the way classes are changed.  They just don’t reflect people’s lived experiences ok.

I think these kinds of distinctions that people make within the middle classes are quite important as well.  Classes have a social trajectory, they have a historic kind of, they are made and unmade over time, and if you think about, you know, lots of the theories of nationalism, the class-based theories of nationalism would very much emphasise the middle-class as opposed to working-class when it comes to things like nationalist resentment. So, many of the classic theories of nationalism would suggest that we need to look at a section of the middle-class that considers itself to be beleaguered or considers its values under threat.  Its value systems as under threat ok. 

So, the question then is obviously in many ways, any kind of successful nationalist mobilisation, and we see Brexit as a kind of successful national mobilisation, is its ability to muster cross class support. You’re not going to do it through one class alone.  So, it’s this interplay then between people like middle-class, this particular middle-class fraction along with a section of the white working-class too. Then a kind of a marginalised elite as well. So, I think we should always think about cross class relations as much as just looking at one particular class if you want to understand the support for Brexit.

I could make one final point to try and connect this back to this whole idea of not being allowed to be English.  I think back and I think that can reflect different things going on at the same time and I think a lot of it is to do with this kind of idea of political correctness and about this kind of sense in which the idea of a tainted or a disreputable sense of Englishness as well.  But I think we also need to be careful about the relationship between the politicising of popular attitudes ok.  So, they are consequential. They have national identities, they have consequences.  They have consequences in terms of how we decide to control borders.  How we decide, you know, what rights and entitlement people should be entitled to. So, they are quite fateful and for that reason we need to be quite careful about the politicising if you like, of the popular.  And that point of view.

So, the consequences of English identity, are much greater than the consequences of Scottish or Welsh identity from that point of view.  Reflecting on the fact that it is the dominant and majority national identity in the UK. So, I think from that point of view the more critical discussion we have about being English I think is the better. I will leave it there and am happy to respond to questions.

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