An enduring myth about national identity in England – not least on the left – is that Britishness is inclusive while Englishness is culturally and ethnically exclusive.
The belief has shaped Labour thinking on community cohesion and multiculturalism. Coupled with the equally erroneous argument that talking about England must inevitably undermine the union, it has left Labour in England talking only about Britain and Britishness.
Labour prejudices are often based on a tiny, noisy minority
New polling from the Centre for English Identity and Politics (CEIP) challenges these Labour assumptions. The truth is that there is very little difference in the way England’s voters perceive the inclusiveness of their national identities.
Asked whether British identity can include people of all cultures and ethnicities, 74% agreed (44% strongly) and 9% disagreed (4% strongly). When the same question was asked about the inclusiveness of English identity, 69% agreed (41% strongly) and 11% disagreed (4% strongly). There is a difference, but it is small.
Amongst those who describe themselves as ‘English not British’, the rejection is higher at 24%, but this amounts to less than 4% of the population. No doubt this includes some of those who invaded the cenotaph on Armistice Day, but too often, Labour prejudices are shaped by this noisy but tiny minority, rather than by the views of England’s majority.
Previous polling by the CEIP with British Future also showed sharp falls in the number of people thinking of English as a white-only identity between 2012 and 2018, belying claims that Brexit in 2016 marked an upsurge in xenophobic Englishness.
A concerted attempt to promote inclusive Englishness is needed
A cohesive society rests on shared national identities and shared national stories. The great majority of people in England feel both English and British to some degree: for most, ‘belonging’ in England is to be both English and British.
The risks of dividing those identities from each other should be clear. If only Britishness is promoted as an inclusive identity (and by implication Labour reinforces the idea that Englishness is white and exclusive), the party is helping to construct two competing identities. On the one hand, there would be a British identity shared by members of ethnic minorities and a small group of largely graduate, liberal white people (admittedly, including a lot of Labour members). On the other, there would be the combination of British and English identity shared by the majority.
To an extent, this is where we are today not least because, in England, Britishness has been the focus of inclusive identity for 30 years. (In Scotland and Wales, the emphasis has been on creating inclusive national identities.)
Ethnic minorities are less likely to identify as English, but it is important not to ignore the organic change that is taking place. 45% see themselves as strongly English and a majority see Englishness as an identity that is open to them, and the new polling demonstrates that the door is open. The gap can be closed by a more concerted attempt to promote inclusive Englishness (and not relying so much on sport for visible and inspirational symbols of English belonging). Labour should take care not to be on the wrong side of history by standing in its way.
Denying voters’ Englishness weakens Labour’s connection with them
Apart from the central challenge of developing a shared sense of national identity in England, there are other reasons for talking about both English and British identity.
It is always good in politics to talk with voters in the way they talk about themselves. Most see themselves as British and English, not holding the identities as separate ideas but inextricably mixed. To deny their Englishness weakens Labour’s connection with them, and the more so for those who emphasise their Englishness.
In the same CEIP polling, 70% of English voters agreed that ‘England, Wales and Scotland each have distinct national interests’. The next UK Labour government will largely only determine domestic policy in England. Few of Wes Streeting’s responsibilities for health will stretch beyond the English border, and it is the childcare and education in England that Bridget Phillipson will be able to shape. The Tory government has run into trouble at the Covid inquiry for failing to understand the remits of different national administrations. We should not fall into the same trap.
Issues of identity will resurface if Labour comes to power
Nor should our support for the union prevent Labour from talking about England in England. The party already has a different approach to each nation.
Labour accepts the principle that the people of Northern Ireland should decide their future relationship with the UK and the Irish Republic. In Scotland, we have set out no legal route to Scottish self-determination, but Scottish Labour works hard to shift the focus from the constitution while still talking directly to Scotland. The Welsh Labour government, by contrast, has set up an independent commission on the future of the constitution.
And Britishness itself is not a unifying identity across the UK. Politics in the UK is both UK-wide and distinctly national, and the idea that Labour should not be able to mention England in England is clearly daft and out of step with our approaches to other national politics.
Labour still struggles to win as much support from voters who emphasise their Englishness. But so long as the cost of living, the NHS and Tory incompetence – issues that cut across all identities everywhere – are the top concerns, Labour’s lead looks strong.
Once in government, however, issues of identity will soon be back. Whether it is defending a cohesive society against right-wing populism or sorting out relationships across the UK, Labour will need to get its language and geography right.