The English dog finds its voice

Adam Evans explores evidence showing that Englishness is emerging from the shadow of Britishness

Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Ulysses, 1833

Tennyson’s invocation of a force that though in a material sense has been changed and perhaps diminished over time, still commands a resolve and unbendable spirit, is not only a stirring call to arms, but a powerful story for the English nation that has become of growing interest since the dawn of devolution.

For decades it was taken as a given that whereas people in the Celtic fringe could talk of a Welsh or Scottish identity, in England Britishness commanded a monopoly over identity. This dislocation of a domestic English identity by Britishness, should not, however, be understood as meaning that no sense of Englishness existed. Rather, Britishness was conceptualised by many in England, as Englishness retitled, defined largely by English history, norms and institutions. The point was made by Gwynfor Evans in his claim that, “Britishness… is a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish.”

Cottage pie and the constitution- what next for England?

At this event, on Wednesday 19th June, being held in the Victor Salvi Room, Wales Millennium Centre from 6.15pm to 8pm, Professor Richard Wyn Jones will discuss the latest findings from the Future of England research project undertaken by the IPPR in association with Cardiff and Edinburgh universities.
The event is being organised by the UK Changing Union: Our Future project. An evening meal of English delicacies will also be served.
To attend email: [email protected] by no later than 17 June.

In this light, England’s contentment with the United Kingdom and its traditional attachment to a British identity can be largely explained, by England’s hegemony of the commanding heights of Britain’s constitution, institutions and economy.

Despite unions with Scotland and Ireland, the pre-union English Parliament was retained, albeit now called the UK Parliament and with a more diversified membership and the centre of economic and political power was still in London. This dominance allied to the ancient roots of the English state, has enabled the preservation of what is commonly called the Whig view of history, namely a belief in an 800 year continued history of statehood in the United Kingdom that is thoroughly English in nature and has allowed Englishness to be subverted into Britishness.

An example was Hugh Gaitskell’s famous denunciation of Macmillan’s attempts to enter the European Economic Community as ending “a thousand years of history”. Another was John Major’s equally infamous depiction of Britain as a land of “long shadows on country [cricket] grounds.” Ironically enough, however, it was a Scotsman, Gordon Brown, who in his ill-fated Britishness project provided a true Whig tour d’horizon of ‘British history’. He offered a perspective of British exceptionalism and history that was limited to English constitutional developments from Magna Carta and the Parliamentary Bill of Rights in 1689.

It is this intertwining of Englishness and Britishness that has made the work of academics from Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities and the IPPR, spearheaded by Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre, so intriguing and indeed controversial. Their research, published earlier this year as The dog that finally barked seems to go against the grain of conventional understandings of Englishness. They found that 40 per cent of  English respondents to the 2011 Future of England survey opted for either an English only or English predominant identity, as opposed to just 16 per cent who opted for a British identity.

Furthermore, despite high levels of attachment to both Englishness and Britishness, again the English dimension is predominant with 85 per cent having a strong attachment to this identity, as opposed to 76 per cent for Britishness. This suggestion that the ‘Anglo’ dimension of an Anglo-British identity is emphasized by the English public has attracted criticism from researchers on the NatCen British Social Attitudes study, On the other hand, it appears to be endorsed from the 2011 census.

According to the census (which included an intra-British identity question for the first time), around 70 per cent of English respondents, (67.1 per cent across England and Wales as a whole) opted for an English predominant identity, and 60 per cent for a purely English identity, as opposed to just under 30 per cent for a British predominant identity and 20 per cent uniquely British identity.

All the English regions bar London saw an English predominant identity record more than 70 per cent, with the highest English predominant identity being recorded in the North East of England with over 80 per cent, an area that the Office for National Statistics notes as home to a largely White-British population. This echoes the Dog that finally barked report, which claimed that 43 per cent of White Britons in England emphasized an English identity over a British one, as opposed to just 17 per cent of non-White Britons.

Beyond the census returns, the Cardiff/Edinburgh/IPPR’s argument of a growing English identity also appears to be reinforced by an analysis of the factors that traditionally underpinned English attachment to a British identity. Essentially it was an attachment predicated not on primordial or deontological grounds (basically Britishness is good in its own right), but on instrumental grounds, rooted in pay offs – with Britishness and British institutions flattering English sensibilities, rather than antagonising them.

Since devolution, it has been a constant theme of academic and media commentary that such underpinnings were bound to be compromised through the West Lothian Question and the perceived effects of the Barnett formula and alleged “freebie” cultures in Scotland and Wales funded, of course, by the English tax payer. The result, commentators and academics predicted, would be an English backlash.

However, this backlash has been slow off the mark. Yet as the Cardiff/Edinburgh/IPPR and even the NatCen research, The English Question: How in England responding to devolution? – which disputes the alleged predominance of English identity – has shown, there are overwhelming majorities in England for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on English matters (the West Lothian Question). Similarly overwhelming numbers believe Scotland gets more than its fair share and should raise its own revenue.

These sentiments have become more entrenched and vociferous, with the idea that the UK Government does not look after all areas equally commanding the support of 72 per cent of respondents in England (according to the Dog that finally barked report), with 57 per cent claiming that they have either not very much or no trust in the UK Government works in the best interests of England.

These are hugely important findings. It is little wonder that with such overwhelming dissatisfaction, support for the status quo in England has plummeted from 49 per cent in 2009, to only 24 per cent in 2011. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Cardiff/Edinburgh/IPPR team has found a majority of respondents supporting an English dimension of governance when one combines the support for English votes for English laws (34 per cent), and an English Parliament (20 per cent).

Therein, however, lies the biggest problem and potentially the seeds of the starkest challenge facing unionists. This is the difficulty of answering the so-called English Question. Regionalism is discredited and unwanted. An English Parliament rarely commands significant mass and elite support. And whilst the McKay Commission has produced an elegant and sophisticated report, its emphasis on procedural reforms leaves Barnett unreformed and is unlikely to win over the public at large. Englishness, like the Great Achilles in Tennyson’s Ulysses never died, but has increasingly emerged from the shadows of Britishness.

Adam Evans is a Doctoral Student at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University and a member of the UK Changing Union project's Our Future Steering Group

20 thoughts on “The English dog finds its voice

  1. I note once again that the English have been excluded from the IPPR reporting team. Once again it is Scots and Welsh pontificating on what is good for England and unsurprisingly it is slanted toward maintaining a leash on the dog (as they offensively call us).

    Ask we English if we want independence for Scotland and Wales or better still take away the funding and the problem would disappear as fast as they could close the door behind them.

    The 1707 Union has served its purpose. It bailed out a bankrupt Scotland and thus protected English northern borders from being opened in exchange for a few francs. We now have the magnificent European Union and England needs to be out of that too. The others can make their own mind up, and try to convince Frau Merkel that the Barnett formula should be continued.

  2. While the Welsh bubble-dwellers stare relentlously into their own navel fluff the UK has been changing – the 2011 Census shows 13% of UK dwellers were born outside the UK and in London it is a staggering one third!—Usual-residents-born-outside-the-UK

    Many of them carry a British Passport. And then we have their UK born kids – many of whom describe themselves as British Asians, British Muslims and British various other things as well… Surveys about ‘Englishness’ increasingly need to be taken with a sack of salt.

    If there is a process of English awakening it is not a cultural process or any process of addition, it is a process of subtraction. There is a growing awareness that the Celtic fringes have been soaking up an unfair amount of English taxpayers’ money for far too long and that there is little gratitude shown for this largesse. People in England are asking why should they keep subsidising the Celtic fringes when the political class and a significant number of individuals in these areas owe little or no obvious allegience to either Britain or England?

    So it is not really a case of England for the English – it is England for the British and for those who feel in tune with being British. Britain is rapidly becoming ‘Britain minus the Celtic fringes’ – or England for short! If you want to understand the sentiment you probably only need to follow the money!

  3. John Walker:- ” you probably only need to follow the money! ”
    It goes much deeper than that. The people behind it have no need of more cash, they have enough. It is social engineering designed for a new world order. It is rabid socialism at its worst.

    J W Says:- “So it is not really a case of England for the English – it is England for the British and for those who feel in tune with being British. Britain is rapidly becoming ‘Britain minus the Celtic fringes’ – or England for short!”
    Again naivety, There are no such people as Celts genetic testing has shown the so called ‘Celtic’ gene is exclusive to no-one, the indigenous Brits Eng/Scot/Wales are genetically the same.
    If anyone thinks that claiming a separate identity or country will save them from the fate overtaking England they are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Once England has become a mongrel race the other porous borders will evaporate. This is our fight, not England’s fight alone. The Brits divide and rule tactics will see us all go under, England, Wales and Scotland, it is a long process being waged by people with the patience of generations. It is ideology rather than greed.

  4. I have always admired Billy Bragg’s views on englishness. He sees himself as english rather than british- not because the english are better than anyone else’ just a fact of birth & geography. He would agree that britishness is a fabrication of the english ruling class and declines to participate in that lie. He asserts that the english can never be english, living in reasonable harmony with its neighbours, until the ruling establishment’s controlling hand is removed.

  5. English Fred

    I am well aware of the genetics – not that it is particularly relevant – I was simply following the terminology used in the second paragraph of the article! The words relate to land not people and certainly not to race. You are barking up the wrong tree! The fact that you don’t seem to know that the British/English/Irish/Scots/Welsh are already a mongrel race is quite worrying! Where have you been all your life? It doesn’t bother me much where anybody comes from, or came from, and I’m conscious that some of the happiest people I know are in mixed-race relationships, but I sense you may not share my ambivalence? Would you, by any chance, class yourself as an ethnic nationalist?

    I am also well aware of the fact that breaking up, and destroying the social cohesion of, the UK is a work in progress being driven by several ideologies which find a stable ‘democratic’ UK to be a disavantage to their own preferred future. Some are local and some are international – some are both and some are sleeping with the enemy to further their own agendas…

    But for most people in ‘England’ I like to think our little local difficulty with devolution, perhaps leading to separation of the ‘home nations’, doesn’t go any deeper than following the money – not from a sense of greed but from a sense of fair play. I’m talking about the people not the puppet masters pulling their strings.

  6. @ The views being expressed above (mongrol race, celtic fringe, subsiding Wales and Scotland, lambasting mixed British/foreign identities) are inherently racist and medieval. I hope England goes its own way, if the English want to be an inward-looking, medieval state cut off from Europe and playing cricket all day, get on with it. Leave the progressive Welsh and Scottish democracies go their own way.

    And considering that you are discussing, Fred, that England is being marginalized, don’t you think it’s extremely hypocritical to be calling Wales and Scotland, the whole of western and northern Britain which together would have a bigger land mass than England, a ”fringe”?

  7. The English “dog” has found its voice eh? The Welsh dog never lost its voice. The whines only got louder with devolution. English independence and the sooner the better.

  8. Instead of worrying about what we English are doing I suggest the Welsh work out what they are going to do when England declares independence!

  9. ‘An English Parliament rarely commands significant mass and elite support’. Do you have any evidence for that statement Adam? i don’t care what the ‘elite’ think but there is plenty of evidence to show that the mass of English voters are very fed up with the current situation and that an English Parliament would get overwhelming support. If you are not aware of these polls than may I suggest you do a bit more research before putting fingers to keyboard? If you are aware of them then why on earth make such an unfounded assertion?

  10. This very well though out article yet again brings to the fore the inability of UK parties to deal seriously with the English question. Sometimes, it takes a few Scots/Welsh/Irish to point this out. However, I would dispute one comment relating to regional Government within England. The much maligned campaign for a NE England Assembly was cynically set up to fail, taking powers from Councils and centralising rather than de-centralising from London. I am convinced that if regions of England were offered a de-centralised model, then there would be a very different reaction. Of course, it could be argued that some English regions are already devolving by stealth, creating regional development boards through the larger Authorities and being rather successful in doing so.

    There is definitely a change in attitude in England towards Englishness; something I first noticed when travelling back through England from a holiday when they were in the rugby world cup just after devolution. English flags were everywhere (and looked great). So what! you say, but was there a single English flag in Wembley in the 1966 Football world cup final? No. All union flags.

    There is plenty of moaning in the initial responses to this article about the ‘celtic fringe’ getting all the cash, yet Greater London now gets more public spending per head than Wales. The writers above appear to be more concerned about immigration than the issue of Englishness, which exposes another problem that the English suffer from, a lack of a progressive English political voice. Labour refuse to even debate the English issue, petrified that a new left of centre English party would permanently deprive them of power, which leaves the far right and racist groupings to fill the gap. Evidence of this was yet again there for all to see only today, when the leader of the EDL was given network TV time this morning, with respected journalists from the London media even trying to portray the EDL as a ‘misunderstood’ English voice. Dare I suggest that if England had a clearer positive identity, that immigrants would feel far more positive about calling themselves English?

  11. @Ian said “The much maligned campaign for a NE England Assembly was cynically set up to fail”

    No it wasn’t. The North East was carefully chosen because it was the area most likely to succeed. What Prescott didn’t reckon was the sentiment that it might affect the unity of England. To quote Peter Hetherington of the Devolution Monitoring Programme, who was “struck by the number of times respondents in straw polls raised worries about the impact a partly-devolved North East would have on the unity of England…”

    ”The writers above appear to be more concerned about immigration …a lack of a progressive English political voice…the far right …racist groupings …EDL …if England had a clearer positive identity, that immigrants would feel far more positive about calling themselves English?”

    It is true that many have wrongly attempted to label English nationalism as such (as you have just done here) but it is normally because they’re promoting another agenda and besides, it doesn’t bear close scrutiny. ie…
    1. The only poster to use the word “immigrant”, is you
    2. According to a Ministry of Justice survey, BMEs identified more with being English than they did British
    3. The EDL are a BNP spin off (regularly confusing Britain and England) and besides, they’re a tiny, tiny minority, just like the WDL and SDL.

  12. Terry,
    I hope you agree that the NE England model was flawed, as I described above. Frankly if they had offered Wales that, I doubt I would have voted for it. The problem with having say one English Parliament, is that there is no recognition of the different priorities within the regions of England. There would to my mind by very little difference between an English Parliament and the current Westminster model.

    “While the Welsh bubble-dwellers stare relentlessly into their own navel fluff the UK has been changing – the 2011 Census shows 13% of UK dwellers were born outside the UK and in London it is a staggering one third!”

    “Many of them carry a British Passport. And then we have their UK born kids – many of whom describe themselves as British Asians, British Muslims and British various other things as well… Surveys about ‘Englishness’ increasingly need to be taken with a sack of salt.”

    John Walker may not have used the ‘I’ word, but I think it is fairly clear to see who he was talking about.

    “Once England has become a mongrel race the other porous borders will evaporate. This is our fight, not England’s fight alone. The Brits divide and rule tactics will see us all go under, England, Wales and Scotland”

    English Fred was perhaps a little less subtle…….

    In terms of where to vote for an English voice, I did not want to mention UKIP in the same sentence as the EDL as it is not a fair comparison. Also, I do not strictly see them as a wholly English party as they have significant support in Wales (we do after all predominately read London media). However, I do believe that they will raise the English question and the other UK parties will have to respond to it. I believe that there is a gap opening in England for a progressive English party, as Labour once more drifts to the right to hold the centre ground, as the Tories move right to counter UKIP.

    I do not see a problem with the English having a progressive nationalist party. It is the norm in several European nations.

  13. All of this – the feature and the comments – is fanciful rubbish. You are all speaking from a position of luxury that is not afforded to you. This endless debating about the constitutional settlement disguses one rather inconvenient truth – that every time we take a step down the road towards further devolution, we have not one idea what to do when we get there. As a consequence, this is not a journey, all it is is talking about the destination. You are all too busy working our what you’ll do in the Emerald City without bothering to build the Yellow Brick Road to it.

    No one in Welsh politics appears to have worked out that what the electorate wants is effective exercising of newly-acquired powers, not a new campaign the day after the last referendum for further competance. Sure, we can argue that the devolution settlement never really was that good, but we have to play what’s in front of us, otherwise we’ll lose the electorate completely.

    Part of all this is informed by an inverted snobbery (ignorant, like all snobbery) that Wales is some kind of egalitarian utopia while over the bridge the land is populated by knuckle-scraping EDL voters (see Ben’s comments). There is not a shred of evidence to back this up, and English people remain as realxed about their identity as they ever were.

    The first role of government/law making is to enable. Jobs, education, health give purpose. We have stopped regarding devolution as a means to an end and now simply see it as the end.

  14. IWA would serve its ‘mission’ whatever that may be a lot better if it dropped the regular and incessant promotion of Welsh nationalism. IWA needs to create a robust debate on failed Welsh Government’s governance in all sectors that matter (Economy, Education, NHS and so on) and I agree with Colin Jones’s viewpoint for most part.

    UK is nearly bankrupt and this fact seems to escape most IWA authors and contributors appearing on this site and Wales is not isolated from wider realities of Global economy and unstable financial base that the UK as a whole has to face and soon.

    Using ‘hypothetical and unachievable scenario’ of Wales becoming an ‘Independent Nation’ how would Wales service the proportion of the National Debt that would be transferred to them?

  15. Colin, I agree with some of your views. to an extent. I say this as a Welsh Nationalist. The Welsh devolution settlement offered in 1997 fell far short of either the Scottish or Northern Irish model. Even after a second successful referendum to strengthen it, it still lacks the economic clout to steer the Welsh economy away from the London model. There was certainly too much expected from the model by all parties, but having a one party domination of devolution and the inability to vary revenue, makes it very difficult to show what devolution can really do.

    I certainly hope that I did not give the impression that I was looking down at the English. I cringe when I hear people suggest that the Welsh are in any way superior to our neighbours. I would however say that there is more support for the principle of public service in Wales than in England, but perhaps no more than a region like NE England.

    However, I do believe that there is a very much heightened differential between being British and English; an inevitable consequence of devolution. In terms of the priority of the Welsh Government, I would agree 100% that it must be jobs and the economy. If I want to reach the position where my nation is confident enought to ask the question about independence, then the current economy, education outcomes and public service management needs to be transformed; something that in anyone’s estimation is a long term project. Devolution needs a good kick up the backside in terms of its aims and achievements. Continually blaming London for all our problems is no longer good enough and I hope that the next Assembly election is campaigned on around this context, and not in relation to ‘how nasty’ the London Tories are.

  16. @Jacques Protic

    Since the UK’s national debt is increasing at the rate of £120bn a year, so is Wales’ share of it. Is there something unique about Wales in western Europe that it has to be poor and ever more dependent in perpetuity?

    Wales’ dependency within the UK is a reality, granted. I can see that within its structures, Wales cannot possibly thrive, ever. Our choice, it seems, is to stick with it, in an increasing spiral of decline and poverty, or to bite the bullet, take the pain, and do something about it. There is no guarantee of success, but other nations have succeeded with fewer resources than Wales has at its disposal today.

    The last two decades has seen countries like Slovakia overtake Wales – if it can do it, why can’t we? Yours is a counsel of despair – ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ – ‘face it, you’re too small, too weak, too stupid, ever to make anything of yourself – leave it to your moral, intellectual and gifted superiors to run your affairs for you’.

    Well Jacques, we’ve tried that, and look where 732 years of it has got us. There is an independence referendum in Scotland. In itself that is an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with the UK. It isn’t working for large parts of this island, and it certainly isn’t working for us here. The writing is on the wall, its days are numbered. Like it or not, in the foreseeable future Wales is going to have to see to itself when the UK disintegrates from within.

  17. Dave, As soon as you disclosed 732 years of oppression, slavery or whatever else you wish to call it, your argument failed. You seem to belong to one of the 50,000 homes in Wales that always return Census forms in Welsh language – Using simple sums the Census data roughly represents about 100,000 adults in Wales who feel oppressed and enslaved as you do… What about the rest of us circa 2.9 Million who do not share your view and do you seriously expect the Welsh majority to adopt and worship the Y Fro mindsets, its language and culture? Personally, I do not think so. You should also read today’s leading article which if nothing else shows rapid decline of Wales since the partial devolution in all key elements that define prosperity and growth!?

  18. Jacques, The economic decline has been primarily due to the UK Government’s insistence on prioritising finance and the service sector since the late 1990s; two economic drivers that have never been a priority for the Welsh economy. However, a just criticism can be made of the Welsh Government’s inability to react to this until the 2008 slump.

  19. Ian: We do not need immigrants to call themselves English ! for the sake of being English.Thats up to them “How they feel” they can join in or stay seperated.
    Our positive identity as you point out has being hijacked by the British Establishment along with the marxist BBC who purposely try to mix (oil and water) with Englishness and being British.

    It has failed and is still failing at the exspense of the English subscriber .

    The English will not push our Englishness down any new comer’s throats. We will just sing ” Brush up your Shakesp’eare and they will all cow down”.”Englishness is something within” we English, in England, now calling for Self Determination with INDEPENDENCE. So make no mistake the British will one day, will face the “English” Reckoning !

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