English Identity
Ann Leslie

In my local inner-city market I asked a group of white teenagers loitering outside the ‘offie’ whether they felt English or British?  “English, of course. I’m proud to be English!” replied one youth, his ears and nostrils pierced with large amounts of ironmongery. “I’m not British, I’m English!” Why? “Dunno, really. Just the way I am”. But one of his mates butted in with: “English, British, what’s the difference? I’m proud of being English, cos it’s the same thing, innit?”

Er, try saying that in Galashiels, mate. Try saying it in the Welsh-speaking parts of Wales, or in republican areas of Belfast.

But what does being English mean? Many people today may indeed echo the market youth: “Dunno really...” The English have tended to use the terms English and British synonymously. We were the boss nation, the dominant culture, and the Celtic fringes were merely colourful add-ons to the prevailing English, sorry, British way of life. These fringes had charming accents and were very good at things like making porridge, booze and male voice choirs, but Celtic nationalism itself - a sense of belonging to a separate “race” - was regarded as somewhat childish. On a par with all those tedious Yorkshiremen who say “I’m a Yorkshireman and proud of it”, Celtic nationalism was regarded as the sort of bombast you get from people with a rather deserved inferiority complex. We felt (in so far as we thought about it at all, which was scarcely ever) that to be born English was to have won first prize in the lottery of life. In fact, we were so convinced that ours was the dominant culture that we scarcely bothered to talk of “Englishness” itself.

Things, however, have changed. The English have woken up to the fact that the Scots and the Welsh increasingly call themselves “nations”, not regions, as we have always called them. Well, if Scotland is a nation, and Wales is a nation, and Ireland is a nation, what is England? The English, having been complacently boss nation for so long - first over all other Britons, and secondly over much of the world - do not know what they are any more.

Does this matter? I fear it does, especially in an increasingly globalised world. Globalization does not lead to an ironing-out of national characteristics: it leads to a stronger desire than ever to huddle together for safety. If that instinct is denied or repressed, it will reappear - not as a healthy pride in one’s national and cultural identity - but as something poisonous, xenophobic, whining and aggressive. There is a salutary example. No matter how hard Tito tried to create a “Yugoslav” identity out of that country’s disparate Slav parts, Yugoslavia fell apart soon after his death in an orgy of ethnic hatred and revenge. A sense of national identity, a knowledge of who you are and where you come from, seems to be essential for the psychic health of any society. Just as adopted children, however happy with their adoptive parents, long to know about their roots, people who have no pride in their collective past will not be able to deal with the present or the future with unaggressive self-confidence. Lacking a sense of what being English now consists of, the former boss nation is far more likely to express its sense of loss through hatred of others. That is why I fear the rise of English nationalism. If the English begin to feel hard done by - why, for example, are the Scots getting much higher subsidies from the State than the English? Why are ethnic minorities allowed to criticise the English but if we reply in kind we’re being racist - their sense of grievance may turn out to be very dangerous.

To my mind, the way to avoid this danger is to help the English - especially the young English, like the tattooed and ear-ringed youths in my market - to appreciate that one can be proud of English history, culture and inventiveness without being arrogant or xenophobic. Multicultural education must not be used as an excuse to decry everything English in order to build up the self-esteem of incomers, or to assuage a sense of post-imperial guilt. We English should be proud of ourselves for real achievements, past and present. This I not a recipe for rampant chauvinism. It is quite the opposite. It is a prophylactic against it.

It is deeply depressing to learn from a recent Sunday Times survey that a group of teenagers who declared themselves proud to be English could not think of any English achievement other than Coronation Street and EastEnders and the national football team. Before it is too late for our multinational inner cities, we must give English youth something valid to be proud of, to focus its longing for a sense of national identity.

English pride must not be allowed to become the sole province of a tattooed, snarling “Gotcha” culture. But if liberal opinion continues to deride English achievements, and constantly demands mea culpas for our past, then a dominant “Gotcha” culture is what we will get, at huge cost to us all.


(This is an extract from Ann Leslie’s essay published in the new book Mindfield, (Camden Press))

From Postscript, Summer 1998: 16-17