The report clearly recognises a growing sense of Englishness and wonders how ‘progressives’ should deal with it. Three threads are discussed.
The first ism Englishness as a reaction to devolution, and therefore replacing Britishness under which the English identity had been subsumed, but with Britishness also dominated by Englishness. The report finds these ideas contradictory but I don’t. Surely it is easier for one identity to be replaced by another if they share a core. It is a smaller step to feel British not English, if you feel they are one and the same. The report points to a rising sense of Englishness pre-devolution and the lack of awareness or importance placed on devolutional inequalities as evidence that this is not the whole story. Though it may point to Englishness being important in future political debates.
It recongnises a reluctance amongst UK politicians to engage with English identity and English political nationalism, as many see this as a big threat to the Union, or (Jack Straw) are just ignorant anti-English self hating bigots. Ok that’s my opinion.
The discussion of Englishness as a cultural identity follows. Attempts to analyse the growing sense of Englishness by the likes of Paxman and interest in English history are noted. The ‘progressive’ think tank bemoans English identity as nostalgic. Our national myth of an Island race fighting of outside foes (Napoleon and Hitler) is apparently unhelpful and unsuited to the 21st century in a multi-national state. On the other hand they also say Englishness should not be dismissed as inherently imperialistic or reactionary, and should be engaged with, which is nice.
The third theme is that of Englishness as a threat to Britishness, both the British institutions and the values they represent. It allows that the Conservative and Unionist party has been replaced by the Labour Party as the party of the Union, and that many on the left feel Britishness is more inclusive than Englishness. Part of this is represented by a desire to teach a historical or ‘citizenship’ British story in schools, to provide a sense of belonging. It concludes in this section that Englishness need not be opposed to Britishness.
In the conclusion to the report, it is pointed out that a constitutional review which ignores 85% of the population is bizarre. Ignoring the English question carries as many risks as the solutions to it, and engaging with, rather than condemning a growing sense of Englishness is the way forward. A progressive Englishness can be forged, avoiding the ‘dangers’ of leaving Englishness to the right, as a complimentary idea with the existence of a United Kingdom.
My Comments on Both Reports
Although I fall on the centre right politically, it is encouraging that those on the left are beginning to see that English identity cannot be ignored any more. The vision of the English as oppressors who don’t deserve recognition is coming to an end. The IPPR are very influential in the Labour Party and anything that makes Gordon and chums address the English question must be welcomed.
However, there are also problems. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a ‘progressive’ Englishness (although I hate the word progressive). But a government decided idea of what should constitute people’s identity (English or British) will never work. Identities occur naturally through a complex interaction of outside forces and must be understood, not imposed.
And running through both threads the underlying assumption that preserving the Union is the be all and end all. The English question must only be addressed, not because it is the right and democratic thing to do, but to save the English from the right, or to save the Union from things that might break it up. If thoughts of saving the Union mean the government acts to make those in the Union happy, that is good. But surely it is better to put the well being of people and the representation of their opinions first, not an abstract institution. If the institutions do a good job then people will live with them, emotional attachment or not, as the report correctly surmises. Scottish people feel more considerably more Scottish than British, hence there desire for some self-rule. But they support the Union as they feel they would be better off under it. A successful government will do more for the UK than an invented Britishness.