‘Englishness’ is an elusive idea. Could a ‘civic’ version of Englishness be the answer? 

‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise or hate him’.

Those were the words of the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw. I was reminded of this quote last week when the renowned British author Hilary Mantel gave an interview to Italy’s la Repubblica. She said that she was always able to write about Englishness because she ‘felt outside it’. ‘We were northern, working-class and Catholic, and to me, Englishness was Protestant, southern, and owned by people with more money’.


What Mantel Gets Wrong

Is there a single country on earth that obsesses about class as much as Britain?

The problem with Mantel’s argument is that the ‘northern’ working class is far more likely to identify as English than anyone else. The North-East of England is the region where people said they were most likely to identify as ‘English only’. And it may have escaped Mantel’s attention, but these days Chipping Norton is more Left-wing than Hartlepool.

Moreover, whether she likes it or not, Mantel, an acclaimed author and winner of two Booker Prizes, is very much part of the establishment. She also has something in common with the majority of the wealthy, ‘southern’ elite that she describes; the desire to distance herself from Englishness. Last year, Lord Patten, former Governor of Hong Kong and Chancellor of Oxford University, branded Boris Johnson an ‘English nationalist’.

There are many things that Boris Johnson can be accused of, but it is hard to look at his government and conclude that they are English nationalists. On the contrary, they recently abolished EVEL (English Votes for English Laws). Former Labour MP John Denham gave a more accurate description when he said it is a  government of ‘Anglo-centric British nationalists’.

Brexit Battles

Many, including myself, voted Remain. We thought it would be best for the country because we worried that too much of the Leave campaign was flirting with xenophobia. But one has to wonder if a certain kind of Remainer, like Lord Patten, is simply upset that post-Brexit Britain might not be as influential as it once was. It is quite reasonable to be worried about this. But it is also possible that the likes of Patten blame the supposedly ‘ignorant’, primarily English-identifying working class for this national decline.

This attitude was on full display in the aftermath of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, when the Conservatives lost this wealthy, Remain-voting seat to the Liberal Democrats. Former Tory MP Dominic Grieve gave an interview where he described the voters of Chesham and Amersham as ‘sophisticated’. Presumably, this contrasts with the ‘unsophisticated’ voters of Hartlepool — who just so happen to have elected a Conservative MP a few weeks earlier. Grieve did not say that, but he didn’t need to.

Former prime minister Sir John Major has compared the idea of ‘Little England’ unfavourably to the idea of ‘Great Britain’ (and like Patten, has berated the Tories for their English nationalism). It is a little-known fact that the term ‘Little Englander’ was first coined during the Boer War. It was used against those that opposed Britain’s involvement in the war and the expansion of Britain’s Empire more generally. These days, when people talk of ‘Little England’, they generally use the phrase to describe those with xenophobic attitudes. But it is worth noting that the origins of the term are colonial and elitist.

Another inconvenient truth is that the trope ‘English nationalist’ ignores the fact that Wales, the Northern Irish Unionists, and nearly one million Scots all voted for Leave.

What is ‘Englishness’?

Mantel is correct that Englishness is a very particular ‘brand’. When people outside of the UK think of ‘England’, they will often think of a rather quaint, old-fashioned place rooted in tradition. It is the England portrayed in The Crown, Downton Abbey and Bridgerton. This fits with Mantel’s description of English identity as being ‘southern’, and ‘owned by people with more money’. But this ‘England’ is far more likely to feel ‘British’, than ‘English’. One survey suggested that Britain’s elites are indeed far more likely to identify as British. The Royal Family is reportedly frantic about Scottish independence given the importance of keeping the Union intact. And as has already been pointed out, some, like John Major, treat English identity with a degree of suspicion.

Undeniably, ‘working-class’ England is often caricatured. The most potent example of this was probably when Emily Thornberry took a photo of a house in Rochester, bearing an English flag outside, and posted it on Twitter. She was widely condemned for this. Thornberry’s actions were interpreted as sneering and snobbery at working-class patriotism.

There is a reason that the flag of St George is so often associated with racism. The English flag has been hijacked by far-right groups like the EDL, and by football hooligans. This brand of English nationalism manifested itself recently following England’s defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.

But many studies now show that most English people do not think that you have to be white to be English. And there is evidence to suggest that people from minority backgrounds feel increasingly comfortable identifying as English.

This has led some to argue that a ‘civic’ English identity is needed. But, listening to the likes of Mantel, Patten, Thornberry and Major, I do wonder if England is just too divided. The upper-middle classes are simply too eager to stereotype large numbers of their fellow citizens as uncouth and boorish.

The upper-classes also get stereotyped. David Cameron and Boris Johnson are frequently lambasted for being ‘too posh’. Cameron was pilloried for not knowing the price of a loaf of bread — despite explaining that he preferred to use an electronic bread maker. This gaffe was used to portray him and other Conservatives of his class as out-of-touch and uncaring. Even a fellow Conservative MP Nadine Dorries once described Cameron and Osborne as ‘arrogant posh boys’ with ‘no passion to want to understand the lives of others’.

It is hard to build a progressive patriotism when one part of England despises the other part — and vice versa. If there is any chance of achieving this, England will either have to overcome its internal squabbles or accept that there are different versions of ‘Englishness’, depending on one’s class and social status.