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‘Englishness’: resurgent, contested – and ever–elusive?

‘Englishness’: resurgent, contested – and ever–elusive?

In his latest blog, Jonathan Chaplin suggests how we should respond to contestation over the past, present and future of Englishness. 25/11/2021

An unexpected factor disrupting British politics over the last twenty years has been the return of ‘Englishness’, the demand for a specifically English political identity. It was by far the most powerful dynamic behind Brexit. In a recent study, political scientists Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones describe English nationalism as ‘the new force transforming Britain’.[1]  It is a local manifestation of a resurgent nationalism subverting globalism and cosmopolitanism everywhere, and winning newly assertive ideological defences.

In the UK, many had assumed that nationalism was only a Scottish, Irish or Welsh phenomenon. But now Englishness has burst onto the political stage, demanding the same attention that, its champions complain, had long been showered upon its indulged Celtic siblings. English national identity, they charge, has been neglected, disparaged and left voiceless.

Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, lamenting a nation ‘more fractured than I have ever known it in my lifetime’, reports that many English people ‘feel left behind by metropolitan elites in London and the South East, and by devolved governments and strengthened regional identities in Scotland and Wales’. He charges that ‘their heartfelt cry to be heard is often disregarded, wilfully misunderstood or patronised as backwardly xenophobic’. Henderson and Wyn Jones confirm that perception, finding that the new Englishness is powered by ‘a sense of grievance about England’s place within the UK’ combined with ‘a fierce commitment to a particular vision of Britain’s past, present and future’.

This ‘particular vision’ is, however, deeply contested. There are many who, while not repudiating Englishness, are more inclined to defend a ‘Britishness’ equally inclusive of all four nations in the UK and of the plural ethnic communities in all of them as a result of immigration.

This alternative vision was on confident display in a seminar in mid–November marking the twenty–first anniversary of The Future of Multi–Ethnic Britain, an influential 2000 report chaired by multicultural theorist Bhikhu Parekh. Parekh recalled that the report’s depiction of Britain as a ‘community of communities’ evoked fierce criticism at the time from the political right. But he insisted that it was actually calling for a strong, common British national identity, yet one celebrating ethnic diversity as constitutive and not corrosive of that identity.[2] Archbishop Cottrell himself couples his call for a renewed English voice with a summons to an ‘expansive vision’ of England.

But Cottrell is right that today we are much further away from such a vision than we were in 2000. That the Leave/Remain polarity is now more decisive for voters’ political identity than traditional party divides, only exacerbates the challenge. And that cleavage is only one of many emotionally–charged clashes of identity – ‘affective polarisations‘ – now fracturing many western societies.

Yet ‘Englishness’ remains frustratingly elusive. This is partly because most national identities are inherently difficult to pin down even at the best of times. Nations are formed by multiple interacting factors such as language, ethnicity, faith, custom, institutions, economics, geography, or migration that undergo constant evolution and escape precise definition.

From a theological perspective nations can, on the one hand, be seen as potentially enriching forms of human community. They emerge over time as humans spread out across the earth in fulfilment of the ‘cultural commission’ given by God in Genesis 1 and 2 – to ‘go forth and multiply’ and to ‘till and keep the earth’. As diverse human populations have responded to this commission, distinct national cultures have emerged, each with their own distinctive expressions of some or all of the factors listed above. Over time, national traditions emerge, national identities congeal and members of nations acquire attachments to these social realities that have partly framed the contexts of their lives. A sense of belonging to and affection for one’s nation – perhaps for more than one – can thus be a wholesome human inclination.

On the other hand, like all created gifts, nations are susceptible to every corruption that can afflict sinful individuals: selfishness, greed, fear of strangers, and the urge to put others down to shore up our own fragile identities. National distinctions become, not opportunities for mutual enrichment and cooperation, but thresholds of exclusion – not points of encounter but policed borders. These pathologies occur both between separate nations and within states like the UK that embrace more than one national or ethnic group.

For example, where one national group enjoys long historical dominance within a multi–nation state, it almost invariably ends up constructing narratives that legitimate that pre–eminence. This has been true of the English in the UK – or rather, of the white, prosperous, Protestant English men who were long the custodians of the nation’s authorised history. But given the opportunity, those written out of the official script, such as the industrial working class, ethnic and racial minorities, women, minority faith traditions, begin to propose counter–histories challenging that script – as seen in symptomatic events like the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

As a result, today we witness vigorous and increasingly acrimonious contestation over the past, present and future of Englishness. We should respond to this state of affairs in three ways.

First, we need to accept that disputes over Englishness and Britishness are here to stay. We must renounce the desire for a single, all–embracing national narrative that everyone would be expected to sign up to in order fully to qualify as ‘English’ or ‘British’. That desire can only play into a divisive and exclusionary account of national identity – as Brexit and its aftermath have disclosed. We must learn to live with polyphonous, and at times cacophonous, accounts of our national identities (not only English but also British, Welsh, Scottish and Irish).

Second, we must positively engage with each other’s renditions of national identity rather than retreating into balkanized echo chambers tuned into only one narrative frequency. We need to be exposed to, unsettled by and hopefully enriched by, national narratives other than our own. Such engagement needs to take places in schools, universities, the media, think tanks, faith communities and other bodies in civil society equipped for the purpose.

Third, such debates should be kept well away from government. Governments of right and left have been calling for a new ‘national narrative’, or statement of ‘British values’, since at least 2000, but the results have been desultory: a mere list of five ‘core’ values – freedom, respect, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law. These are not even uniquely British (or English) and, while vital, they are, as officially formulated, far too abstract to confer identity or direct behaviour. They easily lend themselves to weaponization by governments against minorities who, they suspect, haven’t signed up to them.

Englishness can never be captured in a single account, but English people need to generate a variety of fresh and compelling stories about themselves that both properly affirm the estimable elements of their past and present, and honestly confront their pathologies. This means celebrating the specifically English manifestations of hospitality, generosity, courage, internationalism, relative stability, science, arts and literature, architecture, diplomacy, humour, while equally owning up to the specifically English expressions of hubris, perfidy, religious intolerance, colonial violence, post–imperial exceptionalism, war crimes, class division, inequality, insularity and racism.

Nurtured and sobered in equal measure by a plurality of such stories, perhaps England can begin to know itself again, warts and all, and thus better know its place within the UK, Europe and the world. England’s religious traditions, not least Anglicanism, given its historical evolution from exclusive hegemony to aspiring hospitality, have both painful lessons of failure and valuable reserves of wisdom to share in such a process.


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[1] See also the work of the Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Southampton.

[2] See his subsequent remarks occasioned by recent charges of racism in cricket: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/19/racism-fuelled-by-tory-rejection-multiculturalism-lord-parekh-azeem-rafiq

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’ (SCM 2021).

Posted 25 November 2021

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