2014 will be a year when identity matters. The solemn commemoration of the first world war centenary will be a reminder of much shared British history, for good or ill. The immediate decision as to whether Britons will have a shared future too is for the Scots to make, when they vote in September on whether to end or mend three centuries of political union. Scotland’s referendum will also, inevitably, make this the year in which we finally get around to talking about England.
There are, as yet, few signs of the English doing anything much to prepare for any fallout from Scotland’s vote. The referendum dominates public life north of the border; many in England, Wales and Northern Ireland won’t notice it is happening until next summer. Would a Scottish ‘yes’ vote be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders, or might the psychological reverberations, whether traumatic or liberating, go rather deeper? The absence of attention makes it hard to be sure. Little thought has been given to even the most basic of symbolic questions. We probably wouldn’t bother to take the blue out of the Union Jack (for auld lang syne, and the so-called ‘social union’ too). But if Scotland voted to exit, what would the ‘rest of the United Kingdom’, the country formerly known as Great Britain and Northern Ireland, be called afterwards? (Little Britain, anyone?).
A Scottish ‘no’ vote remains the more likely scenario. This would probably also see a further renegotiation of devolved powers, and rebalancing of identities, within the multinational UK. Scots alone will decide on independence, but the devolution settlement cannot be rewritten unilaterally. No further round of deeper Scottish devolution will prove possible without addressing the English question seriously for the first time.
That political reality is reinforced by the evidence of rising English identity. In the census, 70 per cent in England identified themselves as English, and only 29 per cent as British. Several studies show most people do hold both identities, but are now twice as likely to say that they are ‘more English than British’ than the other way around. This has sparked a good deal of talk about the need to talk about Englishness. Yet it never quite seems to happen.
David Cameron had a Democracy Commission, in opposition, to address the ‘West Lothian Question’ but its ‘English votes for English laws’ proposals remain in the ‘too difficult to think about’ box. Cameron does make a point, as prime minister, of flying the St George’s flag from number 10 Downing Street on April 23rd.
Ed Miliband has given one keynote speech about Englishness, 18 months ago. The morning after the four day Jubilee weekend, he observed that those Union Jacks which had fluttered proudly in the rain would soon give way to St George’s flags for the Euro 2012 football tournament. Miliband said that he wanted to develop a ‘progressive patriotism’ comfortable with this pluralism. Explaining what that might mean may well fall to Jon Cruddas, who has long been the obvious Labour voice to speak to England. The party’s policy coordinator has been saying that he “gets” Englishness for a few years now, and often worries aloud about whether his party will get it too. He has even encouraged a small cult of George Lansbury, Attlee’s somewhat deservedly forgotten predecessor, who once penned a 1930s tome called ‘My England’. Cruddas has described his own quest will be ‘Less The Spirit Level, more what is England’ but has given few further clues as to whatever may be bubbling away in the slow pressure cooker of his policy review.
Only very close observers of the Westminster village could so far have picked up these whispers that the party leaders think Englishness is going to matter.
Why has the Englishness debate stalled politically? Partly unfamiliarity, having not talked about England because Englishness and Britishness were not talked about for so long. Secondly, anxiety about the unpredictable consequences of embarking of a journey with no fixed destination, which means that England has remained the hole in the polo mint of Britain’s asymmetric multi-national politics. But, thirdly, there is still some foundational uncertainty and confusion as to what the English question is really all about.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband have become stuck in no man’s land. They are aware that the Scottish vote will finally force the identity question, yet they are again now muted by the fear that addressing it before the referendum will position them as ‘too English’. Yet public opinion in Scotland has no issue with England finding its voice too. Voices from outside of England – most notably Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones – have called for a pan-British debate, in which someone would have to turn up and speak for England.
The British party leaders’ dilemma shows that there should be a senior politician to do just that: a secretary of state (and their shadow) with a specific brief to speak for England. This might help to remedy the political neglect that England has suffered: as John Denham has often pointed out, the parties issue Scottish and Welsh manifestos but leave England in a vacuum. The appointment could give fresh impetus to the debate about Englishness, while giving someone responsibility for chairing it and finding out the answers.
Before they do that, however, they may first have to work out what the question is. A brief tour of England’s pubs and water coolers will find few raging debates about the correct constitutional settlement to answer issue of West Lothian. This is not one for the wonks. The pet schemes of the major parties – regional assemblies, elected mayors, PR-elected second chambers – have been greeted with a mixture of apathy and rejection. The campaign for an English parliament cannot claim to have caught fire either. Instead of seeking a neat policy fix, we must instead recognise that the emerging politics of Englishness is first of all about cultural recognition.
The cultural politics of Englishness are not primarily driven by devolution. As Lord Ashcroft’s study of UKIP has persuasively shown, support for the eurosceptic party draws on a much broader and often inchoate set of cultural dislocations – ‘you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus … you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist’. Devolution is just one further example of the English not getting a voice.
The association of Englishness with this kind of ‘political correctness gone mad’ backlash tempts many on the liberal-left to run away from it, fearing that the rise in Englishness marks an appetite for an atavistic retreat from the civic and inclusive Britishness of the Olympic summer of 2012. That is a mistaken instinct. There is no reason why Englishness should be dominated by the politics of grievance, though the refusal to give it a civic voice could see it curdle and sour. Most of those celebrating the Jubilee and the Olympics were English too.
Symbols do matter when it comes to Englishness. Adopting Jerusalem as an English sporting anthem for English teams, so ceasing to appropriate the British anthem even when playing against Scotland or Wales, should work for everyone. So why not celebrate St George’s Day properly – and make sure that everybody is invited to the party? St George’s Day bank holiday wouldn’t just prove those who fear ‘not being allowed to be English’ wrong; it would offer them a positive Englishness we can all share.
If cultural recognition matters to minorities, why wouldn’t it matter to majorities too? This civic, celebratory Englishness already exists, but (surprisingly for those who remember the hooligan era) seems to be practised only during major football tournaments. 2014’s World Cup summer will see the St George’s flag flown everywhere, to support the civic Englishness of a multi-ethnic team, whose diversity is so routine and commonplace that it is barely noticed.
Support for these simple signals of how England’s voice can count would help to open up broader questions about representation and voice. British-wide cultural institutions, from the National Theatre to the BBC, should think about where and when they need a distinctively English dimension, just as parliament itself will need to in any further round of devolution.
But perhaps politicians might engage substantively with the English question more easily once they realise that they don’t need to begin the debate with the answer. To find out what the English want, we need to create more cultural and political space for English voices to be heard. What political leaders have seemingly failed to grasp, however, is that the conversation is already bubbling up – but they are not yet part of it. Dodging the question will not be an option. 2014 looks likely to be Britain’s year of identity. Our political class will be pitched into a debate about Englishness whether they like it or not. They should start working out what they want to contribute.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future. This article originally appeared in the Winter Fabian Review.