The English problem

Around 45% of people voting in Scotland’s independence referendum voted for a separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and therefore a severing of the Scottish from the British.

As media interviews with Scots during the campaign seemed to show, this desire for severing and separation came largely from a resentment of, dislike and contempt for ‘the English’, who have been perceived to be doing all sorts of nasty things to the Scots from their remote base in London or specifically Westminster.

This is quite an interesting phenomenon on a number of levels, not least for how it shows how similar feelings north and south of the border can be funnelled in different directions by the action of opinion – otherwise known as politics. The Scottish nationalists have shown how effective they are at this, though alas not effective enough to win the referendum.

This distaste for ‘Westminster elites’ as spat out by angry Scots is actually largely shared, though not in such organised, directed fashion, in England and Wales and – I presume – Northern Ireland. We have a lot more in common than the nationalists would like to admit, but down here in England we differ in not having found much of an organised voice for it. UKIP is certainly making a play to be that voice, but at present it shows itself mostly as a protest party, with little chance of articulating a positive vision of England or Britain beyond a narrow, right-wing version focused more on what we are not rather than what we are or what we can be.

On a personal level, I have always considered myself British, but this referendum has made me reconsider and think about Englishness a lot more - no bad thing.

Englishness is a problem though, no doubt about it.

For a start, there aren’t many positive associations with England and Englishness out there. While Scots and Welsh have stirring national anthems and attractive national folk traditions (like the male voice choirs of Wales and the pipes and drums of Scotland), England retains the same anthem as the United Kingdom (the plodding ‘God Save the Queen’) and what folk traditions remain are mostly either specific to regions or have been subsumed into wider British traditions. 

The iconic Union Jack
Probably the most common demonstration of definably English identity – as with many other countries - comes with sport, and in particular football. But, while British sports teams, with their diverse associations, and the attractive Union Jack flag, offer plenty of space and scope for pride, this is generally not so with English teams (the cricket, with its charming, open-hearted traditions, is a welcome exception).

Especially, I personally remain wary about the association of England and Englishness with the sort of boorish, drunken and borderline violent fans that still follow the England football team. I would love to go abroad and watch my team play, but I would never do it at present. I know I would feel ashamed of myself and my country that these fans are the ones who are visibly representing England, and that I am going along with them. Seeing them falling over each other on TV is bad enough without having to spend time with them. Things may have improved, but the old racist and far right associations of England football fans are also clearly still there.

Without strong, attractive alternatives, these symbols and signifiers of Englishness extend to the English flag, which in any case is not a great flag – such a contrast to the iconic Union Jack. Those who join in with and associate themselves with the drunken boorishness of the football fans are clearly more attracted to the English flag. 
The charmless Flag of St George

But I am not one of them. I feel more like one of the Scots or Welsh or Spanish and indeed the ethnic minority Britons who look down on these people.

This is where Englishness is at its most problematic, for rather than being a simple representation of where you come from, it has different connotations that feel stronger. It has disturbed me to hear disparaging remarks made about ‘the English’ by Scots, (other?) foreigners and ethnic minorities who live in England – not least because the definition often has an ethnic edge to it. Also, there is sometimes a nasty or contemptuous aspect to this which is generally tolerated and even shared by middle class white people who might be considered English themselves.

But, in truth, I can understand these sentiments and partly share them. What is more, so does the wider political and cultural left, which is one reason why Labour has been losing support from the old white working class in England.

England and the English are not fashionable. We are also not a confident, united bunch. We are uncomfortable with politics and are miles away from any sense of shared citizenship and a shared destiny.

This may all sound rather gloomy, and to a great extent it is.

But there is opportunity here – in the normally meaningless political jargon, to “build a country”. England has been largely neglected over the years, and now seems like a good time to stop neglecting it. It is surely time to stop drifting apart from each other and start to come together.

A few ideas to start with:

1) A new English flag, replacing the Flag of St George with something more colourful and interesting that somehow acknowledges different regions of England and the different backgrounds of people who should consider themselves English (me included).

2) A new English national anthem. William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is normally suggested as a good one, but there are plenty of alternatives, not least from the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose compositions have a peculiarly English quality and indeed are partly built out of old English folk songs.  

3) More effort from all of us to talk about England and Englishness in a positive fashion, and associate it with good things, good spirits, inclusivity and generosity.

4) The most difficult part: to develop an English or British politics that means something and is patriotic, but that avoids the worse sides of nationalism. I have written a lot here before about the need to curb immigration from a leftist point of view, one reason for this being that it would help existing immigrants to integrate better without the disintegrating pressure that significant further incomings bring. England and Britain needs to settle down and start to like itself again, and that means starting to know itself better. You can't do that when everything is in flux.


  1. Hi Ben. Looks like I am not allowed on Labourlist at all now. My posts get forgotten about altogether now none appear.

    I was really p****d off by one woman yesterday who said new voters didn't want any changes. I wanted to ask how she could know what everybody else wants, but of course the post never got through.

    As I have a Scot parent (mum) I took her pro-Independence points tho neither her or me could vote as we are in London. I got really fed up with all the anti-Scottish comments all around some really would have been thought racist if "Scot" had been changed to "black" or "Jewish" or whatever. When you say you don't like to hear the Scots or anyone else dissing the English fair enough but it isn't all one way traffic. Labourlist went on about the bullies in the yes campaign but there was the same thing going down with bullies in the no campaign.

    Alex Salmond showed he was genuine by resigning straight away on Friday - I bet if the vote had gone the other way you would wait a long time for Cameron or Mr Miliband to step down. I trust Mr. Salmond more than I would ever trust Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband. They got together like old mates, now they are pretending to be enemies again. It's all phoney they are just the same desperate to avoid change.

    I think that the No camp will be sorry in the end because apart from all the talk I doubt much will change now in Scotland or England. I don't think C or M mean what they say and as for Gordon Brown he isn't anything now except an MP and hasn't got any pull. He can promise anything but won't and can't deliver it.

    Lee Denham

  2. Personally, I rather like St. George's Cross - it is an ancient symbol and should not be associated with beery football fans. Better to think of it flying atop an old CoE church.

    I would regard its replacement as a victory for the intolerant ideological liberals that you call out with such accuracy here.

    The arguments over a replacement would be bitter and I would wager that the 'winner' would see us have 'diversity' rubbed in our faces forever.

    Leave well alone would be my recommendation.

    A new anthem on the other hand would be great although I would feel a little sad for the Queen if her anthem were removed from public life altogether. 'I vow to thee' is a great choice.

  3. It's five years since you wrote this. I wonder if you feel quite so negative about the country and its people now.

    Take a look at this wiki page and see what a lovely culture we have:


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