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Is there a future for English nationalism? We need a new way to make sense of our national identity

Both of these people are Turkish. Credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Both of these people are Turkish. Credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images

April 26, 2019   4 mins

According to legend, St George was a soldier who freed a Libyan town from the cruel attentions of a sea-dragon by killing it. Any public figure who has since dared face-down fierce vested interests or kill off harmful prevailing orthodoxies has similarly been branded a ‘dragon slayer’.  In honour of England’s patron saint, we’ve asked various contributors to nominate the contemporary tyranny they would put to the sword.

Every nation is entitled to its patriotism. When, for a few brief days during the 2018 World Cup, the England football team started firing on more than its habitual single cylinder, I painted my face with the cross of St George and joined a lot of other drunken people trying to stop traffic at the junction outside my local pub. But beyond football I cannot see the point of English nationalism.

In fact, it’s quite hard to be enthusiastic about a nationalism that didn’t exist when you were young. As a child I played Napoleonic war games, but the regiments we were taught to venerate from the battle of Waterloo were the Gordon Highlanders, the Scots Greys and the Inniskillings. The patriotism I was taught was, if anything, British.

But it is near certain that Scotland will gain independence in the first half of this century, and a united Ireland is a distinct possibility. So the rise of an English national identity in response to the UK’s breakup would be logical. The problem is, there is very little logic to a purely English nationalism once you get beyond the Tudor era.

From James I onwards, the London-centred elite’s mission for two centuries was to create a single kingdom out of Britain and Ireland, and use it as a springbard to build a colonial empire. Even under Cromwell, the essential mission remained the same. English nationalism, such as it existed, was never about separating off from other countries but conquering them.

As a northern English person, I find it even more complicated. The most resilient identity I’ve carried with me across the airport lounges of the world is “northern”. There’s a strong regional identity which expressed itself, for my Dad’s generation, through antipathy to other parts of England

And then there was mining. Mining culture was one of the strongest components of the British labour movement and created a kind of glue through which people from towns like Easington, Ysdradginlais and Auchinleck could create a shared experience that transcended their national and regional origins.

So it’s not surprising that our current form of English nationalism – centred around southern English culture and traditional institutions such as the Royal Navy, the Monarchy, the BBC and the flat horse racing season – has not proved particularly resilient.

On top of all the regional and cultural forces, there is also globalisation, which has created – not just in London but in most of England’s major cities – a cosmopolitan vibe, in which your talent, not your nationality or ethnicity, is the route to success.

Do the polls reveal the emergence of a distinct, new English identity? Not conclusively. Residents of England forced to make a straight choice between “English” and “British” have been dividing roughly equally over the past 30 years.

Pride in English identity is weaker among the young (45%) than among the old (72%) according to a YouGov survey for the BBC. Meanwhile if 61% of white English people express pride in being English, only 32% of those from ethnic minorities do so. By contrast British national identity remains equally strong between all these groups.

The point is, an English nationalism moulded around its current symbols, ideologies and cultures cannot be successful in its own terms. If pushed hard enough, it would divide Britain, alienate the inhabitants of most big cities and find scant support among the creators of culture. It would, at worst, become a form of ethno-nationalism completely unsustainable in a diverse, open economy like ours.

Some on the Left, like the musician Billy Bragg, have argued that the Left should create its own version of English nationalism, out of the radical traditions that inspired the Levellers, Peterloo, the Chartists and the Peasants’ Revolt. But Leveller soldiers were shot by Cromwell for refusing to participate in the founding act of Left English nationalism – the conquest of Ireland. At Peterloo they carried the red cap of the French republic.

Like it or not, our past of continuous trade, conquest and openness to immigration makes the whole English nationalism project difficult to sell.

And yet the centrifugal dynamics of the UK make it inevitable that, at some point, a state comprising just England and Wales will have to find a viable ideology to explain its own existence.

My guess is that if such a state ever emerged, the only viable ideology would be one that validated its existence as a confederation of regions. They may not map exactly to the so-called ‘heptarchy’ of the Anglo-Saxon period, but if you separated off South West England from Wessex, made Birmingham the capital of Mercia and created an energetic Leeds-Manchester conurbation as the power centre of a new Northumbria, you would then have something similar to the power balance under King Ecgberht in the year 800.

The ‘nationalism’ that might emerge out of a neo-heptarchy would be centred around a common language, legal institutions and money – and thus be quite weak in terms of breast-beating emotionalism. But it would stand a better chance of being accepted by the 21st-century population of England than all the current attempts to create a nationalism of exclusion. Having St George as its patron saint – a Greek conscript venerated by Christians from Palestine to Georgia and celebrated as a martyr in Islamic texts – would be pretty cool.

Paul Mason’s Confessions with Giles Fraser is out on Monday

Paul Mason is a journalist, film-maker and author, most recently of Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.


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