November 29, 2022 - 4:03pm

The release of census data on national identity should have demonstrated our progress towards a shared sense of nation. Sadly, it doesn’t shed much light on who we think we are, nor what it means. Flawed questions created a largely illusory swing from 60% ‘English only’ in 2011 to 55% ‘British only’ last year (reputable surveys show a much more gradual shift). This hasn’t stopped the ONS promoting a misleading ‘interactive map’ with only the vaguest health warning. 

And when England’s diverse footballers take on Wales tonight, none of them could have ticked ‘Black English’, while the Welsh census let people be Black Welsh. The Welsh government insisted on the choice, while England’s union state did not. Excluding England’s ethnic minorities — you couldn’t be Asian English either — from English national identity and only letting them be British sends a powerful and unpleasant message about who belongs to the national community and who does not, as Labour’s David Lammy has highlighted.

Source: ONS

Sloppy data gathering and presentation is indicative of scant interest in the extent to which we have shared national identities. Immigration is back at the centre of debate, but we need to be asking what nation is being made from those people already here. One in six of England’s residents were born outside the UK, with 4.2 million coming in the past ten years, 2.7 million between 2001 and 2011 and 3.6 million before that. Many who are making their lives here still feel no UK identity: this is a sweeping re-shaping of a national population. While there is no reason to think we can’t make a success of it — indeed we have no choice — it would be dangerous to assume that we will.

At one level things are going perfectly well. Our Prime Minister is a second-generation migrant, and Tory unpopularity owes little to his ethnicity. But the loose ties of liberal tolerance do not foster the shared stories, shared belonging, and shared commitments to each other that all nations will need in a world of climate change, food insecurity, mass migration and competition for energy and raw materials.

What’s more, this is a world in which the threshold of war has been lowered, human rights diminished, and democracy threatened. Only societies with the cohesion and common purpose that stem from a strong sense of nationhood and national belonging will give security to their own citizens and be the building blocks of internationalism. For those of us in England, that nationhood will be both English and British.

Conservative Unionists might want Britishness to unite the UK, but it doesn’t. The cosmopolitan Britishness of England’s elites is quite different to more English forms of Britishness. The British Election Study data shows people with strong English identities are much less diverse. National democracy and sovereignty have different meanings to different identities. In short, we don’t agree which nation we belong to or what that nation means. The contested understandings of national identity muddled by the census could yet become political fracture lines as they have in the recent past. At the very least, the offer they make to our newer fellow citizens is unwelcoming and confused.

British multiculturalism was buried by David Cameron ten years ago and popular Englishness, hidden from sight except in sport, has always had to make its own, as yet incomplete, journey to reflect all of England. (A good World Cup always helps). Rather than face the future with complacency, we would do better to understand that cohesive nations don’t build themselves.

John Denham is a former Labour MP and director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton.