There’s no doubt that the English national identity is under considerable stress at the present time: from the political and cultural privileging of Britishness over Englishness; from the fact that – through devolution – the other nations of the UK have acquired the right to define their identity and determine their destiny in separation from the UK, while English people have not been accorded the same privilege; and from the substantial recent waves of immigration that have landed up mainly on English shores rather than those of Scotland or Wales.
It’s mainly these combined pressures of devolution and immigration that have precipitated the present crisis. And, indeed, the very intensity of the efforts to reaffirm British identity and values is clearly in part a reaction to the same stresses. But is there a more profound correlation between these three strands as they affect English national identity? Could it be the case that what amounts to UK-government tolerance, if not encouragement, of the high volume of immigration over recent years is actually an affirmation of a certain vision of Britishness, opposed to what adherents of that vision might regard as ‘narrow’ English nationalism?
Let’s set out the hypothetical causal chain like this: Scottish and Welsh devolution is seen as threatening not only the survival of the United Kingdom as a political union but also challenges the integrity and universality of so-called British values. In their liberal acception, these stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to nationalist separatism and to a ‘mono-ethnic’ culture and society (e.g. ‘white Anglo-Saxon’). Indeed, Britishness is to a substantial degree assimilated to the idea of the ‘global culture’ and the values that, under the Bush-Blair axis, were thought to be universally applicable to any particular culture, e.g. liberty (including free-market economics), democracy, equality (at least, nominal equality of economic opportunity), tolerance / pluralism, etc.
The welcoming of hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of people from all over the world to make their homes and establish economic activity in Britain was seen in part as a way to reaffirm this idea of British values as at the heart of the new globalised world, and British society as a microcosm and vanguard of the inevitable mixing of races and cultures that this involves. To this extent, the reaffirmation of a trans-cultural and trans-ethnic Britain (more so than multi-cultural and multi-ethnic) represents a vision of a unity that is of such a universal character that it transcends and more than offsets any impairment to the more limited unity of the United Kingdom, made up from the political union of its constituent countries. (Britain, in this sense, represents a unity that is of an ideal / ideological character; while the ‘United Kingdom’ refers merely to the political union.) But by the same token, this idea of Britain leaves no room at all for any notion of a separate English national, ethnic or political identity.
It is perhaps in this more general sense that the widespread immigration of the past few years does help to undermine the efforts to affirm and define a distinct English cultural and political future. The new trans-cultural, trans-ethnic Britain is predicated on the denial of a supposedly mono-cultural, mono-ethnic England. Indeed, the very idea and political project of Britain has always been dependent on the rejection of a separate, isolated English identity and state: not just an island cut off from the rest of the world, but a fragmentary part of that island, with hostile neighbours. Britain has always been the persona through which England has forged its connection with the outside world and, indeed, attempted to re-mould it in its image.
Which sort of brings me to my main point. While the reaffirmation of Britishness, paradoxically in part through immigration, undoubtedly expresses a denial of English separation and separateness, it is in fact mainly English people themselves who are the willing agents of that denial. As I’ve said elsewhere, the British project is primarily an English project: ‘Britain’ has been the cultural and political vehicle through which the English have striven to conquer and order the world. In its apparent trans-nationality, Britain has been a very English form of hypocrisy and subterfuge: things done in the name of Britain can be made out to be motivated by altruistic concern and universal values; whereas, in reality, that Britain was the means for England to dominate not only its island neighbours but large portions of every continent on earth.
This has been the secret reason for the success of ‘Britain’ as an international power and global cultural powerhouse: that it’s ultimately served the English national interest. But is it the case that Britain is no longer ruling the waves of immigration that are crashing onto its shores, and England’s former imperial dominance is coming home to roost? What I mean by this is that if the integrity of the British identity starts to be severely challenged by the new immigration, this means that its value for ensuring the security of English identity and society (probably, in both senses of that word) is also impaired. And it may be necessary to re-define what English identity means in separation from the old British comfort blanket, in order to regain a stable sense of who we are, and who amongst us we’re happy to accept as our countrymen. In other words, if we can’t tell what constitutes being English any more, how can we work out who has a right to live in England or not?
Let me try and illustrate some of the extreme challenges faced by British identity and, as a consequence, English identity. In a previous post, I discussed the multiple ‘ethnic’ categories by which I was confronted when filling in an NHS form. As was subsequently drawn to my attention, these are in fact the same categories that were used in the England and Wales Census of 2001. In that previous post, I argued that the ethnic category ‘White British’ represented an attempt to establish a core Britishness identified with race; and, while this could be viewed as implicitly racist, this also denied the option of using ‘English’ as a signifier of either ethnicity or nationality – something that was not denied to other ethnic groups, who were entitled to refer to themselves as ‘African’, ‘Bangladeshi’, etc. as well as British.
Subsequently, it occurred to me that this form could be interpreted in more or less the opposite way. If the term ‘British’, as used in this set of ethnic categories, is interpreted as in part a designator of ethnicity, this means that, by a curious logical reversal, if Black-African persons who are UK citizens can call themselves ‘Black-British-African’, this also makes ‘Black African’ a possible variety of British ethnicity as well as UK citizenship; the same going for Bangladeshis and all the other national-ethnic categories on the form that are paired with the term ‘British’.
The same ‘Briticisation’ of other races and cultures does not apply to the Chinese, at least in the terms of this form. They’re simply referred to as ‘Chinese’, not ‘British Chinese’ or ‘Chinese British’. ‘British Chinese’ would do perfectly well as a description of a UK citizen from a Chinese ethnic background. But the reason why the term seems unnatural is that we don’t feel comfortable making implicitly proprietorial claims over China (British Chinese) in the way we do over parts of Africa, the Caribbean or the subcontinent of Asia. Proprietorial claims, that is, which relate to ethnicity and ‘acculturation’: the assertion that a Chinese person living in the UK could be ‘properly’, ‘truly’ British in the same implicitly ethnic way that a Black African or Asian Bangladeshi person could be.
In the case of these latter categories, an ethnic identification with Britishness (or an extension to those categories of ‘British’ as a designator of ethnicity) has come to supplement and complete a merely national identification: to be a British citizen – as opposed to, historically, merely a British subject or national by virtue of living in a British imperial dependency – implies the possession of British ethnicity. We don’t feel we should symbolically extend this to the Chinese among us because they were never part of the British empire in quite the same way – although technically, I suppose, we could invent the category ‘Chinese or British Chinese Hong Kong’ to mirror the likes of ‘Asian or British Asian Indian’ – but that wouldn’t go down well politically!
‘Multi-ethnic Britain’ means precisely this: not a multiplicity of ethnic groupings within a Britain that somehow retains a fixed and separate native-British identity above, beyond or beneath that diversity; but a ‘British multi-ethnicity’. Britain is a nation that went out to conquer the world and has now incorporated all its formerly subject nations into its own identity, transforming Britishness from a nationality to an ‘internationality’: or a trans-national and trans-ethnic identity, as I referred to it earlier.
Let’s note in passing that this means that there are two contradictory ways in which the advocacy of a unitary Britishness suppresses any claims that Englishness deserves a separate national or ethnic status: 1) the view that if there is any native-British genetic-racial baseline, this is to be referred to as ‘British’ and not ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, etc.; and 2) the politically correct perspective that questions what I’ve referred to as the implicitly ‘racist’ implications of such British mono-ethnicity and considers that all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the right to be called ‘British’ with respect to ethnicity, not just their national / cultural background. But while this contradiction denies any role for a separate English identity, it also reveals the lack of any consensus as to what truly defines British ethnicity and nationality.
Do all ethnic groupings living in Britain have the implied right to call their ethnicity British? No, not Chinese apparently, as I’ve just remarked; and also not other categories that don’t conform to the ‘already-British-anyway’ assumption that attaches to people hailing from Britain’s former colonies. These are, on the Census / NHS form: ‘Other white background’; ‘Other mixed background’; and ‘Any other ethnic group’. In other words, these are the terms that are likely to apply to many of the more recent immigrants: Eastern Europeans; immigrants from non-European, non-former-British colonies; and mixed-race individuals (including Chinese-British) that are combinations involving either of the above, even if they are combined with one of the ‘British’ categories. The reason why I say these are not regarded as ‘properly’ British ethnic groupings is a) that the term British is not applied to them; and b) that parallel to the absence of ‘British’, the adjectives describing their ethnicity begin with lower-case letters – e.g. ‘Other white background’ versus ‘White British’ or ‘Black British African’, the use of the capital implying that there is some literal [meaning ‘to the letter’] equivalence and identification between the term that designates the ethnicity and the term that refers to the nation or region / continent. [OK, maybe pushing the point a bit there.]
But the point is, the whole thing is completely riddled with contradictions and is useless as a means of establishing a definition either of British nationality or ethnicity. For instance, many of the individuals corresponding to these ‘non-properly-British’ categories will be UK citizens and might wish to describe their ethnicity in British terms. Equally, while Eastern Europeans from EU countries have a right of residence here, they could well be viewed by many British people has having less priority in the ‘queue’ of people wanting to settle here than people from former imperial colonies, including those that are not from either Africa, the Caribbean or subcontinental Asia – e.g. Belize, Nepal or Australia.
This is clearly one of the unacknowledged reasons for the degree of anxiety that the more recent waves of immigration have provoked: that this is a mass migration on a par with that of the Asians and Afro-Caribbeans who came into this country from the 1950s to 1970s; but that it involves what seems to be a random and (in the light of the terror threat) scary mix of ethnicities from around the world, in contrast to our former imperial subjects for whom we felt a paternalistic sense of responsibility. Those former waves of immigration remained within the British comfort zone and did not appear to challenge British identity or culture. In the present, however, the multiplication of alien ethnic categories appearing to compete for British status appears to be straining things to the point of bursting – let alone frustrating any aspirations people might have to affirm their Englishness.
This has contributed to the formation of a conspiracy theory among some English-nationalist sympathisers (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m an English-nationalist sympathiser myself) that the UK government’s laissez-faire attitude towards immigration has been part of calculated plan (possibly inspired by Scots in positions of political power) to dilute the English community and franchise; i.e. to reduce the proportion of the population that is English and so diminish their political influence, particularly in relation to calls for an English parliament and / or independence.
While such conspiracy theories are an understandable offshoot of the stress which the English national identity is currently under, they are problematic on a number of levels. For a start, as the current and previous discussion on British ethnicity have attempted to show, it is extremely difficult to define or agree what constitutes English nationality or ethnicity in the present situation; and by extension, to know exactly what a phrase such as ‘diluting the English community’ might mean. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t have a working definition of Englishness, because if you abandon this concept altogether, you’re giving in to the official view that there is only a British and not English national identity.
One of the reasons why phrases such as ‘diluting the English community / population’ are problematic is they could be read as embodying an assumption that the ‘English community’ is defined ‘properly’ only in ethnic terms. However, apart from the increasing proportion of English residents that are recent or longer-term immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, how does this point of view deal with the growing mixed-race population: persons of both ‘White-British’ / ‘White-English’ and non-native British heritage? Does diluting the English community equate to diluting the ‘English race’ here? But do not the direct descendants of English people have an inalienable right to call themselves ‘properly’ English just as much as those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are of more unadulterated English lineage?
All the same, the perception that the English population is being diluted, diminished or marginalised is certainly in part accentuated by the very ethnic terms that are used to categorise the population, such as those of the form that I’ve discussed. The difficulties connected with these categories ironically appear even more acute in the expanded list of ethnicities recommended by the Commission for Racial Equality, which are intended to be more inclusive and to make allowance for people wishing to declare themselves as English in the first instance, rather than British.
This extended ethnic set lists English, Scottish and Welsh as sub-categories first of White and then of British. This makes White-British-English – for many, the core definition of English ethnicity-nationality – only one out of 22 ethnic categories. Moreover, the atomising of British identity into so many categories and sub-categories means that many people who would tick the box ‘English’ if they were offered only national categories that reflected their cultural affinities and personal attachments are now invited to select one of the many other options on offer, from the more outlandish (e.g. ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Irish traveller’ – two separate categories) to the more mainstream such as Welsh and Scottish: somebody of mixed Anglo-Scottish parentage who’s lived all their life in England might be tempted to tick the Scottish box for political or career reasons, for instance, whereas ‘English’ might be more accurate as a description of their personality and cultural background. And I ask you, this is the Commission for Racial Equality we’re talking about, and they’re using the term ‘Gypsy’, presumably to refer to Romanis, for which Gypsy is generally considered a derogatory term nowadays. And, by the way, the Wikipedia listing for ‘Gypsy’ considers ‘Irish travellers’ to be a possible sub-category of Gypsy as opposed to Romani, which the CRE appears to assimilate to ‘Gypsy’! Doesn’t inspire confidence that they can get the relations between Britain and its constituent national tribes right!
As the above example of the Anglo-Scottish person demonstrates, this expanded list of ethnic categories and the way the form is designed not only makes White-British-English (the only guise under which you’re able to declare English ethnicity-nationality) appear to be a minority but also has the practical effect of reducing the number of respondents who will tick the England box. Some liberal-minded English folk, as another instance, might shy away from selecting a rather restrictive definition of Englishness and opt for the more ‘inclusive’ British. The positioning of ‘British’ on the form – the fact that it is listed as the primary sub-category of ‘White’ and the first one as you go down the list – naturally encourages people to select ‘British first’, leaving ‘English’ unselected, as you’re not supposed to tick both boxes. Scots and Welsh people, however, would be more inclined, and are often politically encouraged, to select ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ as opposed to British.
More insidiously still, if you look at this form (and I do invite you to hit the link), the sub-categories of ‘British’ (English, Scottish, Welsh and ‘Other, please write in’ (‘excludes NI’, as the small print on product labels often reads)) have less implied logical or proprietorial precedence than every other ethnic category: all the others (including Gypsy and Irish traveller) are listed on the same level – with the same degree of indenting – as ‘British’. So in fact, rather than there being 22 categories, there are really 18 categories and four sub-categories, one of which is the majority population of the UK: culturally English people.
I say ‘culturally’ here because it is as their ‘cultural background’ that this particular form invites respondents to view their ‘national’ identities (e.g. English, Welsh, etc.) as opposed to, or in conjunction with, their ethnic identities (White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Chinese or other). The 2005 consultation document on the 2011 census at least rectifies this implied relegation of Englishness to the status of sub-sub-category by putting it on the same level as all the other ethnic groupings; and it also corrects the ‘discriminatory’ use of lower-case adjectives for ‘non-properly-British’ ethnic groups. But there are still 20 categories to negotiate and they’re defined in ethnic terms, referred to as ‘single ethnic group categories’ – begging all the questions about the relations between ethnicity and nationality, the atomisation of Britishness, and the implied lack of pre-eminence accorded to Englishness – placing ‘English’ in a sort of minority of one out of 20 without any explicit privilege, although it’s still the first in the list. For reference, these 20 categories are as follows:
- White English (for Census returns in England)
- White Welsh (for Census returns in Wales)
- Other White British
- White Irish
- Other White background
- Mixed: White and Black Caribbean
- Mixed: White and Black African
- Mixed: White and Asian
- Mixed: Other Mixed background
- Other Asian background
- Black Caribbean
- Black African
- Other Black background
- Gypsy/Romany/Irish Traveller
- Other Ethnic Group
Alongside, and in addition to, these ‘single ethnic group categories’, the consultation asked for people’s reactions to an alternative / complementary set of ethnic categories referred to as ‘combined ethnic group categories’ – aggregates of the above, as follows:
- White (categories 1 to 4)
- Mixed (categories 5 to 9) [er, isn’t No. 5 ‘Other White background? ED]
- Asian or Asian British (categories 10 to 14) [well, at least the Chinese are now accorded Asian British status – ED]
- Black or Black British (categories 15 to 17)
- Other ethnic groups (categories 18 to 20)
The point of all this is to demonstrate the extent to which British and English identity and ethnicity has become such a (very English?) muddle. In our (English) efforts to bend over backwards and be inclusive and accommodating to the sensitivities of every other ethnic group, and to be non-discriminatory, we’ve ended up being not only unable to define what constitutes British nationality and a justifiable claim to UK residence and even citizenship; but also we’ve ended up denying any sort of privileged or even just clearly defined status to English people as (still) the majority ethnic-national grouping within Britain. And we’ve done this in the name of a trans-ethnic, trans-national ideal of Britain.
How can this be redressed? It’s a complex problem, so the answer will not be simple. But one way to at least begin to work ourselves out of the conceptual muddle would be to define national identity (while fully separate political structures still do not exist) in cultural rather than ethnic terms; and then to have the ethnic categories as secondary, qualifying descriptions. This would clearly separate out the national and ethnic terms that have become so ambiguously and insidiously mixed up; and it would enable the majority population (the English) to declare themselves as such.
So, for instance, if I was putting together a form of this sort, I would have cultural / national identities first, and list ‘ethnic’ identities second. The cultural / national list would ask people to specify what they regarded as their primary cultural identity (referred to below as ‘preferred cultural identity’), e.g. do they feel more English than Scottish (if they are of mixed parentage), or more or less English than Caribbean (if they are a first-, second- or subsequent-generation person from that ethnic background). The list might read:
- Northern Irish
- Irish (Republic)
- Other European
- Combination of any of No.’s 1 to 7 above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
- Chinese / Hong Kong
- Subcontinental Asian [this category could be broken down into three (Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani) if the organisation soliciting the information had a justifiable need to quantify the different subcontinental Asian populations, e.g. typically, in a census or NHS form!]
- Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any, or any combination, of No.s 1 to 8, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
- Combination of any of No.’s 9 to 13 with any other of No.’s 9 to 13, if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
- Any other culture (please specify)
- Any combination of No. 16 with any other named culture above if neither is your preferred cultural identity (please specify)
The list of ethnic groupings could then be left very simple, e.g.:
- White / European / Caucasian
- Black / African / Caribbean
- Any combination of the above (please specify)
- Other (please specify)
This way of doing things would have numerous benefits. For a start, it would enable people of whatever race who identify as English (and Scottish, Welsh and Irish) to state this with pride and confidence. It would also enable persons of mixed heritage (both mixed-race and descendants of immigrants) to affirm both parts of their identity in a way that more accurately reflects their subjective feelings and identifications. For instance, the grandchild of an immigrant from Nigeria whose parents were also of the same ethnic background could declare themself to be both English (culturally and nationally) and African (ethnically) – without the national and ethnic categories being mixed up in a manner that forces that individual to class themselves as something (e.g. Black British African) that makes them feel and appear not to be fully accepted as English.
If you’ve stayed with me on this mini-journey and read my previous post, you’ll remember that in the 2001 Census-based NHS form, I ticked myself as ‘Other white background’ even though (in fact, because) I’m of ‘mixed’ English, Welsh and Irish descent. On a form such as the one I’m advocating, I could select my actual cultural / national identification (English) without having to quibble; but if I wanted to declare my ‘mixed’ cultural background, I could do so, too. My mixed-race adopted sister, who’s as English as I am, could also select English as the national / cultural identity and No. 4 on the ethnic list (any combination of the above) without feeling she had to classify herself as anything by implication ‘less than’ properly English or British as she would have to do in the 2001 Census, e.g. White & Black African.
However, this list or one based on similar principles is unlikely to be adopted any time soon, as it gives precedence to English national and ethnic identity over British. Better, in the eyes of the powers that be, to have a total muddle over national identity in the name of an all-inclusive Britishness than to promote a clearly and non-discriminatorily defined – and proudly asserted – Englishness.