Kenny MacAskill: Growing English identity is a good thing

It's ironic that in the current Brexit debate it's English, not British, identity that's increasing. The Britishness that unionists in Scotland and Northern Ireland seek to hold onto is increasingly unrecognisable to a growing number south of the border.

Gareth Southgate,  celebrated here with the renaming of Southgate tube station in London,  has helped England find an inclusive, outward-looking identity (Picture: Neil P Mockford/Getty)
Gareth Southgate, celebrated here with the renaming of Southgate tube station in London, has helped England find an inclusive, outward-looking identity (Picture: Neil P Mockford/Getty)

Wrapping yourself up in the red, white and blue and other vestiges of triumphalism is disdained there by a younger generation who consider themselves English more than British, and why not?

Of course, for many south of the border, English and British are synonymous, as when the Jacob Res-Moggs of this world refer to the Plantagenets or Magna Carta, which have little relevance or resonance in Scotland. But, all that’s changing and it’s in danger of leaving the British patriots on the Celtic fringe marooned, as England resurfaces and finds itself.

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All that was brought home in a recent insightful article by the editor of the New Statesman. Jason Cowley used the backdrop of the support and success of English football team in the World Cup to write about a “reawakened sense of English self-consciousness”. Gareth Southgate had, for him, created a possible template for a new liberal English identity that was comfortable with itself and inclusive in its make-up.

He argued, rightly I believe, that Englishness had been hidden over recent years for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it had in some ways been hijacked by the far-right with skinhead neo-fascists besmirching it, leading to liberal opinion and many black and Asian people feeling more comfortable in an inclusive British identity. Secondly, from the other side came pressure from multiculturalists disparaging it and seeing it as a threat to that more inclusive society they were seeking to create.

In some ways, football reflected that with, for many years, a significant racist element to the England support. ‘Alf Garnetts’ on the terracing abused their own black players and discouraged non-white people from attending. But, all that has changed over recent years. The team itself has become remarkably multi-racial and the mutual support offered by players in opposing racism quite inspirational. The fan base has also altered, reflecting changes both on and off field.

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Mr Cowley explained how English people had been encouraged to see themselves as British ever since the Act of Union – similar in many ways to what happened north of the border as ‘North Britain’ was promoted and Scotland disparaged, while the Empire was forged. However, despite the dreams of some Brexit zealots, the Empire is no more. Added to that, devolution and the rise of Scottish and other Celtic identities has had an affect on England as much as on the other nations.

England is the largest country in Europe with no independent political identity and despite criticism from Scots and others, the English don’t see Westminster as their own. Of course, there are regional identities in England as there are in Scotland. Devolving power to the regions, whether London or Manchester, is not only good for public administration but a popular thing with the general public.

But, there’s still a growing desire to be English and, as Mr Cowley correctly stated and as Gareth Southgate’s team epitomised, “national identity doesn’t need to be hostile or exclusionary”. That’s something long since recognised by the Celtic nations and, as he went on to write, the “question is no longer whether politicians should promote Englishness but rather what kind”.

The growth of English identity may be an unintended consequence of devolution, but it’s here to stay. Englishness is changing and I believe for the better as “Gareth Southgate’s England” showed. That’s a good thing as there’s so much to be proud of, not just in the modern aspects of a multiracial country but in its history, literature and the arts. It has contributed hugely to the modern world and there’s much to be proud of. Being comfortable in an English identity, can only be good for them and the rest of the world.

It’s those clinging to a British identity who are now in danger of being portrayed as or even becoming xenophobic. The “taking our country” back line is neither welcoming nor inclusive and the attitude so many display on immigration is equally so. Far-right groups also now seem to be more often wrapped in the Union Jack than the St George’s Cross.

Of course, Britishness was always a somewhat manufactured identity, less so than the Soviet one, which was an entirely artificial creation and masked Greater Russia. Certainly, an Empire and two wars helped forge aspects of being British but many still felt as comfortable or more so with their own Scots, English or Welsh identity. Understandably so as Shakespeare is quintessentially English and Rabbie Burns distinctly Scottish. Trying to argue that they’re British is ludicrous. Close affinity is one thing, assimilation quite another.

People across the British Isles do share an affinity for fish and chips or more likely now chicken tikka masala, and rapturous support can be given to the British Olympic team. But, rather than Englishness being synonymous with Britishness, it’s resurrecting itself. That’s something to be welcomed and whilst Mr Cowley’s right that it can take different directions, the signs are promising.

It’s the Brexiteers that have sought to replicate the unpleasant aspects of “Little Englanders” but there’s now a new breed of confident English, who are inclusive and outward-looking. Just as the British Empire can’t be restored, the new multi-cultural and multi-racial England can’t be stopped. It’s here to stay as with the Windrush generation. The attitudes and arrogance of the Rees-Moggs of this world are as abhorrent to them as they are to many in the Celtic countries. Most will develop, as with Scots, multiple identities for the region, nation and larger geographic entity that they live in.

It may lead to federalism but it may also result in independence, for them as well as us. Those going against the tide are unionists seeking to hold onto an identity that’s passing. As Britain and Britishness visibly diminish, come on England!