On the Myth of a Growing Sense of English Identity

One of the key features of the devolution settlement in the UK is that it has become increasingly asymmetric, as both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have gradually gained more powers. In contrast, only relatively minor changes have been introduced in England – (i) changing the procedures of the House of Commons so that laws that only affect England have to have the backing of English MPs as well as the House as a whole and, (ii) introducing in some of England’s major metropolitan areas city regions run by a directly elected mayor and a combined authority but with limited powers . This contrast means that a debate continues to bubble away about the fairness and effectiveness of the way in which England is governed, and today sees the publication of a book, Governing England, that reports the fruits of a major investigation undertaken by the British Academy into how England might best be governed in future.

One of the seemingly important issues in the debate about the governance of England is the country’s sense of identity. An England that predominantly feels British might be thought to be happy to be governed by UK-wide institutions. But one that feels mostly English might be expected to take a very different view. It has been argued that the sight of devolved institutions elsewhere in the UK has made people south in England more aware of their English rather than their British identity and that they now seek to have that identity acknowledged politically. That English identity is becoming politically more important appeared to be confirmed by the well-documented evidence that those who think of themselves as English were more likely than those who regard themselves as British to vote to Leave the EU.

But how many people south of the border claim these days to be English rather than British? Is there any evidence that there has been an increase in English identity? And is there any reason to believe that those who do feel English have become more likely to want their sense of identity reflected in how England is governed?  These are some of the questions addressed by this author in today’s British Academy volume.

There are two key sources of survey evidence on the prevalence of national identity in England. The first is NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, which has been asking questions about whether people feel English or British on a regular basis since the late 1990s. First of all, respondents are asked to examine a list of identities associated with Britain and Ireland and say which of them describes themselves (respondents can name more than one, but note this graph rebases the figures so that they add to 100%), and thereafter to state which single one best does so. Second, in what is known as the Moreno question, people are also asked to say which of five possible combinations of being English and British best describes themselves, ranging from ‘English, not British’ at one end of the spectrum to ‘British, not English’ at the other.

None of these questions provide any consistent evidence that English identity is becoming more commonplace and that, consequently, British identity is in decline. Back in 1998, just before the advent of devolution, 55% picked out English as one of their identities, while 70% selected British. In the most recent survey, at 56% and 69% respectively, the two numbers are almost exactly the same as they were twenty years ago. When requested to choose just one identity, just 34% now say they are English, less than have done so in any year since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution. In contrast, as many as 48% call themselves British.  Meanwhile, so far as answers to the Moreno question are concerned, the proportion who say that they are ‘English, not British’ has hovered around the 17% mark ever since 1999, while most recently it has actually slipped somewhat to 13%.

The second key source of survey evidence on national identity in England is the Future of England (FoE) survey, a project that has been run since 2011 by academics at Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities and for which the polling is undertaken by YouGov. It too has asked its respondents on a regular basis to say which single one of the various identities associated with Britain and Ireland best describes themselves and to answer the Moreno question.

Their initial findings in 2011 were quite startling. Noticeably more people (49%) chose English rather than British (42%) as their principal identity, something that had only happened once in a dozen previous BSA surveys. Meanwhile, in response to the Moreno question, as many as 40% said that they were either ‘English, not British’ or ‘More English than British’, well above any figure that BSA had ever recorded. The authors of the survey claimed that their results showed that England was ‘the dog that finally barked’ and represented ‘an emerging political community’ that sought change in how it was governed.

Trouble is, those quite startling findings have never been replicated. Most subsequent surveys in the FoE series have typically found at least as many people saying they are British as claiming to be English, while neither the FoE surveys nor any of the other many polls that YouGov have conducted in recent years asking the Moreno question have even come close to replicating the finding that as many as 40% say they are more English than British. True, in both cases, the YouGov surveys typically tend to find rather more people prioritising an English over a British identity than does BSA, but there is no evidence of any consistent trend over time.

So, there is little evidence that there is a growing sense of English identity south of the border. Even so, it might still be the case that those who do regard themselves as English have come increasingly to feel that their identity should be reflected in how they are governed. One proposal that has certainly long been popular south of the border is debarring Scottish MPs from voting on English laws, though, after seemingly having become more intense in the first decade of devolution, support for this idea has more recently become somewhat less insistent now that the proposition has at least been partially implemented. However, support for creating new devolved institutions, rather than simply changing how the UK Parliament operates, is both relatively thin and shows little sign of growing. For example, the FoE survey has consistently found that having England’s laws decided by English MPs alone is markedly more popular than either creating a separate English Parliament or a set of regional assemblies. Meanwhile, BSA has regularly reported that governing England from Westminster as at present is also more popular than either form of devolution.

Moreover, such support as there is for changing how England is far from being confined to those who feel English. For example, on the most recent occasion that BSA addressed the issue, it found that even among those who said they were ‘British, not English’ as many as 58% supported stopping Scottish MPs from voting on English laws. Meanwhile, at 70%, support for the idea among those who say they are ‘English, not British’, was little different from what it was back in 2000. Equally, at 24%, support for creating an English Parliament as measured by BSA’s long-standing question on how England should be governed is almost exactly the same as it was in 1999 and is only three points higher than it is among those who say they are ‘British, not English’. It appears that even when the political dogs of England do bark – seemingly still no more than an occasional occurrence – they may still be flying the Union Jack rather than the cross of St George. Clear signs of a distinctly English political community have, it seems, yet to emerge.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.