November 21, 2010
A "crisis of Britishness" is prompting growing numbers of people to redefine themselves as "English", raising troubling questions about national identity and the extremes of home-grown Islamic radicals and the far right.
The question of what it is to be an Englishman has exercised some of the finest minds. To George Orwell it was "solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes", while the American-born poet T S Eliot argued it lay in the Henley regatta, Wensleydale cheese and the music of Elgar.
Academics and film-makers aware of this nationalist trend are gathering in Derby this week to explore English identity at ID Fest, a new film festival exploring English identity.
"There is a crisis of Britishness," said Jeffrey Richards, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University. "Because of things like devolution, the EU and the crises in parliament – and, in the past, the monarchy – some people have felt the need for a separate identity from Britishness."
Earlier this year, the Arts and Humanities Research Council cited a resurgence of interest in English folk music and dance as evidence of this. The experts also admit English is not as well established as Scottish, Irish or the Welsh identities. If flying the flag is a an important symbol of national identity for our neighbours, the St George's cross has come to be associated with football hooliganism and fascism.
"The English have never really had to assert their identity, as they are the senior party in the UK," said Professor Richards. But the problem of defining the national identity of a country of more than 51 million people is complicated by mass immigration, which has made England one of the most multicultural countries in the world.
"It's the elephant in the room of national identity," said Robert Colls, professor of English history at Leicester University. "England is much more tolerant, and open to difference. On the other hand... major changes in the nation-state have left many wondering in what sense they are living in the same country."
Such divisions were highlighted last week by police who warned that demonstrations by nationalist groups such as the English Defence League are fuelling Islamic extremism.
"When I go to Pakistan I feel English, but when I am in England I don't always feel that I am English because there are so many Englands, from metropolitan London to horrible racist places where people who are different get stared at on village greens," said the cricketer Imran Khan.
While some believe English identity lies in morris dancing and brass bands, the literature of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and an obsession with cups of tea and the weather, others see this as reductionist. The poet Ian McMillan said: "You can either take the John Major view of Englishness, that it is about warm beer; or the idea of radical Englishness – that we've been invaded so many times Englishness is a construct, and can comprise a multiplicity of languages and cultures."
In the quest to find out what it really means to be English, we travelled to two very different locations – Ripley in Derbyshire and Bradford in West Yorkshire – both of which have been described as among the most English places in the country.
Eighty-eight per cent of Ripley residents have an English ethnic background, while 97.8 per cent of the area is white. Nestled in Derbyshire's Amber Valley, the market town was mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book as a flourishing industrial town.
It is a world away from the multicultural city of Bradford. Despite the high proportion of British Asians living there – estimated to reach 26 per cent by 2011 – Bradford was found to have outstandingly "English" characteristics, with a high number of tea rooms and cricket clubs. The West Yorkshire city has long had Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians living alongside one another, but not without tensions: in 2001 there were massive race riots, with clashes stoked by the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League.
The Rose family
Five generations of the Rose family have made their home in the small Derbyshire town of Ripley. Today, former engine fitter Brian, 67, lives with his wife Pat, 65, just streets away from their son Paul, 46, and his wife Wendy, 42, and the couple's two sons, Ben, 14, and Adam, 10. Church-going and close-knit, they consider themselves a thoroughly English family.
Paul, a charity shop worker, said: "I've never put 'UK' on anything. I consider myself English. I used to do morris dancing, like my grandfather in the 1920s.
"I don't get much free time, but when I do we sit in front of the TV, which I suppose is very English. DIY is my hobby and I'm hoping to do up an old Morris Minor in the garage.
"We go to church as a family every Sunday, which used to be quite an English thing. It is like a big family. We've got young children and our oldest member is 98.
"We have quite a lot of holidays in this country – to Cornwall and Sandbanks, which was the best holiday we've ever had.
"I gave up my job to look after the kids 10 years ago, which isn't very typical in England, but it was great because I got to spend more time with them."
The Rahman family
Shoaib Rahman, 32, lives in Bradford with his wife Nazreen, 33, and his two sons Uzair, six, and 21-month-old Ibrahim. He works in the family restaurant, the Sweet Centre, which his grandfather founded in 1964 after emigrating from Pakistan.
Shoaib said: "I am English. Being English isn't about race. We've been born, bred and educated here. My younger brother is in the RAF – you don't get much more English than that. But it does depend how you define 'English'. Being a Muslim is a big part of my life, and religion is a sensitive issue in England. I go to the mosque to pray, that's very important to me. My son's first language is English. He goes to Saltaire school. There aren't a lot of Asians there, and all our neighbours are white, but there is a good community. Our kids play in the street and when it snows all the neighbours come out with shovels. I have experienced racism, but mostly when I was younger.
"I've been working here for 16 years. My grandfather started the business in 1964, and I'm the third generation of my family to live and work here. My grandfather presented a box of sweets to the Queen about five years ago.
"I'm interested in the royals because it's the history of the country and you've got to keep up with that. The wedding [Kate Middleton and Prince William] is a big day for this country and for us. My wife is very interested in it. I'm not a massive football fan but support Bradford City. The stadium is just down the road and you feel part of it. We do drink tea, but I'm not sure being English is about stuff like that."
Through the eyes of others
The Scotsman David Davidson, Politician
"I'm not sure there is such a thing as Englishness, it varies so much. Scots don't walk through Glasgow in a kilt, on the whole, and the English no longer walk through London in funny hats."
The Welshman Rob Brydon, Comic
"Scots say, 'The English can take our land, but never take our freedom.' The Welsh say: 'You've taken our land: don't forget our freedom before you go. Thanks for coming!'"
The Irishman Dara O'Briain, Comic
"London is hosting the Olympics, yet you all talk about how terrible the country is... and then there's that giggly, Carry On attitude to sex, that is unique. But you don't realise any of this."