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The Untied Kingdom?
Englishness in an Age of Devolution

by Simon Gill, Olomouc University, Czech Republic

This paper was presented at the British Studies conference, 'New Directions, New Opportunities', organised by the British Council, in Pu³awy, March 2000. See the Conference proceedings for other papers.


This paper first saw the light of day in an earlier version at the December 1999 Warwick Conference. Entitled 'Looking into England'. The conference examined the changes currently taking place in the UK from a variety of viewpoints. Three key elements which surfaced again and again were those of identity, the relationship of Englishness with Britishness, and the attempt to define quite what Englishness might be. Here, I would like to share with you my, and some other people's, thoughts about these elements.

In order to gather information, I prepared a two-part questionnaire, which I circulated among two groups of people:

  1. English-speaking Czechs with experience not only of the English language but also of the British Isles, and
  2. People from the British Isles either currently resident in or with experience of having lived in either the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia.

As the questionnaire was distributed not only in printed form but also by e-mail, I received a number of responses from people to whom it had not been originally sent, but who received it through third parties; although several of these did not fit into either of the groups mentioned above, I have decided to include them anyway, partly for triangulation purposes, partly because of their intrinsic interest.

The questionnaire is not reproduced here in its entirety, as not all of the questions it included are relevant to the present paper. However, I will be happy to send a copy on request.

The respondents

All told, I received 77 responses.

Part A of the questionnaire sought to establish some patterns among the respondents. 27 were male, 50 female. Ages ranged from 16 to 72. A range of jobs was indicated, but the majority of the respondents worked in the sphere of education. 50 described themselves as Czech. 19 were British passport holders; these described themselves as British (14), British/English (2), Scottish (1), British/Devonian (1), and 'Citizen of the World' (1). The remainder comprised a Dutchman, a Canadian, a New Zealander of Dutch origin living in South Bohemia, two Slovaks, a woman living in Germany who grew up in an émigré Czech family in South Africa and said of herself that 'if having a nationality were important to me I would be in therapy', and two others, one of whom described herself as 'Czechoslovak - as such non-existent'; the other said 'I am officially Czech but feel more Slovak'.

Can we generalise about a nation?

'How useful do you think generalisations about the people who make up a nation are?' (Question B2).

The responses (not all respondents answered) can be summarised as follows:






A. very useful





B. useful, but…





C. can be useful





D. little/not at all





Over half of the respondents, then, attributed little or no value to such generalisations. Several respondents described them as "useless", "damaging", "harmful", or "dangerous", and the comment that "it's problematic to generalise, each person is an individual," was also echoed more than once. It was also pointed out that generalisations can act as a brake on thought: "Most of the time they aren't useful because people don't think about them and use them as a means of not thinking harder, and then they become harmful."

Of the remainder, most said they might have some use - "generalisations can be useful in attempting to construct a model to aid understanding, but there also needs to be an acceptance that it is not a rigid model." was one comment - but usually subject to certain provisos: "in terms of the study of peoples, they're worthless unless backed up by empirical data. However, I think we all make generalisations even if we try not to - and I think there ARE some observable behaviours and customs which differ from one nation to another." Other respondents said they might be "interesting and even enjoyable", "indicative only", "probably more prominent in people who display a certain degree of parochialism in their attitudes", "useful for parody and simplification" and that "if you find them untrue, you can at least be pleasantly surprised."

Perhaps closest to my own view was the comment that they might be "useful as a guide on the larger (macro) scale when taking account of the fact that different nations (and larger cultural groups such as the Moslem world) have different values. The danger is when this becomes too rigid and is taken over to the personal (micro) level and people are only seen as stereotypes of their culture." As a result of my experience both as a teacher in the realm of cultural studies and as a resident in a number of countries, I feel that while it is absurd to suggest that generalisations about nationality represent the "whole picture", it is almost equally absurd to deny them any value at all. They do exist, as is evidenced by, among others, the painstaking work of Hofstede (1991), but they need to be considered in conjunction with a number of other parameters of identity in order to be useful. I shall return to the topic of nationality as an identifying factor in Section 5, but for now I would like to turn my attention, very briefly, to what some of these other parameters might be.

Parameters of identity

'Beside your nationality, what other factors are important to you in considering your identity?' (Question B1)

A considerable variety of responses were given. They included language, class, family background, region, religion, peer group, gender, age, politics, occupation, European-ness, education, ethnicity, culture and history; in other words, a list very similar to that suggested by a perusal of the contents pages of a book such as 'British Cultural Identities' (eds Storry and Childs 1997). It is interesting to compare the five parameters most commonly suggested by Czechs, in descending order of frequency family, region, education, religion and class, with those of the British respondents: class, region, family, gender and occupation.

A detailed analysis of these findings (which, in the differences they highlight between the two groups, seem to lend support to the previous section's contention that generalisations about nations can hold at least some water) lies beyond the scope of the present paper. However, it is safe to say that there was a clear indication among most respondents that they looked to a wide range of characteristics beyond that of mere nationality in defining themselves.

My own view is that identity is both multiple and flexible, with a large number of ingredients, the exact balance of which shifts with shifting circumstances. I am, inter alia, a human being, a European, British, English, Northern, Lancastrian and Liverpudlian, but the relative significance of each of these is in a constant state of flux in response to outside factors. A metaphor that strikes me as appropriate is that of the disco mirror ball, which has many facets and responds to how light is cast upon it. Echoes of this position can be found in the work of Adrian Holliday, who argues for a non-essentialist view of culture as "a movable concept used by different people at different times to suit purposes of identity…" (Holliday 1999: 39). Likewise, Simon Partridge observes that "many people in these islands, perhaps most, now have a multiple or hyphenated sense of identity" (Partridge, 1999: 16), while David Graddol makes the point that "the postmodern account of personal identity suggests it is fluid, negotiable, contested and ambiguous" (Graddol 1999: 97).

Englishness and Britishness

The call for papers for the Warwick Seminar stated that "serious discussion of what might constitute English (my italics) national identity has hardly begun". However, I would argue that it is debatable whether this is actually the case. Dr Susan Bassnett, in her opening paper at the conference, used the word 'obsession' when speaking about the plethora of recent books on the subject, and I would contend that there are in fact a myriad representations of English national identity in many areas - those such as popular music, film and television, and literature are perhaps among those especially blessed in this respect - and that the problem is not so much one of unearthing views of what constitutes Englishness as of bringing into some kind of meaningful and coherent focus a very large number of such views, which are frequently divergent and sometimes even mutually contradictory. Let us look at what the questionnaire results show us.

"To what extent do you think Englishness and Britishness are the same or different?" (Question B6)

More than half the Czechs who responded to this question stated that they could not see any difference, an attitude which was to be found among the other respondents as well, including several of the British passport holders. Some representative comments: "I do not believe in any Britishness…no one identifies with such a general concept"; "I do not find any striking differences"; "some people are just too obsessed with nationalities; in today's world [it] seems a bit archaic"; "it is almost the same for me"; "when viewed from Prague, or most places, they are the same"; "the differences tend to be exaggerated by the minorities"; and "the other nations in Great Britain are simply not perceived by the outside world as BEING different.".

A statistical table included in Marwick (1996: 484) displays the results of a 1994 ICM/Rowntree Trust poll, which shows clearly that among the three nations of Great Britain the sense of British identity was strongest among the English people surveyed, who also demonstrated a weaker sense of being specifically English than did Welsh respo~dents of being Welsh or Scots of being Scottish. However, Oakland (1998: 63) claims that particularly among teenagers there is a resurgence in English nationalism that is not tied to traditional features. What this nationalism, or feeling of national identity, is tied to is hard to pin down.

One interesting explanation that was advanced for the difficulty of drawing a clear line between Englishness and Britishness is as follows: it is frequently argued that Britishness has suppressed elements of Scottishness, Welshness and Irishness in a manner that is often seen in imperialistic/colonialist terms; Maley (1998), for example, is happy to say "I have a love-hate relationship with Britishness; I love to hate it", and the Welsh nationalist Gwynfor Evans was quoted by a speaker at the Warwick Conference as having said "Britishness is…a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish.". However, it is less frequently asserted that it has also had the same effect on Englishness. Easthope observes that "the price England has had to pay for its imperial mission has been precisely surrendering a sense of particular national identity (Easthope 1999: 31). A respondent, echoing this, suggests that while "Englishness has perhaps contributed most to the notion of Britishness", it has also lost out through the arrangement. My one Scottish respondent, whose answers to my questions were lengthy, articulate, and impassioned, had this to say: "English people have just as rich a cultural heritage and history as the Scots. But they've sold it in return for the symbols of Britishness, now becoming increasingly worthless… The final irony may be that the English people are those least able to define who they really are, because they were the first to be colonised by the British and remain the last 'British colony'."

So what is Englishness?

Those of my own respondents who did feel there was a difference between Englishness and Britishness are anything but unanimous in their opinion as to what this might be: "British is more elevated"; "Britishness is less tangible"; "British refers more to the past, English more to the present"; "British is more general", and "British is more complex", for instance.

However, certain elements agreed on by at least some respondents do emerge. One is a suggestion that Englishness is somehow narrower in scope - "[there is a] deeper sense of pride to be British…Englishness is more parochial" - and that Britishness possesses a broader and less insular appeal - "more inclusive…something that black and Asian people are more likely to identify with than Englishness" or "more diversity and less anti-European feeling".

Echoing this theme, another respondent notes that "Englishness has tended to be hijacked by nasty people, especially Conservatives and other right-wingers." This view of Englishness was something that Billy Bragg warned of in no uncertain terms in the Warwick seminar - "we have tiptoed around Englishness and into that vacuum have come the racists, xenophobes, and imperialists". This is what we might refer to as the 'narrow' view of Englishness, the Englishness of Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech of the 'sixties, Margaret Thatcher's 'our culture will be swamped' of the 'seventies, Winston Churchill's son's claim claim that "immigration has to be halted to defend the British way of life", what Stuart Hall refers to when he writes that "since 1979 lots of small Little England English people have been getting behind the barricades…when Europe begins to look like that hybrid, impure space of migrated peoples" (Hall 1996: 134), the kind of Englishness which would have the country become, in the words of a 1999 Guardian article for which I regret I can supply neither date, author, nor title, "a resentful offshore Serbia".

However, another, more positive view is also possible. This view suggests that the reason Englishness is so hard to profile clearly is precisely because of something I have already mentioned above, the divergent and sometimes mutually contradictory qualities that are ascribed to it. But rather than being seen as problematic, they can be cast in a positive light; indeed, given the non-essentialist, pluralist, fluid view of identity as postulated above, they should be seen as absolutely inescapable.

Much the same point was made by a number of speakers at the Warwick Conference: Susan Bassnett with her "multiplicity of Englishnesses"; Lawrence Raw, who reminded us that "we have to think of the ideal of Englishness in pluralist terms"; Richard Weight, who saw it as "a mosaic of colourful idiosyncrasy"; Michael Bracewell: "whenever we try to communicate Englishness, the ones who do it best tend to be those who approach it from a point of view of ambivalence or ambiguity"; Nicholas Cull, with his claim that "Englishness is the ability to move between identities for one's own purposes"; Kwesi Owusu, who sees it as "a complex constellation of forces", and Billy Bragg - "we are an incredibly diverse culture and this has been our great strength…a sense of belonging, communality…the hyphenated country we live in is something we have to be comfortable with". Likewise, Barbara Ellen, writing in The Observer, states that "England means a million different things to a million different people" (Ellen, 2000).

Unlike the insular and, in my view at least, increasingly unrealistic and even deranged posturing of the hard Right, this confused and messy but pluralistic and very human Englishness is one I feel perfectly comfortable with. Difficult it may be, but as Hall (1996: 135) points out, "I suspect it's the only game left on the table".

References and works consulted

  • Ciglar-Zanic, J, D Kalogjera, & J Jemersic, eds (1998) Cross-Cultural Challenges Zagreb: The British Council
  • Easthope, A (1999) 'England, Englishness, and forms of discourse', British Studies Now Anthology 6-10 London: The British Council
  • Ellen, B (2000) 'This land of such dear souls', The Observer, 16 January
  • Graddol, D (1999) 'In search of identity', British Studies Now Anthology 6-10 London: The British Council
  • Hall, S (1996) 'Politics of identity', in Culture, Identity and Politics, eds T Ranger et al Aldershot: Avebury
  • Hofstede, G (1991) Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill
  • Holliday, A (1999) 'Culture as constraint or resource: essentialist versus non-essentialist views', IATEFL Literature and Cultural Studies SIG Newsletter 18
  • Maley, W (1998) 'Border Crossing: the Multi-national Contexts of British Cultural Studies' in Cross-Cultural Challenges, eds J Ciglar-Zanic et al, Zagreb: British Council
  • Marwick, A (1996) British Society Since 1945 (3rd Edition) London: Penguin
  • Oakland, J (1998) British Civilization - an Introduction (4th Edition) London: Routledge
  • Partridge, S (1999) The British Union State: imperial hangover or flexible citizens' home? London: Catalyst
  • Ranger, T, Y Samad & O Stuart, eds (1996) Culture, Identity and politics Aldershot: Avebury
  • Storry, M & P Childs, eds (1997) British Cultural Identities London: Routledge

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