The formation of identity and what it means for Miliband’s search for Englishness
Ed Miliband wants us all to be secure in our English identity. His speech yesterday sought to claim that because Scots benefit from having a Scottish identity alongside a British identity, then the English will too.
This is utter rubbish, and not just for the reasons that Owen Jones (rightly) gives, namely that an attempt by the Left to create a sense of English togetherness is a distraction from the real business of the Left: creating a sense of togetherness as a class.
The main reason Ed’s speech is rubbish is that it fails to pin down what identity actually is and how it is formed.
Let me try to do so here.
Charles Taylor sets it out in his seminal Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition:
[Identity] designates something like a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental characteristics as a human being….[O]ur identity is shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people of society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves (p25).
That is, our identities are always created as a reaction to what others make of us, and how they treat us.
Thus with the Scots. The Scottish identity is largely formed as a reaction to the domination and exploitation of Scotland by England, whether that be in the form of the highland clearances or the perceived stealing of oil revenues. That is why, despite best efforts, Scottish identity is still often expressed in terms of anti-Englishness.
And that is why there is no English identity comparable with that of the Scots. Quite simply, because the England was a dominant power for so long, because no other groups was in a sufficiently powerful position to “mirror back’ a contemptible picture of the English in a way that made the English sit up and take notice, it didn’t need its own fully fledged identity.
So what’s changed? Why now does Miliband feel the need to help us discover our Englishness?
The answer is that the ‘identity vacuum’ has been filled by a pernicious and intolerant nationalism. Think English flag, and you think BNP. This offends the liberal left, because it cuts right across its belief in equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of colour or creed, and the understandable reaction to this on the part of people like Sunder Katwala at British Future is to seek to develop a more inclusive sense of Englishness, open to all who live within England’s borders.
This is a laudable enough reaction to the racists who have ‘stolen’ the flag, but it doesn’t get to the bottom of why and how racist nationalism came to steal the flag in the first place. Only if we understand this, and deal with the consequences of that understanding, can we hope to develop anything like a proper unity of Englishness.
To understand why Englishess has become equated with racist nationalism, we have to look at the bleaker side of our recent history; but less (contra Owen) at our behaviour as a colonial power, important though that is, and more at our domestic post-colonial, post-war history.
The facts are clear enough, and I have set them out in some detail here. After the war, Britain (but primarily England) needed workers for its public services, and the workers came, primarily from the Caribbean and South Asia. When they came, they received a huge amount of discriminatory treatment in terms of housing and education; they were, in effect, second-class citizens.
The key effects of this discrimination is that these ‘ethnic minorities’, as they became known, developed their own identities in relation and reaction to the ‘misrecognition’. People became self-consciously ‘Black British’ or ‘British Asian’ in their primary identity (as opposed to, say, becoming primarily a Korean-American, where the emphasis tends to lie with the American bit).
What happened was exactly as foreseen by the great sociologist John Rex in 1979:
[T]here are clear difference of life-chances between them and the white British…….Such differences of life-chances, if they were sustained over a period, would undoubtedly mean that consciousness of a common identity, common exploitation and oppression, and a common conflict with the host society would emerge and find expression in some kind of ethnic-class-for-itself.
From there, it is easy to see why Englishness-as-racism developed. What had begun as the overt racism of post-colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s was transformed into a statement of identity in the 1970s. This ‘Englishness’, perverted though it may seem to the liberal left, was largely formed in reaction to the strengthening of black and Asian identities, and the perceived ‘misrecognition’ of (seen as disrespect for) white people’s cultural norms.
If racist-nationalist Englishness is to be challenged in the way Ed Miliband and Sunder Katwala want – if the flag is to be taken back as the flag of all those who live within its borders – the Left needs to be clear about why it was lost in the first place. The Labour movement in particular needs to be honest about its own post-war history of racism, and how that created the ‘politics of recognition’ problems we have today, in which there is an unresolved (though expediently exaggerated) tension between the rights/duties of communities to their own identity and the more limited rights/duties of citizenship.
Only then can we really move on with the forging of a genuine spirit of inclusivity, which – if the theory of identity I set out here is correct – will soon cease to be called Englishness anyway, because there’s nothing specifically English about inclusion, and because national identity is always about the other, not ourselves.