Home > General Politics, Labour Party News, Law, Race and Colour > The formation of identity and what it means for Miliband’s search for Englishness

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.

  1. Richard McCarthy
    June 8, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Excellent analysis Paul, though one small quibble. The Irish were a big contingent in that post-war immigrant workforce (my father being among them) and subject to similar levels of discrimination and yet no self-conscious, strong Irish-British identity formed in reaction and opposition to that – the principle reason being skin colour of course, meaning their children were more successfully accepted and integrated into the host culture, although it does leave some like myself in a bit of a quandary as to national identity.

    • paulinlancs
      June 9, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Yes, I am wrong to leave the Irish out of this analysis – a bit stupid given the post-war ‘no blacks, no Irish signs’ etc.. Perhaps like you (though I’m of 1840’s Irish emigrant stock) I simply don’t quite get what happened around British-Irish identity, though I think the clue is in Charles Taylor’s stuff about groups who create identity less by resistance to stereotyping by those who have power over them, and more by assimilating some of that stereotyping into the identity, and this linked to the geogpraphic proximity of England-Ireland, meaning that a British-Irish identity never formed separately from an Irish identity – itself the result of 1,000 years of Norman/English domination and power over the (self)-image.

      • Roger
        June 10, 2012 at 1:34 am

        And here is the problem – if your theory can’t accommodate the relationships between British English and Irish and Scots identity without gross oversimplification of matters which have been pretty exhaustively documented and debated over then why should it work for anything else?

        Have you for instance read Tom Nairn or Gerry Hassan (or for that matter Linda Colley’s Britons which is actually pretty good on the earlier stages of the evolution of ‘Britishness’)?.

        Taylor is interesting but he is almost the archetypal Ivory Tower intellectual who seems to have little real interest in the actual messy history of nations and communities – and without it you can’t write meaningfully about modern nationalism which is all about the messes that history leaves behind.

        For this reason I much prefer Gellner or even Kedourie who root their studies of nationalism in history rather than theory.

  2. Roger
    June 9, 2012 at 1:52 am

    This might have been a good argument if you didn’t fall into the all-too-common assumption that every negative event in Scottish history is the result of English ‘domination and exploitation’ (or even that Scottish nationalism is based on nothing more than the systematic misrepresentation of history to that effect).

    The Highland Clearances for instance were the eviction of Scottish peasants by Scottish landlords.

    It’s also worth noting that contra nationalist legend more Scots bore arms for their German king in the 1745 rebellion than ever came out for the Franco-Polish-Italian Young Pretender.

    Scotland has its own ruling class who were and are quite capable of grinding their own people’s faces into the dirt without having to always ask permission from London.

    For modern Scots I’d suggest the problem is not that they feel grossly exploited by England but simply that our two cultures have now diverged to a point where union just no longer seems natural – and that it is Tory England that has done most of the changing while Scotland has stayed truer to what 50 years ago would have been defined as characteristically British values.

    And if Ed really wants to preserve the union he must tackle that divergence at its source and persuade the poor deluded English to restore basic social democratic values – which is certainly not going to be achieved by wittering about identity in this literally sophomoric fashion.

  3. paulinlancs
    June 9, 2012 at 9:28 am


    As ever, I appreciate the additional insights/facts, though I think you anticipatate my response in your bracketed “(or even that Scottish nationalism is based on nothing more than the systematic misrepresentation of history to that effect)”

    The clearances may well not have been purely Engish on Scottish domination (and any reading references you can give me around this will be welcome), but for many/most Scots this is the view that they have grown up with. Taking one website at random from google (http://www.cranntara.org.uk/clear.htm) you get a pretty strong impression of post-Culloden English atrocities. And while of course the Highlands are not all of Scotland, and while it’s convenient now for nationalists to ignore 1745 and all that, I don’t think the historical facts get too much in the way of Scottish identity formation based primarily on not being English/ never having willingly subjected themselves to English rule.

    I agree that Ed is doing little more than ‘witter about identity’. A real shame when he could get his teeth into the real causes of perverted English nationalism.

  4. Roger
    June 10, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Re the clearances there are several recent general histories of modern Scotland by Tom Devine, Michael Lynch etc that go into the detail.

    Certainly there were many atrocities perpetrated in the Highlands immediately after Culloden but it is not accurate to describe them as English – Butcher Cumberland served the king of Great Britain and Ireland and elector of Hanover and his army was drawn from across his dominions and included thousands of Scots – while Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army included significant French, Irish and Jacobite English elements,

    And even in the Highlands some of the biggest clans (above all the Campbells) either remained loyal to the Hanoverian government or sent contingents to fight on both sides so that whoever won the clan chief would have someone on the right side,

    The 45 Rebellion like the evolution of Scottish identity may look simple – particularly if rely on whatever google throws at you – but is actually extremely complex and can’t really be discussed properly in a blog comments box – that’s what books and essays are for,

    • Roger McCarthy
      June 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      My Scottish historian friend has also reminded that many of the worst atrocities were committed by Scots officers like Captain Caroline Scott of Guise’s regiment.

      And the most famous massacre in Scots History – Glencoe – was the work of a Campbell officer in the Duke of Argyll’s regiment executing the orders of the Scottish Secretary of State the Master of Stair.

      • paulinlancs
        June 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm

        Got to go away for day or two. Will reply when back.

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