All for Andy Murray, but insular English identity now on the rise

Very nice, Andy, but how do you feel about the in/out referendum? Kerim Okten/EPA

Andy Murray’s historic victory at Wimbledon sparked instant debate about whether his was a win for Scotland or Britain. Clearly, First Minister Alex Salmond was in little doubt, as he akwardly attempted to unfurl a Scottish flag behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron. But there also were Union Flags galore and the New York Times even briefly reported: “After 77 years, Murray and England rule.”

The multiple identities of the British Isles have often proved a little perplexing to much of the rest of the world. And today, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research reveals a hardening of English attitudes to Scotland and devolution as well as to Europe.

The report’s authors used results from the Future of England Surveys (FOES), the British Social Attitudes Survey and the most recent census. They found that people who identify more strongly as English, rather than British, would be more likely to vote to leave the EU. The survey also reported that English people want reforms within the UK: 78% of respondents said Scottish taxes should be used to pay for devolved services and 81% believed Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on English laws. UKIP was also rated as the the best party at standing up for English interests.

Professor Charles Jeffery, co-author of the report said there were four main findings from the report. “First, we found a strengthening sense of English identity,” he said.

“This is linked to an increase in eurosceptical attitudes within England, as well as a stronger sense of unfairness about Scotland’s position in the UK. Finally, there is a growing demand for an England-based government arrangement.”

The study polled 3,600 English adults, and was weighted to reflect England’s registered electorate in terms of age, gender, region, social class, newspaper readership and previous votes.

What is Englishness?

In the survey, 58% of respondents agreed that the English have become more aware of their national identity in recent years. The report points out that in the 2011 Census, 60% of people in England described themselves as being solely of English nationality, rather than British. But what does it mean to be English?

“Englishness is more insular as a concept than Britishness,” Dr Simon Usherwood of the University of Surrey said. Usherwood characterised the growing sense of English nationhood as a response to the emergence of other national identities, especially in Scotland, which will stage an independence referendum next year. “The idea of English identity is quite reactive – it’s as much about what it isn’t as what it is,” he said. “It’s a reaction to the language about Scottishness in particular.”

But Jeffery thinks that was only part of the picture. “The situation around devolution is certainly one of the things that has produced a heightened sense of unity among English people, but this is only one factor.”

“Rather than being reactive, there is a more positive sense in which, for whatever reason, England is gaining a political and cultural sense of self.”

Jeffrey’s co-author, Professor Richard Wyn Jones said he was interested in the political aspect of “Englishness.”

“English identity is becoming politicised in the sense that there appear to be strong associations between being English and having a view on the way politics should operate in the UK.”

Unfair share for Scots

Levels of discontent with the Scottish situation have been high in England since 2000, the report claimed. Up to 57% of respondents have consistently agreed that Scottish services should be funded with Scottish taxes and that Scottish MPs shouldn’t vote on English laws.

There was also a majority belief that Scotland gets more than its fair share of spending money (52%) and a lack of trust that the UK government will work in England’s interests (62%).

Usherwood put the sentiment down to a lack of identifiably English political establishments. “There is an anxiety that England is relatively under-represented politically speaking,” he said. “This comes from a lack of visibly English institutions, but does not necessarily represent the real power structures in the UK. England is strongly represented within the UK government.”

Both co-authors maintained that the realities of England’s political situation are not important when considering the findings. Jones argued that public sentiment is sufficient to motivate reform. “The groundswell of public opinion reflects a perceived lack of political representation for English interests. This shows that the issue should be addressed now, rather than later,” he said.

Threat to identity

The report also indicated that people were more likely to think that EU membership is a bad thing if they identified as English not British (64%), rather than British not English (28%). Findings were similar when people were asked whether they would vote to leave the EU (72% and 35% for English and British identifiers respectively).

Experts’ responses varied when asked why these attitudes may have arisen. “Hostility to Europe among sections of the electorate is wrapped up in a broader sense of threat to national identity, and incorporates complex issues like immigration,” Goodwin said.

It could be that the issue has been blown out of proportion in England. “We’ve surveyed the extent to which the people of other member states feel the EU has the greatest influence over government, but these levels never got above 10%. In contrast, the report shows that in England, 31% of people feel the EU has the greatest influence over government in England,” Jeffery said.

Professor Matthew Goodwin added that it is important to keep these findings in context, “the importance of Europe as an issue in the UK’s public mindset has never been as high as eurosceptics like to think,” he said. “Only 7% of the electorate rank Europe as an important issue facing the UK.”

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