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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, whose report 'This Sceptred Isle' can be read on www.britishfuture.org.

Screen shot 2012-04-21 at 10.09.51It would be strange, yet it seems to be true, that it should be England, the land of Shakespeare, which today seems uncertain about how to find its modern voice.

Yet This Sceptred Isle, a report published by British Future today to mark St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday captures why mainstream politicians need to speak about England’s place within the reshaped United Kingdom after devolution.

Only a slim majority, six out of ten, of the English associate the St George's Cross with pride and patriotism, which is surely the main point of a national flag, according to YouGov’s polling for the report. More than eight out of ten in Scotland and Wales can say that of their flags, while 80% of the English do see the Union flag as patriotic too. But as many as one in three of the under 40s think of racism and extremism when they see England's national flag. Conservatives are three times as likely to see extremism in the English flag (17%) as the Union Jack (6%).

That suggests that the extreme street hooligans of the English Defence League have toxified our national flag, but should share the blame with the democratic politicians who have failed to speak up for the inclusive patriotism of the English majority.


Perhaps, for most of the last three hundred years, not talking much about England made sense. An understated Englishness, habitually conflated with being British, helped make the United Kingdom and build a shared Empire, which Alex Salmond forgets was once a source of much Scottish pride, while it lasted.

The existential threats to England faced Britain as a whole. "Speak for England" cried Tory backbencher Leo Amery across the floor of the Commons to Labour's Clement Attlee in May 1940, their alliance paving the way for Winston Churchill. For a long time after victory and peace. in 1945, the English took pride primarily in British institutions, from the Army and the Monarchy to the NHS and the BBC.

Devolution to Scotland and Wales was to change how the English think of themselves too. The English now say they are more English than British – when the opposite was true even five years ago, in earlier British Social Attitudes surveys  – yet the English question remained unanswered, and seldom asked.  Conservative politicians have often joined New Labour in ducking it, from a traditional pro-Union fear shared across governing parties that a further rise in national sentiment within these islands could mark a slippery slope towards breaking-up Britain.

But it is ignoring England now presents a greater threat to the future of the Union. There is an increasingly voiced unfairness in giving the smaller Celtic nations their own voice but denying that chance to the English majority.

Only a fifth  say that they consider themselves English and not British. The most popular answer remains "equally English and British", for 43%. This means that six out of ten people still feel at
least as British as English, and that eight out of ten think their English identity is at least as important.  Most people do not want to be forced to make a choice, but do want both identities recognised.

Yet we seem to risk the search for a modern English patriotism going backwards. I remember feeling much more positive about the flag of St George during that happy, heady summer of Euro 1996, when Terry Venables' England football team played the Dutch off the Wembley pitch. The Union flag seemed to melt away overnight to be replaced by a red and white sea of celebratory St George's crosses.

It did not endure. England remained a "90 minute nation", with barely any public recognition at all outside sport. We could celebrate English triumphs over Australia in a Rugby World Cup final and, unbelievably enough, in Ashes cricket too, but that sport can hardly sustain a national identity on their own.

YouGov’s polling also shows that anxiety over the English flag disguises a bedrock of confidence about English pride. Large majorities of the English take pride in just about everything about England, from the Lake District to Shakespeare, Buckingham Palace to our pubs and sporting teams and – most popular of all – the English countryside, a source of pride for 92%. The English are prouder of the English language than Wales is of the Welsh tongue.

Region and class, party, age or ethnicity make rather less difference than many might imagine to these shared symbols of English pride. Two-thirds of northerners say that London makes them proud to be English, along with 70% across England, while two-thirds in the capital find national pride in Yorkshire pudding.

How can this England of everyday pride now gain a stronger public voice? The public do want a fair deal on an English voice, and tax and spending across the UK, as previous polling has shown, though are unlikely to have a great appetite for examining the wonkish intracacies of the West Lothian question or the Barnett formula for public spending. Addressing those issues, in a reshaped United Kingdom if and when Scotland votes to stay, will take time but need to form part of the political agenda.

It would best to begin quickly with important symbolic steps to show that the English voice will count too. More public recognition of St George's Day later this month would help. 2012 is a good year to remember that the date marks Shakespeare's birthday too.

And isn't it now time for the Six Nations rugby anthems of Land of My Fathers or Flower of Scotland to be answered by the English anthem, Jerusalem? That would not just represent fair play for England, but moving away from the English appropriation of the British anthem could also help to protect the Union and the Monarchy in the post-devolution UK.

The worst response to anxiety about English identity would be to hope that it goes away, leaving England with little public imagery between Sunday night nostalgia for Downton Abbey or the angry, snarling face of the EDL.

The failure to engage constructively with English identity leaves a larger minority (though still only one in five) saying it is important to be white to be English; almost twice the proportion of Scots and Welsh who see their national identities as ethnically defined. But 73% of Conservative voters reject the idea  that it is important to be white to be English, an almost identical number to the 74% figure across the entire public and 76% of Labour voters.

Over the last two generations, the question of whether it was possible to be black and British was decisively resolved. Indeed, it now seems hard to recall why the question seemed so difficult.

It perhaps helped that British identity had always been plural. It was, properly understood, not a national identity as such, but the shared civic identity of a multiethnic state.  As English, Welsh and Scottish identities increase in public salience, it becomes just as important to show that each can be defined inclusively and civically too.

So who will speak up for England today, for the inclusive majority, whose patriotism is of pride, not prejudice? For Harry, England and St George – and indeed for Britain too – it must be time to hear that English voice.

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