There’s surprisingly little up-to-date polling on patriotism, national identity and Englishness. The BBC’s mega poll with YouGov therefore provides us with interesting new data. It’s not a perfect poll. The questionnaire looks like it was designed with a hypothesis in mind – that Englishness is divisive and proponents of it are old fashioned – but there are important pieces of information nonetheless. Here are the top five points from the poll.
Englishness is primarily a uniting force, but significant numbers reject it. One of the problems Jeremy Corbyn has with the electorate is his visible hostility towards the idea of national pride – towards “simple patriotism”. The reality is the vast majority display pride in both England and Britain (80 per cent identify strongly with being English, and 82 per cent strongly identify with being British). Furthermore, for most people, national pride is a more real force than regional or local pride (although that exists too). That said, the poll reveals two important caveats. Firstly, Englishness is seen as somewhat more divisive than Britishness, and not just simply because it necessarily excludes Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people from it. To many, Englishness appears too assertive. Secondly, a significant minority of people – mostly those that lean left politically – are explicitly embarrassed by their links to Englishness. More than one in ten Labour and Lib Dem voters express embarrassment in identifying as English, as do more than one in ten remain voters.
Pessimism is everywhere. The poll reveals half of people, and a clear majority of Conservatives, think England was better in the past. Only one in five think England’s best days are ahead of it. It’s wrong to try to link Englishness with pessimism. The fact is, for many years, the public have been pessimistic about the state of the country and its future prospects – regardless of any issues relating to national pride and identity. This is one of the reasons why politicians are mostly wasting their time trying to invoke American-style optimism into their speeches (“The British Dream”, for example). And this is one of the reasons why, following on from my column last week, that UKIP (in whatever incarnation) isn’t dead.
Only a minority is prepared to risk the union. For all the power of English identity, only one in five voters overall, and a third of Conservative voters, say it’s more important the interests of England are prioritised, even if it puts the union at risk. This isn’t nothing, but it puts English nationalism into context: it’s not sweeping all before it. That said, 40 per cent of the public, and 52 per cent of Conservative voters, want an English Parliament, like the Scottish Parliament. The public are, for now, still essentially unionist.
There are more indications politics is going to be increasing focused on culture. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, politics was largely focused on issues like public service reform, taxes, the economy and other lifestyle issues. Partly because of Brexit, partly because of the rise of a new hard left in the American style, politics is increasingly focused on cultural issues. In this poll, we can see why. In thinking about identity and cultural issues, people are increasingly dividing on markers like age, education and type of neighbourhood (small town, city etc). It’s hard not to imagine further culture wars in the coming years, Brexit aside.
We still don’t have a sense of what makes people feel English. In this poll, when given a list of options that contributed to people’s sense of English identity, the countryside and history and heritage came top. This is reasonable; they are powerful forces. But the poll didn’t explore issues like ‘independence’, ‘resilience’, ‘grit’, and so on, instead asking people about things like ‘English dance and music’. So the nature of the poll is undoubtedly a problem, but it’s nonetheless true that, even poring through all the questions, it’s hard to get a sense of what people really think defines Englishness. It’s there for politicians to define, to some extent.
What does this all mean for the Conservatives? Most obviously, that they shouldn’t fear talking in patriotic terms about Britain – in fact, against Corbyn, it ought to positive help. They should also find a way of talking about England that does it for traditional English voters, but that embraces as much of those currently a little squeamish about the concept as possible (corny as it sounds, the World Cup offers the right sort of opportunity to talk about England in ways that are probably suitable for everyone). It also means they ought to start thinking creatively about how they cut up the electorate for campaign purposes. In a climate where people are increasingly dividing over cultural issues, it could well be that new campaign coalitions can be formed that weren’t credible a decade ago.