When we think of ourselves as English, is it a political feeling? Or a cultural one? Or something else entirely?
Of course, we know national identity can be political. You only have to look across Hadrian’s Wall to see that people can be persuaded by politics based on national flags and national sovereignty.
It’s a politics that a lot of people feel a part of and feel like they have a stake in- but many others feel it is divisive and ugly. That kind of politics too often is about dividing the world into two groups of people, us and them, Scottish and English. It can be effective, but it’s not a good way of building something positive, something that everyone can feel a part of.
And then there is the other end of the spectrum- a national identity that can include almost anyone. Look at the way British identity exists at the moment. It’s a big idea, a big vision about working together that everyone is a part of. We can all get behind Team GB at the Olympics, we can wave our Union Jacks and we can feel proud to be British.
So we’ve got these two kinds of political national identity, the divisive one we have seen in Scotland and the broader one we see for Britishness. But there has been no political identity for England. We have no first minister. No parliament. We haven’t even got our own national anthem!
In fact, when people talk about England or being English in a political sense, people tend to look at them like they are a bit mad. Like they have said something slightly unsavoury. It’s a real problem. Because when people get told that they shouldn’t think of themselves as English, or that they shouldn’t put up a St George’s flag, that they shouldn’t be proud to be English- that’s when the politics of national identity can turn ugly.
So this is my starting point- we need to stand up for the value of Englishness and English identity. So what does it mean to be English? And why should we be proud of it?
Now I know that when people talk about what it means to be English it can too often just turn into a familiar list of things we all have in common.
You all know what I mean. We are the land of Shakespeare and cricket, of afternoon tea and real ale, of winning battles in 1066 and a world cup in 1966. Of course it’s true that people do have this in common and it is important. If you ask most foreigners, they will probably find a few more things to add to the list. They would say we are the land of bad food, bad weather, bad penalties and queueing. Not how we like to think of it- but at least they would probably be speaking English when they said it!
So there are things we have in common, but there are also many different sides of England. You can’t find a better example of this than my weekly commute from Westminster back to Cumbria. It takes about four hours, but sometimes it feels like you have crossed into a different time zone altogether. It’s not just that people have different accents, they have different lives, different views, and different experiences. It would be the same if you got a train from Newcastle to Cornwall or from Liverpool to the Cotswolds.
It’s true there are divisions within England. As a Yorkshire lad and an adopted Cumbrian I can attest to that. We all have our traditions, whether it is about our industrial heritage, a rural festival, or a city story. The question is whether we can create an identity for England out of these traditions that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I say of course we can, and we should look to Cumbria as a model of how to do it. What I learned when I moved here is that what can have a reputation as a forbidding identity quickly becomes one that even a lad from Sheffield can feel a part of. People from Cumbria are open, good-humoured and generous. Cumbrian identity is not jealously guarded from outsiders, but warmly extended to anyone who wants to join the community.
And it is an identity that has moved with the times. When Barrow became the home of the submarine industry, it wasn’t seen as a challenge to local identity, it became one of the foundations of it.
As you all know, people in our town are deeply proud about the vital national work Barrovians do in the shipyard. The submarines built here keep our country safe night and day, deterring our enemies and reassuring our allies. It is the most patriotic of work and I know the whole town has a deep sense that the work they do is in the service of their country. This feeling does not stop at the gates of the yard. Whether people work at BAE or not, there is a greater sense of purpose that comes from the role the town plays for the country. So ingrained is the industry with the identity of the town, it is hard to think that it is little more than 100 years old. People in Furness have not cast off their old identities and old jobs, the rural economy for example still makes a massive contribution which we should old acknowledge. But they have incorporated the new with the old, like the thousands of supply chain jobs that have sprung up around the shipyard.
The same is true further up the coast in Cumbria’s magnificent nuclear industry. Thousands of the most highly skilled people in the country are employed up the coast at Sellafield, many of them locals from Cumbria who started as apprentices. For such a new technology to have been adopted so quickly into the economic and social life of such an old county is another testament to one of the central aspects of Cumbrian identity- adaptability.
Of course there is history and tradition that binds us together, but identity cannot survive on the past alone, it must embrace the future or it will wither. So those are two qualities that I think make up Cumbrian identity; pride in who we are and what we do, and the flexibility to accept new ideas and ways of doing things. The third is openness. Look at our other great asset in Cumbria, the visitor economy. We have the most beautiful natural landscape of anywhere in Britain, and Cumbrians are fiercely proud of it. For many people it was the reason they moved here in the first place, those views in the morning, those brisk- or not so brisk- walks up the fells. It is part of the rhythm of life in these parts and it always has been. But we have never tried to keep these natural delights to ourselves, never thought they were ours alone. On the contrary- Cumbrians have been the first to spread the word about the beauty of our county and welcome people to visit or to settle here. Millions of people from across the world travel for miles to see our corner of England, to climb our mountains, sail our lakes and marvel at our views.
Thanks to direct flights from Manchester Airport, we are even getting thousands of Chinese tourists as well as the more usual crowd closer to home.
Of course we’re glad they come and spend their money here- but we’re even more glad they want to spend their time here. Pride, adaptability, openness. Three ideas right at the heart of the modern Cumbrian identity and three ideas that I think should be the foundation of a revitalised modern English identity.
Pride in each other and in what England has given the world. Pride in English ideas and innovation. In the spread of our language and the range of our literature. In the steps we have taken and in the strides we will make in the years ahead.
Adaptability. Celebrating our past but never being prisoners of it. Embracing new ideas, new technologies, new ways of living.
Seeing the opportunities that come with change, not just the risks. And having an idea of ourselves that is never so brittle that it will break when it is bent out of shape by the inevitable pressure of change.
And openness. Because pride in our identity and our country does not mean locking ourselves away from others. We are no less English when we share our identity with others. Our Englishness is not diluted when we say to strangers that they too can be English if they want.
When St George himself was a Roman soldier with a Turkish dad, a Syrian mum who grew up speaking Greek- how ridiculous that anyone would try to use Englishness as a symbol of exclusion rather than inclusion.
So I want to want to finish by saying this. With new nationalism on the rise everywhere you look, the need to put Englishness back on the map is more important than ever. But the kind of English identity we champion must be one that fits with the kind of country England is today and will become in the future. We must look at new ways of united people in shared traditions, whether that is a new national anthem, a new bank holiday for St George’s day or a new English parliament. And we must do so in a way that captures the essence of the timeless idea that is England, as it has been, as it is and as it will be into the future.
Together we can build a revitalised idea of an England that we can all be part of and all be proud of.
John Woodcock MP, speech to the Royal Society of St George, Barrow, 21st April 2017