The Welsh and Scottish have long been comfortable waving flags and self-identifying with pride. For many people in England however, Englishness and Britishness are conveniently interchangeable.

Football, rugby and cricket are always an opportunity to paint the St George’s cross on faces and sing about lions and chariots, but those who actually identify solely as ‘English’ outside of a sporting arena are often viewed with suspicion.

Yet, people living in England make up 84% of the UK’s population. How some 56 million people identify is surely as important a study as any?

There is something ironic then that the authors of a book on English identity are from universities in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Professors Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones have spent ten years exploring political attitudes in England through their Future of England Survey, the most detailed study of English attitudes towards national identity and constitutional change to date.

For Cardiff University's Professor Wyn Jones, his motivations for the study stem from a stroll along the Aberystwyth promenade in 2009.

“I knew then there was something going on when I saw so many people wearing England football shirts with England flags on their cars," he told The National.

"It was an entirely unselfconscious manifestation of English identity.

"The study of British politics has long been premised on the idea that nationalism and national identity politics is a feature of the periphery of the state, but it was clear to see.”

The road since that initial realisation has been troublesome and eventful. Getting funding for an in-depth study of English identity has been difficult.

Then, 18-months changed everything.

England finds its voice

David Cameron never expected the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 to be as close as it was.

A year later, he didn't expect to win a majority at the 2015 UK General Election and deliver his manifesto promise of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

For Wyn Jones and Henderson, this 18-month period was one where England found its voice and English identity took centre stage.

The National Wales: Fear of the SNP was central to the Conservatives' 2015 election campaign. Fear of the SNP was central to the Conservatives' 2015 election campaign.

Professor Wyn Jones explains that a fear of the Scottish National Party in England was weaponised by the Conservatives in the 2015 election campaign, visualised by a campaign poster that placed Labour leader Ed Miliband in the breast pocket of Alex Salmond.

That messaging worked and it was something the 'Leave' campaign would harness even more effectively in the EU referendum. 

The messaging in the 'Leave' campaign may have been clad in a Union Flag while hardly explicitly mentioning England, but it resonated especially strongly with English identifiers.

As early as 2012, the study had identified a strong correlation between feeling English and being Eurosceptic.

As surveys began asking people in England the same questions they were asking people in Wales and Scotland, it became apparent Englishness was there to be found.

So, what is Englishness?

"This book will be very challenging to a lot of people,” said Professor Wyn Jones, “but it will explain what is going on with Englishness and put what people feel and know exists into words.

“One of the things that is very clear is that politically there is a big difference between people who self-identify as English and those who identify as British but not English. 

“Englishness is related and correlated with a very strong sense of grievance about England's place in the UK, with focus especially on the feeling that England is losing out financially and politically to Scotland.

“There is also a sense of fierce pride in Britain's past and what Britain’s appropriate role as the leader of the English-speaking world should be. 

“There is a tendency to view English nationalism through the lenses of Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalism, which in their modern guise are a rejection of Britishness.

“Instead, English nationalism is the sense that England's identity should be recognised more fairly, while having a deep pride in Britain’s past.”

What does this mean for the UK?

One of the most surprising areas of the study is the lack of regional distinction across England when it comes to national identity.

That is an issue for people who are calling for ‘regionalism’ in England or federalism throughout the UK. If there is no appetite for such a radical shake up of the UK’s constitution, those who continue to call for it may be left out in the cold.

That is a particular issue for those on the centre left of British politics, namely the Labour Party, who have now been shut out of government in Westminster for over a decade.

Any refusal to engage with Englishness does not suggest a return to power any time soon, even if Kier Starmer talks about ‘patriotism’.

Wyn Jones suggests it is also a problem for those on the centre right of British politics, though.

"People on the right get it instinctively, they can win elections off the back of it, but what they fail to understand is that it poses a threat to the very union they claim to cherish.

"The reassertion of Westminster's sovereignty makes devolution extremely difficult in Scotland and Wales, and whether they like it or not, the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland and Wales want autonomy.”


The study also shows a significantly relaxed attitude from those who identify as English toward the territorial integrity of the UK.

Of Conservative ‘Leave’ voters in England, 85% think Scotland leaving the UK is a price worth paying for Brexit.

This suggests that English identifiers are not reliant on the continued geographical existence of the union to identify with Britain.

What next for Englishness then? Well, there is a chance that by the time many people truly understand English identity, Britain as we know it may no longer remain.

For Professor Wyn Jones, the centre-right are parked firmly on the lawn of English identifiers, while the left are absent.

In the rest of the UK, the volume of voices supporting leaving the UK grows louder.

‘Englishness: The political force transforming Britain’ by Alisa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones is on sale now.