I recently attended an event hosted by the English Labour Network which, amongst a genuinely interesting and thoughtful discussion on the nature of English identity, kept returning to the same refrain - ‘Wales does inclusive patriotism so well, we must learn from this’.

While I always find English exhortations to learn from Wales flattering, it rather misses the point. Welsh national identity is inclusive largely because of England, and it would be tone deaf to say the least to try and make its foundations the basis of Englishness.

National identity is an invented construct, but its foundations must at least make sense.


The trappings of Welshness were by and large invented during the nineteenth century as a response to the perceived Anglicisation of Welsh society, the retreat of the Welsh language, and the infamous Blue Books Reports into the ‘failings’ of Welsh education.

The backdrop was English domination and the fear that Welshness as a meaningful separate identity, even as a linguistic identity, would soon be swept away by the inexorable tide of English/British centralisation.

In many ways, when we don the bonnet on St David’s Day, belt out Cwm Rhondda and Calon Lan at the Principality Stadium, and crown our bard at the annual Eisteddfod, what we are announcing to the world, without sounding too blunt, is "we are not English".

It’s immediately obvious why that doesn’t form a basis for English national identity. Despite the protestations of some of the more vehement wings of English nationalism, England has not in any kind of recent memory been the victim of any sort of injustice that could be imagined and contorted into ‘national oppression’.

In fact, Englishness was at its most vibrant when it based itself upon its global strength- its industrial prowess, the incomparable size of its navy, and, perhaps most importantly, the sprawling maritime empire it haphazardly constructed over half a millennium.

This, of course, was not an English empire. It was a British one. And herein lies much of the conceptual weakness of modern inclusive Englishness. Empire was always a contested ideal within British society - its cost, its morality, its ultimate value to the ‘mother country’.


In order to justify itself, empire had to be more than an extension of territorial England - a concept that England’s neighbours could not truly share in, let alone diverse peoples spanning the globe. As Ian Baucom argues, it needed to become ‘British’, a much more malleable and inclusive concept that still retains an attraction to migrant communities that Englishness has never been able to achieve. Englishness as a territorial identity needed to banish itself in favour of the global, and more easily appropriated, brand of Britishness.

Having banished itself, postcolonial Englishness found it difficult to find itself again. And, having been based upon a foundation of power and dominance, found it even harder to form a collective identity that could have buy-in from modern England’s diverse communities.

Why would someone with South Asian heritage in Manchester, or someone with Black African heritage in London, wish to share in an identity which harked back to imperial conquest?

It must of course be remembered that many Welsh, Scottish and Irish people participated in and celebrated empire as enthusiastically as your average English person. And for the Welsh and Scottish in particular, contribution and loyalty towards the empire formed essential elements of their own identities up to the years of decolonisation.

But unlike Englishness, they had never banished themselves wholesale to the global cause of Britain, maintaining hybrid British/Welsh and British/Scottish identities throughout the late imperial period which could fairly easily be transformed again to deal with the death of empire and, conveniently, forget their own culpability for the crimes of that empire.

In order to be inclusive, identities need a concept that has near universal buy-in and can be molded and shaped to modern conditions. A buoyant Welshness that defines itself against the historical oppression of England, regardless of how accurate that really is, provides that concept, and allows people from all communities and all political stripes to celebrate their Welshness with seemingly very few problematic outcomes.

An Englishness still reemerging from the messiness of British imperialism provides a tougher challenge, with the current toxic debate around culture wars and Brexit symptoms of the fact that England has not yet collectively risen to that challenge. Englishness needs to find its inclusive hook, but it is abundantly obvious that whilst Wales may teach England a lot of things, how to be inclusive patriots may not be one of them.

Rhys Owens is a PhD student at Swansea University looking at the relatonship between Wales and the British Empire, with a focus on India.

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