Is this England?

“Two thousand years this little tiny fucking island has been raped and pillaged, by people who have come here and wanted a piece of it. Two fucking world wars men have laid down their lives for this. For this… and for what? So we can stick our fucking flag in the ground and say, “Yeah! This is England. And this is England [points at heart], and this is England [points to head]… and for what? For what now? Hey? What for?

 “So we can just open the fucking flood gates and just let them all come in and say, “Yeah come in, get off your ship. Did you have a safe journey? Was it hard was it? Yeah, here’s a corner why don’t you build a shop? Better still why don’t you build a shop and then build a church? Follow your own fucking religions, do what you want…

 “When there’s single fucking parents out there who can’t get a fucking flat and they’re being given to these – and I’m gonna say it people, I’m gonna say it cause you’re gonna have to hear it – we’re giving the flats to these fucking Pakis, right, who’ve got 50 and 60 in a fucking flat on their own, right. We’re giving that to them. There’s three and a half million unemployed out there, three and a half million of us who can’t find fucking work because they’re taking them all cause it’s fucking cheap labour, cheap and easy labour.”

                        An extract from Shane Meadows’ film This is England

Meadows’ England is a white working-class England, a grey miserable place, plagued by unemployment and resentment of immigrant ‘others’. The film portrays 1980’s white communities struggling to come to terms with their country’s ‘new’ ethnic and cultural diversity[1]. At the same time as adopting West Indian music as their own, the youthful protagonists are tempted into radical right-wing politics and become involved in a hate campaign against the growing Asian community, who they describe as “vermin”. Clearly many things have changed since the early 80’s when the film is set, Thatcher is no longer with us and the fashion has certainly moved on, and yet, as Combo shouts “These people think we owe them a living!” 1982/3 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away. The hatred and fear of immigrants and nationalist sentiment portrayed in the film is brutal, leaving the viewer hoping that this is not England… at least not anymore.

England is the largest and most populous of the four countries which make up the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, however, an ‘English’ identity sits uneasily with many of England’s inhabitants. This uneasiness is, among other things, evident in the apparent irrelevance of St. George’s Day, which unlike other Patron Saints’ Days (for example, the ever popular St. Patrick who is celebrated across the world and has his own public holiday in Ireland), goes largely unnoticed by the majority of England’s population. As another 23rd April comes and goes, again it is discussed whether St.   George’s Day should be made a national holiday and yet a national day of English celebration remains elusive[2]. It often seems that the only place left for ‘Englishness’ in England is the great sporting venues of Lords, Wembley and Twickenham, and even here the anthem sung at the beginning of every game is British, not English. While the Scottish and Welsh people are free to be just that, the English are somehow not able to assert an English identity, or perhaps they feel uncomfortable doing so.

 So why is an ‘English’ identity so uncomfortable for some people to wear?

 Many argue that ‘Englishness’, and particularly the St. George’s Cross, has too many historical ties to nationalist and far-right political movements to be a symbol of national pride. A 2012 survey carried out by think-tank British Future found that 24% of English people consider the flag to be racist, with a third of under-40s associating the flag with racism and extremism. Displaying a St George’s Cross on your house or your car can be misconstrued as racist and the internet is flooded with examples of people being warned to take down England flags or being banned from displaying them. The nationalist and racist connotations associated with ‘Englishness’ have tainted it to the point where pride in an English identity has for many been superseded by pride in ‘Britishness’ which strives to be a fully inclusive civic identity. Interestingly, only 61% of English people associate pride with the England flag (compared to 80% who feel proud of the Union Flag).

The St George’s Cross’ racist and nationalist connotations are to some extent the result of its use by far-right groups like the EDL. England, rather than Britain, has been the subject of nationalist and far-right rhetoric for decades. For example, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech made a clear distinction between the “decent, ordinary fellow Englishman” and the immigrants; the idea that an immigrant could one day become decent, ordinary Englishman was not considered. ‘English’ was understood to be the contrary of Britain’s Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities. As Norman Tebbitt, Conservative MP, once told British-Trinidadian TV presenter Darcus Howe, “We are both British, but only I am English”.

March for England protesters. Published by The Argus 21/04/2013

March for England protesters. Published by The Argus 21/04/2013

English’ is apparently not Black, Asian, Muslim or immigrant so “Who, or what, is English?”Robert Mann asks himself this very question in his 2011 paper. While a variety of meanings were identified, Mann found that people generally understand and define ‘Englishness’ by talking about people with ‘Englishness’ defined by the presence or absence of non-English others. When talking to people about their local area people also used the term ‘English’ to refer to the white ethnic majority with ‘English’ places considered antithetical to multicultural ones. These findings led Mann to suggest that while Britishness is an inclusive civic identity ‘English’ is more of an ethnic categorisation. Similar comments have also been made by Condor, Gibson and Abell.

In her 2007 article Bridget Byrne suggests that national identity “is one modality through which white British people, particularly white English people, talk about race”. So, instead of describing someone as ‘white’, one can talk about them as being ‘English’ thereby avoiding the taboo subject of race and colour altogether. This is also discussed in Mann’s article as he suggests that the common link between ‘Whiteness’ and Englishness is not necessarily a result of an intentional exclusion of ethnic minorities from a national English identity but a result of the uncertainty that many people have about how to name the white ethnic majority.

What does this mean for minorities and migrants?

“I see myself as British, um because, even though I was born here, society has shown me, has led me to believe that I’m British. Not that I’m English, that I’m British. The way that I look at it, just because of what I’ve seen, just through working, going to school and working in, you know, in England, you are British, you’re not English. English people are white, that’s how we see English people, they’re white.”

(Interview extract with a Black British women in Byrne’s 2002 chapter)

The interview extract above shows how restrictive an English identity can be to someone who is not white. However, not everyone sees Englishness as limited by race. In her book Watching the English, Kate Fox argues that “Englishness is not a matter of birth, race, colour or creed: it is a mindset, an ethos, a behavioural ‘grammar’”. The book is based on Fox’s observation of ‘the English’ who she claims can be defined by their “social dis-ease”, “humour”, “moderation”, “hypocrisy”, outlook of “empiricism”, “Eeyorishness”, “class-consciousness” and values of “fair play”, “courtesy” and “modesty”. Her confidence that ‘Englishness’ is about culture and behaviour, not colour, is undoubtedly encouraging for ethnic minority Britons and immigrants who are excluded from imaginings of quintessential (white) Englishness yet given the findings of Mann and others it is surely much harder for non-white English men and women to be regarded as such, given the deep-rooted racial connotations of Englishness.

What the distinction is between ‘Britishness’ and ‘Englishness’ continues to spark academic and political debate. Opinion polls show that it is generally accepted among the British public that one need not be white to be British, and increasing numbers of people also accept that immigrants can become British[3]. However, evidence from qualitative research (such as that by Mann and Byrne) as well as my own personal experience suggests that ‘Englishness’ is a much more restrictive and ethnically determined national identity than British ever has been or ever will be. There is certainly more to Englishness than place of birth, or residence and that certain something that makes it a lot less open to immigrant identification. So, as another St. George’s Day comes and goes and again the English Defence League march ‘for England’, we can but hope that the racism and anti-immigrant brutality depicted in Meadows’ film This is England is no longer England.

Further Reading

Aughey, A. (2007) The Politics of Englishness. Manchester University Press, UK

Byrne, B. (2007) “How English am I?” in Empire and After: Englishness in postcolonial perspective, ed. Poddar, P. McPhee, Graham, Oxford, New York: Berghahn

Condor, S., Gibson, S. and Abell, J. (2006) English identity and ethnic diversity in the context of UK constitutional change in Ethnicities 6(2):1468-7968

Fox, K (2005) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hachette, UK.

Mann, R. (2011) ‘It just feels English rather than multicultural’: local interpretations of Englishness and non-Englishness in The Sociological Review 59(1):109–128

[1] England has always been a diverse nation but following mass-migration from the colonies after 1945 the foreign born population of the UK soared. The situation became highly political, especially as immigrants from the new Commonwealth were visibly different from white immigrants from Europe and the Old Commonwealth.

[2] According to the IPPR 73% of people in England want St George’s Day to be a public holiday – most likely replacing the May Day holiday. The percentage of those who would say yes to any bank holiday was not given.

[3] Opinion polls consistently show that people do not think being White is important to being British (only 6% of people agree that being white is important to being British); however, research which does not involve direct questioning about the important of race has shown that whiteness .


  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
    Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this info for my mission.


  2. Having grown up in a predominantly white, working class industrial & mining area I have these sentiments myself regarding immigrants. Five generations of my family struggled as trade union members, worked 12 hour shifts on docks and in furnaces, fought in wars and politics to espablish a welfare state for their children and grandchildren, this country was built on their idea of health and safety, a living wage, paid holidays and state provided healthcare. Watching this culture of English workers rights to solidarity and equality being both culturally and politically undermined by a cynical and calculated immigration policy is appalling to me.

    Everything generations of English families worked for, all those years of toil in mines and mills and on ships has been stretched to breaking, handed over to immigrants who are prepared to work for NO LIVING WAGE & go home to Eastern Europe with money or in the case of poor Islamic immigrants settle, fraudulently claim dole, not learn English AND work within various family owned ghetto community business’ once foot is in the door. It’s not surprising the original working class people are fucking pissed off.

    Their English/British (lets not split identity hairs) grandparents fought in wars and in sweat to build the council houses and the NHS. Just to watch the capitally elite politicians pressurise it to breaking point by shipping in loads of piss poor unskilled immigrants and then privatise it to their cronies chunk by chunk by claiming it costs too much.

    There are fully NHS trained, newly qualified 20 year old nurses in this country who can’t get jobs, because the hospital trusts are outsourcing to agencies who bring in immigrant nurses to work for low pay, no rights and zero hour contracts. Angry white young men?

    What amazes me is that the politicians are not being dragged through the streets yet by the working class of this country. Islamification of secular English communities is obviously going to be as unwelcome as any large scale aggressive occupying culture would be. A political ideology couched in religion, that segregates itself culturally but expects to participate in the larger social benefit is absolutely contrary to the secular values of traditional, socially minded, equality loving English/British community.

    This piece fails to address the slow undermining and eradication of the culture that built this country from the bottom up and the sacrifices made by the working class through generations in order to uplift it’s own children and secure them a better future.


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