You could be forgiven for missing the poll on Britishness contained in this month’s Prospect Magazine. It’s buried in a series of articles about the UK’s involvement in the European Union.
Yougov found that people in England who identify primarily as British are less likely to want to leave the EU, while people who describe themselves first as English are much more likely to want immediate withdrawal.
It’s hardly a startling revelation that nationalism often coincides with euroscepticism. More eye-catching is the break-down in the number of people who identify first as British / English. This survey suggests that over 60% of people in England view themselves primarily as English rather than British. That compares to just over 40%, as recently as 2008.
Again, you might say it’s hardly surprising in a post-devolution UK, with nationalist politics influential in Cardiff and dominating governments in Edinburgh and Belfast, that Britishness is being eroded. The extent of that decline, though, should be a major cause for worry.
Arthur Aughey recently wrote that English nationalism is, as yet, still a mood rather than a movement, but the poll seems to confirm that the mood is being nurtured by an aggressive assertion of Scots’ nationalism north of the border.
It would be wrong to infer that there is not still a major disconnect between Scottish nationalists’ constitutional aspirations and those of the bulk of Scottish people. The SNP has acquired a reputation for delivering competent government, which has brought electoral success. That is its mandate, but it doesn’t stop Salmond et al from pursuing another agenda.
The forbearance of English public opinion is generally quite remarkable, but constant attrition from Holyrood can’t help but affect attitudes south of the border. And the same process is taking place to a lesser extent between London and Belfast, with the Stormont executive dominated by Irish Nats and Ulster Nats.
None of this is fatal for the Union, of course. The British identity can comfortably exist alongside its component identities. Nor can it necessarily be assumed that the figures can be explained simply as an expression of English resentment at the lack of collegiate spirit from other corners of the Union. The financial crisis has thrown at least one more element into the mix.
The fact remains, though, that English support for the Union can’t be taken for granted. There’s a need to make a positive case not only for the United Kingdom, but also for a sense of Britishness itself. The identity which explains the interlocking history of these islands, the political institutions which define our citizenship and the cultural similarities which we share.