THE BLOG

Who Wants Four New Saints' Day Bank Holidays?

24/04/2017 16:49 BST | Updated 25/04/2017 09:31 BST

Labour plans for four new saints' day bank holidays break new ground. It's an England-only policy (because the devolved administrations decide their own bank holidays). It's not just an English holiday for St George's Day; everyone in England would get to celebrate all the other British saints' days too. This would probably make England the first nation to have more national holidays for other nations than for its own.

The underlying assumption may be that identities stemming from the other UK nations are so strong that a purely English holiday would be too divisive. But how true is that? New research from the Centre for English Identity and Politics, and Prof Richard Webber of Newcastle University sheds some intriguing light on what happens to the Welsh, Scottish and Irish when they move to England. By matching nearly 6,000 responses to a YouGov poll to a data base of 25,000 surnames, it's possible to see how the 'national identity' of English residents varies according to their nation of origin. The results will surprise a lot of people.

The survey confirms that increasing tendency to be more English than British. 34% of all respondents are 'predominantly English' and only 19% predominantly British. (38% say they are equally English and British). Celebrating England's national day would be in line with the national mood.

Not surprisingly, the most strongly English are those with English surnames whose family names originated in the same part of England where they now live. (If you're called Webber, for example, your family almost certainly lived in Devon or a neighbouring county at the time of the 1881 census). 38% of these less mobile families say they are predominantly English. Others with English surnames are also strongly English (36% predominantly English).

It's the Celts who are threw up the most surprisingly responses. Those with Welsh, Scottish and Irish heritage are somewhat less likely to say they are English, but not as much as you might think. And, like the English in England, they are much more likely to say they are English than British. Those with Scottish heritage surnames are 34% predominantly English and only 20% predominantly British. The Welsh are 31% English and 22% British, and the Irish are more English (30%) than British (18%). (To be fair, one in seven of those with Irish surnames don't identify with British or English, much more than the rest of England's population.)

We need to be cautious about drawing too many firm conclusions. It's a reasonable assumption, though, that over time the influence of those around you has a stronger impact on your family's sense of identity than your own origins and history. The limited data on much newer migrants goes in the same direction. British dominates amongst BAME groups but, even here, over 60% share some level of English identity.

By bending over backwards to reflect the identity of all the different UK 'tribes' living in England, Labour may have underestimated the extent to which English is now the most widely shared identity.

Given that only 12% of our sample of British surnames were Scottish, 8% Welsh and 5% Irish, and given how English they feel, it is worth asking whether these minority identities justify an English bank holiday.

Still, it would be wrong to be curmudgeonly. Most people have multiple identities. It's highly likely that Celtic migrants combine their heritage with their English or British identity. What most English people want is not that everyone should just be English, but that Englishness should be accorded the same respect as other identities.

Labour has often seemed uncomfortable acknowledging English identity. Gordon Brown strongly resisted ministers like me who wanted to argue for a St George's Day holiday. Ed Miliband dipped in, and out, of Englishness. This may be changing. On St George's Day Mayor Sadiq Khan declared he was 'proud to be a Londoner, proud to be English', a symbolic statement in what some assume is only a cosmopolitan British city. Putting England up there with the other UK nations is a real step forward.

Prof John Denham is director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, and a former Labour MP and minister