The Blog

London and the English

As English nationalism comes out of the closet, cosmopolitan London increasingly appears a place apart.

Romanians and Bulgarians will gain the right to move to the UK in 2014 and Ukip is tapping into popular fears that there will be a new wave of east European migration to Britain. It may increase the pressure David Cameron faces from backbench MPs to call a referendum on Europe in his speech this Friday. The immigration and Europe questions reflect a distinct new English nationalism, which is opening up a rift between cosmopolitan London and the rest of England.

Recently released 2011 census results show over 60% of England's population identify as English Only rather than British. In Wales, the comparable figure for Welsh Only is only 58%. The high Englishness score can partly be explained by question wording and ordering: in surveys which ask a more subtle question, there remains an even split between English and British identity. Nevertheless, to have English identity so boldly affirmed on the census represents a coming-of-age for a long obscured nation.

England's rise has not been uniform. Work that Gareth Harris and I are undertaking for our ESRC/Demos project shows that London, together with cosmopolitan college towns like Oxford and Cambridge, is standing against the English tide.

Source: Census of England and Wales 2011 (Office of National Statistics), own manipulations.

The most obvious reason for London's exceptionalism is its ethnic diversity. We won't know for sure until census microdata are released in 2014, but most ethnic minorities seem to have ticked the 'British Only' box while Europeans selected 'Other.' Some ethnic minorities have embraced English identity: the borough of Newham is 20.7% 'English Only' despite being just 16.7% white British. However, some of this could be down to people ticking the first box on their form. Effectively, most ethnic minorities and whites who lack British ancestry don't feel very English. This is obvious when we consider the least English areas of England, which are mainly ethnically diverse London boroughs.

But this is not the only factor. A quick glance at the figures shows that the difference between the most ethnically homogeneous borough, Redcar and Cleveland, and the least, Newham, is 80 points. By contrast, the gap between the most English Only borough, Castle Point, and the least, Brent, is just 57 points. Statistically, the share of ethnic minorities and Europeans in a borough explains much, but not all, the variation in Englishness around the country.

This brings us to an interesting quiz night question: where in England are people most likely to identify as Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Cornish rather than English? Corby, or 'Little Scotland', has a third of its population of Scottish descent, many more of Irish descent, a die-hard legion of Glasgow Rangers fans and an Asda that sells 17 times as much Irn Bru as the English average. But its white British folk are more English in their identity than those in parts of London. 20% of the white British and Irish-origin people in London's multicultural borough of Brent report Celtic national identity. This is well ahead of Cornwall's 16.6% and Corby's 14.45%. Chardonnay-swilling Islington, at 12%, is only slightly less Celtic. The rest of the top ten are all in London.

Celtic identifiers as share of white British and Irish population. Source: Census of England and Wales 2011 (Office of National Statistics), own manipulations.

While London is the capital of Britain and undoubtedly contains many aspiring folk from the Celtic periphery, the presence of actual Celts cannot explain the difference. Better here to invoke the late Bernard Crick, the founder of my department of Politics at Birkbeck, who identified as a Scot despite having no Scottish roots, not having been born there, nor having a Scottish accent. A Greater London Authority official whom I recently met reflects this outlook well: he considered himself a Londoner of Irish heritage. A multicultural environment can stimulate a defensive English identity, but for those with cosmopolitan or liberal-left proclivities, it prompts them to identify with the more exotic or oppressed bits of their heritage. The same is true among whites in the United States, a phenomenon known as optional ethnicity. Those on the cosmopolitan coasts and left-leaning Upper Midwest tend to identify with a European ancestry while most in Republican 'Red' states report themselves as white or 'American' on the census.

Finally there are white British people who prefer to think of themselves as British Only rather than English Only. This is extremely tricky to unpick without census microdata because minorities often identify as British. But the data reveal that southern middle-class places are more British, gritty northern ones more English. This difference matters less for Englishness than ethnic composition and Celticity, but it certainly counts.

As English nationalism comes out of the closet, cosmopolitan London increasingly appears a place apart.