English Nationalism: The Dog Barks, the Underdog Wails.

By James Addicott (2012, jamesaddi@hotmail.com)


As the 2012 Olympic games approach, England is once again reminded of its national identity crisis. In an article entitled English nationalism: Identity crisis The Economist wrote: ‘When England won the World Cup in 1966, most of their fans were content to wave the Union Jack—the flag of the United Kingdom—in support of the team. But when the European Championships were held in England 30 years later, it was the red cross of Saint George that was the flag of preference in the stands’ (The Economist 1998). Of Euro ’96 football tournament Heffer’s recalls ‘that actually my identity as a citizen was not a British identity: it was an English identity. I began to realise that I was very English’ (Heffer 2007, in English 2011). Kumar (2003) also notes of the World Cup in 1988 that ‘soccer observers were somewhat startled to find… that the Cross of St George had replaced the Union Jack as the emblem of English national identity’ and that ‘many black and Asian fans (were also) adopting the St George’s cross’ (262). There is something deeply symbolic, something that stirs the inside, when the Union Jack is juxtaposed to the St George’s cross. But does the symbolic gesture of waving a flag truly determine nationalism? Is it not just a sign of culture of national identity?

In terms of nationalism, Kumar (2000) states that ‘there is such a thing as “English nationalism.” Other nations have nationalism; the English, it has been conventional to say, have patriotism, royalism, jingoism, imperialism- but they do not know nationalism’ (576). However, following Tony Blair’s 1998 decision to enable the set up of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, sociological studies (IPPR, 2012; Tilley and Heath, 2007) have observed a reinvested interest in English politics and national identity. In 2003, Kumar citing a new wave of news and academic publications on the subject of English nationalism, also notes that, ‘the striking thing is that nationalism has finally caught up with the English’ (251). English nationalism, therefore, has been described as ‘the dog that didn’t bark’. The question this essay will address is: Has it started barking? This essay will argue that English nationalism is on the rise, however, in the current “liquid-modern” (Bauman, 2000) climate of increased individualisation, cosmopolitanism and globalisation make the issue English nationalism as confused and ambiguous as ever – especially in popular youth culture.

The English Dog Bit but didn’t Bark

“The English” dog is far from a pedigree breed but more like a mongrel, since the history of England, Britain, and The United Kingdom is a messy affair. Kumar (2006) sums up the complexity of the England’s history and identity by stating, ‘Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Scandinavians and Normans have poured over the land. Later came Jews and Huguenots and a new wave of Celts in the Irish. Later still, people from the British Empire and Commonwealth, whites from Australia, Canada and South Africa, black and Asians from Africa, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Hongkong’ (241). However, despite this historic complexity and multinational identity, Kumar researches history of Great Britain and the United Kingdom to discover England’s past. He defines the history of England in this way:

The English… created a land empire, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, formed by the expansion of England from its southern position at the base of the group of islands off the north-western coast of Europe (the “East Atlanticarchipelago”) And they created an overseas empire, not just once but twice: first in the western hemisphere, in North America and the Caribbean, and later in the East, in India, and South-East Asia. At its height, just after the First World War, this empire covered a fifth of the world’s surface and incorporated a quarter of its population. (2003: 588)

British imperialism and establishment of the British Empire was a violent and barbaric process that forcibly imposed British and European values, and was underpinned by racist notions of white-European superiority (see for example Degler, 1959; Shamsul; 2001; Hirschman, 1986). And for Kumar, the English mongrel was to be found at the heart of the pack.

     Colley retells the same historic process as a “British” conquest rather than English. To cite Colley: ‘Rich, landed, and talented males from Wales, Scotland, England, and to a lesser extent Ireland became welded after the 1770s into a single ruling class that intermarried, shared the same outlook, and took to itself the business of governing, fighting for, and profiting from greater Britain’ (1992: 325-326). Although the English could be found in the midst of this global invasion, it was essentially a joint effort shared between the British. Kumar makes a note of this “British” vs. “English” discrepancy and responds by stating in a footnote that ‘one could say that much of the dispute about the dating of English nationalism springs from a common failure to distinguish clearly enough between Englishness and Britishness’ (2000: 604). This is debate which was established by historian Pocock (1982) who states, ‘The average textbook with “British history” in the title is overwhelmingly…  concerned with the society and politics of the realm and culture know as “England”, conversely, ‘there are many… “histories of England”… written on the premise… that “English history” does not form part of a larger subject called “British history” (311-312). A point to which Colley remarks that ‘it has been his insistence on the need for study of the four component parts of the United Kingdom…that has generated the greatest interest among British historians’ (312). For the purposes of this essay, it can only be concluded from this debate that attempts to distinguish British from English nationalism are as historically ambiguous as they are in contemporary terms – the debate rages on.

     Nevertheless, a chapter of his book entitled English nationalism: the dog that did not bark? Kumar (2003) argues that historically, the English ‘were conscious that Britain and the empire were their creations. But rather than assertive, this made them cautious about instating on their national identity. ‘When you are in charge, or you think you are in charge, you do not go about beating the drum’ (179). Although the British we able to proudly sing in union, “Royal Britannia rules the waves…we shall never be slaves!” they English dog could do nothing but cower amongst the pack. Although, ‘Great Britain has always been an extraordinarily warlike state, and was for a long time both aggressively and successfully imperialistic’ (Colley, 1992: 311) determining historic nationalism is a grey area– as these debates prove.

How do we define “the English Dog”?

If we refer back to Colley’s (1992) idea that the British ruling class were composed of a union of elite English, Welsh, Scottish (and a few Irish), then Colley continues to argues the idea of ‘the Other’ as the basis of establishing “the British”:

…in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britishness was forged in a much wider context. Britons defined themselves in terms of their common Protestantism as contrasted with the Catholicism of Continental Europe. They defined themselves against France throughout a succession of major wars with that power. And they defined themselves against the global empire won by way of these wars. They defined themselves, in short, not just through an internal and domestic dialogue but in conscious opposition to the Other beyond their shores. (1992: 316)

     Put more simply, ‘we usually decide who we are by reference to who and what we are not’ (Colley, 316). English (IPPR, 2011) makes a similar argument to Colley by recognizing that, ‘If my national culture and history define who is within my community, then they also define who is outside – beyond and excluded from it’ (2). On this point of “otherness”, Beck (2006) takes a more postmodern stance by introducing the “neonationalism” as ‘an attempt to fix the blurred and shifting boundaries between internal and external, us and them’ (4). The “global citizen” is for Beck the ‘paradigm example of a determination of identity that has replaced the either/or logic with the both/and logic of inclusive differentiation’ (4-5). Similarly, Kumar argues that, ‘No longer, or at least with nothing of the same force, can Europe or any part of it play its historic role of ‘the Other’ (in forming the English national identity)’ (250). Beck continues to explain that the figure of the global citizen ‘constructs a model of one’s identity by dipping freely into the Lego set of globally available identities and building a progressively inclusive self-image’ (5). Kumar recognises that in contemporary debates around the English National Identity ‘a post-modernist way of thinking, the presence of so many diverse cultures within society allows for a ‘pick and mix’ attitude that might not mean not simply more variegated but also more provisional, constantly changing identities’ (2003: 242). Later on he refers to the Labour Parties mid-90s vision of  ‘Cool Britannia’ – ‘hip, cool, youth-oriented, innovative and entrepreneurial’ – hyper modern if not actually post-modern (254). These performative concepts of English national identity that this essay shall return to later.

English Nationalism vs. English National Identity

There are two ways that the social sciences can continue to study English nationalism: either as a political or military power, or, as a cultural or symbolic power. Richard English states, ‘an accurate appreciation of the political impact of New Englishness will depend on whether we are witnessing English nationalism, or instead the partly overlapping but politically less forceful phenomenon of English national identity’ (IPPR, 2011: 2). For him, ‘Nationalism – rather than national identity – requires the additional quality of struggle’, and, ‘(t) There simply is not the kind of significant, organised political struggle by English nationalists that the UK has seen in Ireland, in Scotland or in Wales (let alone in other settings of nationalist energy around the world)’ (5). Unlike, radical groups such as the UKIP, BNP, Welsh militants, and the IRA, the English Defense League’s (EDL) efforts have been significantly insignificant. To cite English: ‘the scale and impact of this effusion from angry England have been tiny’ (6). What we are left with is “Englishness”, which he describes as a ‘mere cultural sensibility’ (ibid).

     To some extent, the structure of English’s argument dichotomizes English nationalism and English national identity. He then splits the latter into politically banal culture (Englishness) on one hand, and then a more politically charged form of culture on the other. He argues that political and nationalistic struggles for power are ‘sometimes through cultural campaigns and organisations, or sometimes through the embedding of national ideas in repeated rituals and routines, and in the emblems built into national life and place’ (3, italics added). Therefore, English nationalism is partially separated from cultural aspects of English national identity and downgraded to a quainter form of “Englishness”. However, as a Professor of Politics and the Director of Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, writing for The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (‘the UK’s leading progressive think tank, producing cutting-­edge research and innovative policy ideas for a just, democratic and sustainable world’ (0)), it would make sense for English to show a biasness towards, and thus prioritise, political power struggles over cultural and symbolic influences.

Now, The English Dog Barks (?)

If English nationalism is identifiable by political opinion, then recent research has shown that there has been a fall in British national pride and a rise in English national pride as a result of political deformation. Tilley and Heath’s (2007) article The decline of British national pride presents the results of qualitative and quantitive which brings them to the conclusion that, ‘since the beginning of the 1980s, ‘there have been large declines in pride and that this is exclusively generational in nature; with more recent generations having substantially lower levels of pride in ‘Britishness’ than previous generations’ (661). In a similar light, Wyn Jones, Lodge, Henderson & Wincott’s article The Dog that Finally Barked (IPPR, 2012) shows a decline in British national pride and a growth of an English political community. They state that:

It has long been predicted that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would provoke an English ‘backlash’ against the anomalies and apparent territorial inequities of a devolved UK state… there are now signs that a stirring within England is beginning to take shape. The evidence presented here suggests the emergence of what might be called an ‘English political community’, one marked by notable concerns within England about the seeming privileges of Scotland, in particular, in a devolved UK, a growing questioning of the capacity of the current UK-level political institutions to pursue and defend English interests, and one underpinned by a deepening sense of English identity. (IPPR, 2012: 2)

Therefore, this combination of decline in British pride and rise in English pride, combined with immergence of an English political community, is taken as a sign that the English dog is barking.

     However, other sociologists have produced theories and research that suggests that classical nationalism is a concept that has changed since British imperialism or World War II. Fenton (2007), after analysing the findings of research into national identity in England (Bristol), concludes that, ‘it was impossible to escape the impression that considerable numbers of young adults were either not very interested in a question about national identity, articulated some kind of hostility to national labels, or rejected nation in favour of broader identities like ‘citizen of the world’. He then goes on to assert that, ‘(t) These responses all show some measure of ‘indifference’ to or ‘disregard’ for national identity’. If we are looking for intensity, commitment or emotional energy attaching to national identity, we do not find much among the young adults in this research’ (328).  Such findings are similar to what Tilley and Heath regard as a ‘generational shift in sentiments’ as their research also shows decline of British national pride. Fenton then relates such findings to Calhoun’s (1997) theories of modernisation and individualisation in which ‘all nationalisms make a direct appeal to the individual’ (Fenton, 2007: 323). ‘The institutional scaffolding capable of holding the nation together is thinkable increasingly as a do-it-yourself job’ (2001: 185), states Bauman who repeatedly refers to Margret Thatcher’s (1987) declaration that ‘There is no such thing as society’ (2000: 30). Conservative privatisation of Britain’s public sector during the 80s and the promotion of free market capitalism that resulted in a ‘Britain built on self-interested individualism’ (Richards, 1999, in Kumar 2003: 254), is a notion used to by Bauman to highlight the neoliberal ethos which underpins his consumerism-based theory. Referring back to Beck’s cosmopolitan argument, and Kumar’s ‘cool-Britannia’, then the issue of nationalism in these terms are associated with a consumerist, and performative form of ‘fashion-show’ identity; ambiguous neonationality; which flag shall I wear today?

Postmodern Performances of “Underdog” Nationalism

The British, as well and international audiences, have already seen the process of devolution simulated in popular British media. In the year that followed the release of the American blockbuster Braveheart (Gibson, 1995), which directed and staring Mel Gibson in the role of William Wallace and re-told (remediated) the thirteenth century story of Scottish defiance against English colonialism, Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996) was to set trends for a new type of cinematic representation of nationalism. Trainspotting – based on the (1993) novel by Irvine Welsh – tells the story of a group of heroine ‘junkies’ living in Edinburgh during the 1980s. The undercurrent of Scottish nationalism becomes most apparent in the film in a defining moment when the protagonist shouts at his friend in a very broad Scottish accent:

It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low! The scum of the fucking earth! The most miserable, wretched, servile, and pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization! Some people hate the English; I don’t! They’re just wankers! We on the other hand are just colonised by wankers! (We) Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by! Were ruled by a fleet of assholes!

Jeffer (2005) mentions that ‘a postcolonial interpretation reads the English-are-wankers as the most important feature of the passage’. She continues, ‘(t) The subtext of the passage is that the Scots have a national crisis of identity’ (91). Trainspotting was set during the Thatcher era, then this growing resentment towards the English can be explained sociologically. Tilley and Heath (2007) comment on their research findings that ‘One unexpected effect of the Thatcherite brand of nationalism may thus have been rising hostility in Scotland… towards a shared national identity in which they were politically marginalized’ (671). This would explain the reason why the Scottish faced a national crisis of identity during the Thatcher era, but why the ‘lowest of the low’? An alternative view is presented by Farred (2004) who describes Trainspotting the move and novel as expressing the voice of ‘disaffected, the postmodern, postindustrial Scottish junkie-as-critic who rejects the romance of his nation’s history in favor of a scathing attack on Scotland’s historic anti-Englishness’ (217). Rather than forming an identity ‘Othered from’ Thatcher’s England, Farred suggests that Scottish nationalism in the film is a subsumed by a punk-rock form of nihilistic nationalism.
     However, from an ‘underdog’ perspective, if the English themselves are low, and the Scottish become ‘the lowest of the low!’ In terms of Otherness, a subversive form of underdog identity is constructed by comparing the “shite-ness” of one country to another. This perspective would suggest that by painting a dreary, bleak, nihilistic picture of Scottish sub-culture, and combining the agony of the 80s Scottish identity crisis, it also manages to construct a rhetorical sense of national pride through its use of black humour and a “heroine-chic” mise en scene. It is due to a humorous process of ‘self-deprecation’ (a term used by Kate Fox, 2005) that Trainspotting has now reached cult status and continues to influence moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

     In 2006, the English were to release a film that is comparable to Trainspotting­ in many ways. This Is England (Meadows, 2006) was funded by the UK Film Council in association with the national lottery and won three Oscars at the 2008 BAFTAs. Set on a council estate during the 1980s, the film tell the story of an adolescent working class boy who joins a group of older skinheads as the result of being bullied. The English gang are represented as a “mixed-up-bunch” since they are tattooed with Nazi swastikas, listen to a form Jamaican reggae called ‘Ska’, and have a mixed-raced (English-Jamaican) friend in their gang called “Milky”. The plots juncture comes when gang is then broken up into two camps after the gang’s former leader returns from prison. This, causes a radical division between the far right / left political spectrums. Under the rule of their new far right-winged leader, the remaining members of the gang are taken to an BNP meeting. From this point on the gang begin to controversially incorporate the St George’s cross as a part of their identity as they begin viciously robbing and attacking Pakistanis on the council estate. Othered from left-wing politics, Pakistanis and Indian’s, racial, nationalistic, and unemployment frustration bonds the group together. Eventually, racial tensions amount and the right-winged leader beats mix-raced Milky to death. The closing scenes of the film show the adolescent male protagonist symbolically denouncing the violence of far-right skinhead fascism by throwing a flag of the St George’s into the sea. In 2003, “This is England” symbolically broke ties with the far right politics in favour of a more stylised, romantic, notion of liberal humanist, punk-nihilistic, and multiculturalist England.

     The common themes that link Trainspotting and This is England are firstly, the darker and more sinister aspects of council estate and unemployment culture are glamorised through a dark-humored process of ‘self-deprecation’ into a new form of ‘underdog’ ideology. Nationalism in both movies is denounced in favour of a nihilistic form of punk culture. Lastly, both films present the issue of group solidarity vs. individualism in the context of 1980s Thatcherism. Both films represent a desperate attempt on behalf of the Scotts and the English youth to forge a sub-cultural ‘underdog’ identity in an era of deformation. By challenging nationalism, both films present audiences with newer subversive forms of national ideologies.


 This essay has presented two notions of English nationalism. On one hand, there exists as ‘solid-modern’ form of nationalism that has researched a rise in English nationalism by placing value on political and often violent displays of nationalism that have downplayed English national identity, Englishness, or English culture. Nevertheless, research into these areas seems to show a decline in British nationalism and a rise in English nationalism. On the other hand, English nationalism viewed as a liquid-postmodern, media-orientated, or cultural form of power reveals two things. Firstly, there has been a rise in nationalism presented as a more subversive and self-deprecating form of nationalistic empowerment. However, secondly, as theorists such as Bauman and Beck might confer, there has also been a rise in ambiguity as the result of postmodern processes of increased individualisation, cosmopolitanism, consumerism, and globalisation. As a consequence, English nationalism, or ‘Cool Britannia-ism’ has become a ‘click and choose’ process of performative nationality – which flag shall I wear today? Ambiguity is the English national trait and choosing which flag to brandish or which nationality to be proud of is not a dilemma the ‘ever-day’ English are unused to. Ultimately, and unfortunately this essay cannot foresee the outcome; it will be interesting for media and cultural theorists and symbolic constructionists is if politically studies into the issue of nationalism will notice rise in British nationalism during and in the wake of this years Olympic games.


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