There has always been some confusion about national identity and citizenship in the United Kingdom.  According to the constitution, the people of the U. K. are not citizens of any state, but subjects of Her Majesty the Queen, though as a necessary adjustment to post-absolutist reality, they are referred to as U.K citizens. The official designation of the U.K. is: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Great Britain as distinct from the U.K. includes England, Scotland and Wales – but not Northern Ireland.  As a recent outburst of nationalistic fervour in Belfast makes clear, nowhere in the British Isles is the Union flag waved with more enthusiasm than by protestant unionists in that city, which is not part of Great Britain. In a way that would be inconceivable in any other European country, it is quite common for U.K. citizens when completing official documents requiring them to state their nationality, to hesitate, being uncertain whether to describe themselves as British – or English, Welsh or Scottish.  United Kingdom citizenship is complicated because of Northern Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland fall mainly into two communities –Protestant and Roman Catholic. This is not the place to go into the problems that have beset the province because of the division between those two communities. Suffice it to say that had the island of Ireland achieved independence as a united state following the civil war of 1922 – 1923, the matter of British nationality would have been rather less intractable than it has been. The peace accords known as the Good Friday Agreement (1998) affirmed that “It is the birth right of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both as they may choose, and accordingly [the two governments] confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.” According to U.K nationality law, most of those born in Northern Ireland, whether or not they choose it, are U.K. nationals. The exceptions are those living in Northern Ireland, who do not have at least one parent born there.

So we have in one part of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland) among a population numbering 1.8 million, a very large, and growing minority of Catholics who regard themselves as Irish. They have the right to claim both British and Irish nationality and very many of them exercise this right, possessing British EU and Irish EU passports.  All UK citizens in Northern Ireland have this right, but apparently very few of the Protestant population choose to apply for Irish nationality. It is a curious situation which could, before too long result in a Catholic majority that could tip the balance at the ballot box in favour of a united Ireland.

The 2011 census conducted in England and Wales has produced some interesting data. This Letter from the UK will be concerned mainly with the impact some of the changes since the last census in 2001 have had on our understanding of English identity. The population of the UK as a whole now exceeds 60 million. It is not evenly spread. Scotland has a population of 5.2 million; Wales 3 million and Northern Ireland 1.8 million – a total of around 10 million. If Northern Ireland is excluded, the population of Great Britain is 60.452 million. 52.2 million people live in England. Of those,   8.174 million (about 12.5%) live in London.  The population of the London Metropolitan area is between 12 and 14 million - far bigger than the combined populations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  This is the most populous conurbation in the whole of the E.U. Some idea of the scale of this concentration of population in and around the London area may be gained from comparing it with the next six most populous cities in England. Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bradford and Liverpool have combined populations of about 3 million. England has now displaced the Netherlands as the most densely populated country in Europe.

What does the new census tell us about the English, or, more accurately, about the population of England? Between 1993 and 2011, the number of people living in England who were born outside the U.K. nearly doubled, increasing from 3.8 million to 7 million. The demographics for England and Wales show that 8.5 million people were born outside those parts of the U.K. Of these, 6.3 million were from other parts of Europe (mainly Poland and Ireland but also from elsewhere in Eastern Europe), from Asia and Africa. 1.66 million were from the Americas (North and South) and from other parts of the British Isles.   

The religious beliefs of the population have also changed.  Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of the population self-identifying as Christians had fallen from 72% to 59%. Of the minority religions, by far the biggest advance has been in the number of Muslims in the population, an increase from 3% in 2001 to 5% (2.7m) 2011, exceeding by one million the combined numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs. But the most striking increase has been in those identifying as having no religion at all. In 2001 15% claimed to have no religion; by 2012 this had grown to 25% (14m).  Those without religious belief are now the second largest denomination behind Christians, outnumbering all the other religions combined.

As 52m of the U.K.’s 62m people (about 84%) live in England, with the greatest concentration of population (12m – 14m) in the London area, it is interesting to speculate about what it means to be English in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Speculation it must be, because the census did not, and could not be expected to, provide any evidence that might throw light on this. Given the melange of ethnicities, religious beliefs, languages and national origins that now go to make up the population of England, how meaningful is it to think that there can be any such thing as a universally accepted notion of English identity? Probably not very.  However, sixty years ago, before the beginning of large scale Commonwealth immigration into Britain, it was taken for granted by most people that to be English meant, among much else, to be white. It has recently been suggested (for example: The English, bereft of history, have lost their self-respect. Martin Kettle. The Guardian, 13 December 2012) that the English “national narrative has been sorely neglected” and therefore, unlike the Irish and the Scots, the English are losing, or have already lost, their sense of national identity. On the extreme right, expressed in terms of barely disguised (and often undisguised) racism, it is claimed that, as being white is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of being English, the national identity of the English is being drowned in a rising tide of non-white or otherwise alien immigration. This view finds its most aggressive expression in fascist organizations such as the British national Party and the English Defence League, which direct their fire mainly at Muslims. But it is also expressed in barely less strident tones by UKIP – the UK Independence Party.

It is hardly surprising that large numbers of migrants into Britain know little or nothing of British history. Many speak little or no English. The Secretary of State for Education is of the opinion that the teaching of British history in state schools has been woefully neglected for far too long. He has a point. But the remedy he proposes is to return to the practice that prevailed sixty or more years ago, which amounts to the indoctrination of schoolchildren with a version of “our island story”,  originally intended to instil in them pride in Kings/Queens, Country and Empire.  This version of British history eschewed most social movements, neglected the seventeenth century civil war (denying that there was ever an English revolution) made short shrift of eighteenth and nineteenth century radicalism and marginalised the Chartists. It presented the British Empire as a great boon to the peoples fortunate enough to fall within its orbit. The English parliamentary system was a near-flawless model which the rest of the world would do

well to imitate.  The disappearance of this version of the “national narrative” from the school curriculum is no loss. The question is, should it be replaced with a different approach to the teaching of British and English history, or is the hodgepodge of unrelated modules that constitutes the history syllabus in schools and colleges good enough?

Is it important that people living in any country, assuming, if they are new arrivals, that they intend to remain and seek to become citizens, should be able to speak the language and have knowledge of the history and culture of that country?  Obviously it is. Therefore all children, whether native born or not, should be made aware of the national narrative of the country. This is true of England and of Britain, just as it is of any country. Without some such knowledge, it is difficult to see how a sense of national identity can be achieved. The question is not whether a national narrative should be taught, but what the narrative should contain. It is also obvious that unless the English national narrative is effectively located within a wider, international context, it will inevitably be deficient.

Ignorance of English and British history is widespread among native born white British as well as amongst new arrivals in Britain. Unless this is remedied, the great majority of children who attend state schools will remain largely ignorant about, and possibly uninterested in, the history of their own country. The top public (private) schools will continue to produce an expensively- educated, well-informed elite who will proceed seamlessly to the elite universities and go on to occupy top positions in the administration of state and government. In this state of affairs, there will always be exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule.