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So just who are the English ?    

Just who - or what - are the English? That is a very good question, and one which nowadays the English themselves find it hard to answer. While the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish each seem able to define themselves by some form of national identity, the English cannot.  So who are they? And why is there no real "English" identity within the United Kingdom?
Who are the English ?
             What do we mean by the word "English"? There is, of course, the language - the one that has become the world's main means of verbal communication. But what about "the English" - in the sense of people from England?
    Ask a Cockney from London, or a Brummie from Birmingham, or a Geordie from Newcastle about their nationality, and he or she will most probably answer "English". Yet look at his or her passport, and you'll see that it is a "British" passport, defining the holder as a citizen of the United Kingdom. Nowhere is there any mention of the word "England".
     Now of course the same contradiction exists for the Scots, the Northern Irish and the Welsh; they too are all "British", and "citizens of the United Kingdom"; but they too will quite probably tell you that they are from Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Wales; and in saying that, they are relating themselves to a very clearly defined national identity.
    Everyone knows what Scotland is, and who the Scots are. Within the United Kingdom, Scotland is well defined, and there can be no ambiguity about the meaning of the adjectives Scottish and Scots; Scotland has its national symbols, its tartans, its accents, its regional newspapers, and - since 1999 - its national parliament.
    The Welsh too know who they are; Wales has its strong cultural traditions, its language which is taught in all Welsh schools, and its regional assembly. As for the people of Northern Ireland, even in this divided community people know who and what they are; indeed the feeling of national identity runs more strongly here than in any other part of the UK - with the problem that the province contains two groups of people, with two conflicting ideas about their national identity... which has caused a lot of trouble.
    But what of the English? Though people from England readily talk of themselves as being "English", ask them what "English" means, and they will often hesitate.
    "Well, British," is a common response; and indeed for years the English have tended to treat the two terms as synonyms - which of course they are not. The confusion is understandable; of the United Kingdom's 63 million inhabitants, over 53 million - or 84% - live in England, meaning that England is and always has been the dominant power or partner among the nations of the United Kingdom. Scotland, the second largest nation, has just 5.3 million inhabitants, or 8.6% of the total population.
    With a permanent and absolute majority of people and power within the United Kingdom, the English, until recently, were not really bothered by questions of national identity. England was Britain, and London the capital of both. During the time of the Empire, leaders from all parts of Britain were far too busy with international affairs, to worry too much about national identities. In the 19th century, only the Irish (in those days part of the UK) were struggling to establish their own national identity - which they attained in 1921.
    Today things are very different. There is no more Empire, and Britain is just a nation like many others. Since the 1970's Scots and Welsh nationalists have helped revive the national identities of their parts of Britain. Today, every nation in the United Kingdom has its own national parliament or assembly... with one exception: England.
    Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that the English have started to question their own identity. Just what is England? and who are the English? Two good questions.

Identity and diversity

Queen Elizabeth IIQueen Elizabeth was often called the "Queen of England" 
 The fact that a country is diverse does not mean that it cannot have a clear national identity. Countries like France or the USA are very diverse; but England, unlike these others, is neither a "state" (with a head of state and a constitution), nor does it have a "national" culture to distinguish it. The English language is not a sign of national identity, as it is the native language of 360 million people worldwide; and the "Queen of England" is not the English head of state, she is the head of state of Britain and several other countries too.

    Under such circumstances, England's lack of national identity is understandable, if not inevitable. In his bestselling book, The English, Jeremy Paxman suggested  that Englishness is really a state of mind. This is perhaps going too far; England exists, and in spite of its diversity it has a geographic identity.
    Does it need more? Maybe not. Writing in the Independent newspaper, David Aaronovitch (an Englishman whose father was of London Jewish origin and whose mother came from the rural south west) concluded: "Maybe the English are one of the first post-national nations, with much of our identity defined by our ability not to exclude, but to include, and not by the history of our country, but by the possibilities it offers."
    Maybe. But not everyone would agree with that.

The English - a short history

John BullThe character of John Bull is a confusing stereotype. He is the cartoon Englishman, but he wears a British flag. 
For almost 300 years, a fictitious character by the name of John Bull has been used as a representation of the " true Englishman", as if the "English" were a homogenous race of people.
    They are not. In reality, the English are among the more diverse races in Europe.
    The "Angles", who gave their name to the country, were people from northern Germany, who came over with the Saxons and the Jutes during the "Dark Ages", over 1200 years ago,  conquered the "British", who were Celts, and established their settlements. They were soon followed by Vikings, from Scandinavia, who occupied a large part of eastern Britain. The last successful invasion of England came in  1066, when William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, defeated the English armies, had himself crowned king of England, and established a new Anglo-Norman state in which everyone important spoke French.
    Since that time, England has never again been invaded or colonised by people from across the sea; yet in ethnic terms, England has continued to evolve. During the Middle Ages, large numbers of men and women came to England from Flanders, to work in the cloth trade; there were also Jews from Europe, who kept coming to England over the centuries. In the 17th Century, thousands of French Huguenot Protestants fled from religious persecution and came to England, adding 1% to the total British population, and considerably more in the south of England where most of them settled.
    In the twentieth century, many more people emigrated to England: victims of Nazi and Stalinist persecution, men and women from the Commonwealth, and workers from Europe. Most of those who arrived before 1960 took British nationality, and some of their children think of themselves as being English. Most consider themselves as British.
    Thus it is clear that the English, Shakespeare's "happy breed", are a very mixed race. There are few people in today's England, if any at all, who can claim to be pure ethnic "Englishmen" (whatever that may mean.). It can be argued that there is indeed no such thing as an English ethnicity.
    In political terms, the people who talk most about "England" and "Englishness" tend to be Conservatives or on the political right; yet many Conservative politicians today and in the past have come from non-British backgrounds. The most famous Conservative prime minister of the 19th century was Benjamin Disraeli; and two of the four senior ministers in the Conservative government in 2020, Rishi Sunak (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Priti Patel (Home Secretary), are of  Indian origin.  More surprisingly, one of the strongest voices on the "English nationalist" wing of the Conservative Party is a staunch Brexiteer with the name of Mark Francois, whose mother was Italian.  Try understanding that.    


agree with : think the same as -  breed: race -  Chancellor of the exchequer : minister of finance - citizens: nationals, people  -  cloth trade: textile industry - Cockney: person born in the east end of London -  diverse : very mixed  -  Flanders: Northern France, Belgium and Holland - fled: past of to flee, to run away - Home secretary : minister of the interior -  homogenous : the same everywhere -  lack: absence -   majority : more than 50% - settle: stay, establish residence - state of mind: a mentality, an idea - staunch: hard-line, militant - struggle: fight -  tartan: crossed stripes of different colours .

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Just who are the English ?

Grammar : verb forms  

Interactive exercise:  Replace the verbs in the following extracts, using the correct form and tense; some verbs are in the active, others in the passive:
    For almost 300 years, a fictitious character by the name of John Bull (use)   as a representation of the true Englishman, as if the "English" (be)  a homogenous race of people.
    The "Angles", who (give)   their name to the country, were people from northern Germany, who (come)  over with the Saxons and the Jutes during the "Dark Ages"..... They (follow)  by Vikings, from Scandinavia, who (occupy)  a large part of eastern Britain. The last successful invasion of England (come)  in  1066, when William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy (?)  himself (crown)   king of England.
    Since that time, England (?)  never again (invade)  by people from across the sea..... 
    There were also Jews from Europe, who (keep, come)   to England over the centuries. In the 17th Century, thousands of French Huguenot Protestants (flee)  to England, (add)  1% to the total British population.

To revise verb tenses and forms, see the grammar pages on verbs

Ideas for teachers :

Language points :

The question of England's identity is really a big issue, and one that is certain to be even more in the news if or when the Scots should demand independence.... as the Scottish Nationalist Party hopes to do again soon. The nature of English identity has become particularly questioned since the Brexit referendum, where a majority of people in England voted for Brexit, while a majoirty of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against it.
    Aaronovitch's idea of the "post national nation" makes a lot of sense in the light of the fact that England's "identity crisis" is not a result of nationalism, but the result of the uncoupling of the long-accepted equation England=Britain.
   Away from the football field and Brexit, English nationalism is virtually non-existent. Major political parties being UK-based, not England-based, none of them espouse English nationalism as a cause; those English nationalists who sometimes surface in the Conservative party are even today sidelined by the party, which is very keen to maintain its British identity - even if it is largely a de facto  English party these days.
    The expression "Little Englander", often used to describe people with English nationalist sentiments, is pejorative.

Brainstorming: What do the words "England" and "Scotland" mean to your students? What things, people, ideas, ideals, or words do they associate with each of these two countries? Divide the board into two halves, and write up the words associated with each country in its half, as your students suggest them.
    You will probably end up with more words under Scotland than under England - or at least, you will do so if you remove all the words that are really associated with "Britain", not "England". If this is the case, you have begun to show your students how "England" is short on identity.

Text study stage
General approach: This article is essentially a "content" item, rather than a language item. There is no specific salient grammar point to work on, so just make sure that your students follow all the many one-off points of language interest whenever they occur.
Negation: Pay attention to the various forms of negation in the section Identity and Diversity. Note the double negative in the first sentence, the use of neither... nor, and the unusual uses of not in the final sentence.

Verb tenses: Just Who are the English? See the blank fill exercise above.

 Final stage
Extracting information: For homework, have students re-read this item, and then summarise it in no more than 200 words, or ten sentences. This is not an easy task - but it is one that will force students to look for the major points in the dossier.
    A summary should include mention of the following: problems of identity, England's position - past and present, England in the UK, images of England, image and reality, English diversity, nationalism.


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Advanced level English resource

Level - Fairly Difficult
IELTS Level :  5 - 6
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
57 - Fairly Difficult

Grade level: 10

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Fully updated 2020 from an article originally published in 2000 in Spectrum, the advanced level English newsmagazine.
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