Idea of English Ethnicity

Young, Robert
Date published: 
November 2007

In recent years, particularly since devolution in the UK, there have been many attempts to identify what exactly Englishness really involves. In this major contribution to debates about English identity, leading cultural theorist Robert J. C. Young argues that the recent uncertainty about the nature of the English arises from more than just the challenges of devolution, or even the end of empire. It is rather the long-term result of the fact that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Englishness was never really about England, the place, its essence, or its national character, at all. It was rather developed as a form of ethnic identity for those who were precisely not English, but rather made up the English diaspora around the world, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans. Englishness was constructed as a translatable quality or identity that could be taken on or appropriated by anyone anywhere - which is why the most English Englishmen have rarely been English. This construction was so powerful that even today the English diaspora continues to act together at a political level around the globe. In England itself, this meant that being English was characterized through an open structure of inclusion rather than exclusion, which helps to explain why the country has been able to transform itself into one of the most successful of modern multicultural nations.