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‘A Disunited Kingdom? For Younger Minorities, Britishness is an Identity We Can Work With – A Quest for Englishness Must Confront This’

Developing a stronger sense of Englishness cannot merely be looked at through a political lens – our identities are personal and multiple, conflicting and shifting, writes Hardeep Matharu

Stormzy headlines the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival 2019 in a stab vest designed by street artist Banksy. Photo: JEP Live Music/Alamy

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I am a Londoner. I am the Sikh Punjabi daughter of immigrants. I am British.

My parents were born and raised in countries of the British Empire: my mother two years after partition in Delhi; and my dad in Nairobi, where he lived under British rule in one of British East Africa’s stratified societies (the whites above; the Kenyans below). ‘Great Britain’ was a country they, like many Asian immigrants, then came to; aspired to thrive in, were proud to be part of. The mother country. 

Having long explored Britain’s imperial project with my parents growing up, I have never bought into the uncritical exceptionalism of Britain’s ‘greatness’ but the acknowledgement of my Britishness is a sort of recognition of my parents’ history. And how this history was and is British history. Those times may have passed, but for some of us they haven’t. They are living legacies. More British than the British.

And it was the British National Party that had its headquarters, disguised as a bookshop and meeting room, opposite the house I grew up in south-east London, where I was born. And it was the Union flag its supporters carried when they rioted with police outside my living room window following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in nearby Eltham in the 1990s. 

For the generations who came before me, that flag is a terrifying symbol of the violence of far-right extremism in modern Britain: p*ki-bashing; the National Front chasing black skin. It wasn’t their flag. But their struggles, historic and continuing, made my journey easier and helped change our country. So I was frightened too: why were these rioting hooligans carrying my flag

And it was ‘Cool Britannia’ the tabloids talked about when New Labour came to power and Noel Gallagher went to Downing Street. And when Geri Halliwell wore the Union Jack dress at the Brit Awards.

The Spice Girls reunited years later for the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was a moment many of us felt proud, perhaps, never more British: outward; diverse; plural; confident.

And it’s good old British goodwill I think of when strangers daren’t jump the queue or pull together on a packed, packed-up train. Or when I think of the NHS and our welfare state. Decency. 

Art work/graffiti in Waterloo, London. Photo: Hardeep Matharu

But what is it, to me, to be English? 

Unlike the other nations of the UK, it is true that England does not have as strong a sense of a distinct identity. England is the only nation in the Union not to have dedicated political representation outside of Westminster. One compelling analysis of Brexit was that it was an outlet for a kind of unheard English nationalism. 

For me, the United Kingdom is a last expression of England’s imperial project. And so I personally believe that if the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland see their futures as independent countries or united with other independent countries, that is their right. But I am also conflicted.

If the Union and Britishness is a limitation of their beings, this I understand. But the same identity that limits them, brings for me expression and expansion.


Because in Britishness is the notion – however this has emerged in me – of diversity; plurality; difference; inclusivity; outwardness. For me, these thoughts and feelings don’t show themselves when it comes to Englishness – with its inwardness; isolation; exclusion. Englishness is something I have never felt part of. Little England. How many of us from similar backgrounds, people of colour, minorities, living the legacies of Empire, have?

I have my own reasons – for identity is not either political or personal; it is both. But, in a wider sense, because the negative associations of England with the far-right have not been replaced by anything more positive or inclusive, Englishness is not an identity that has ever really been presented to me as me.

That’s not to say that ‘Englishness’ isn’t on my radar. The quaintness of formal hall at Cambridge University felt very English. Whenever I speak to Americans, Britishness isn’t a thing (she was the Queen of England, Elizabeth II). A recent Christmas carol service at Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s local church back in the day, felt more English than it did British – and I was part of it, alongside (some) other diverse faces. And the occasional Sunday roast never feels very British (while I do love the odd English breakfast)…  

On a substantive level, an example which has been instructive – and which, I believe, points a way forward – has emerged in football and our current England team. Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane … During the 2020 Euros, the Migration Museum tweeted that “without players with at least one parent or grandparent born overseas, England would be down to just three players”.

Many of us relate to and are so proud of that diverse England team that is achieving such success, which is embracing its togetherness and differences, where there is solidarity, tradition and evolution. Taking on those young men taking the knee was one culture war this Government could not win. And that is saying something.

As the England manager, Gareth Southgate, said in his open letter ‘Dear England’ when those players were being condemned by the likes of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson for raising awareness of racism and structural injustice through sport: “I feel like this generation of England players is closer to the supporters than they have been for decades. Despite the polarisation we see in society, these lads are on the same wavelength as you on many issues.”

For me, these players are both English, when they play for the England team, and British – because they represent the values I associate with this. And that’s the point: our identities are multiple. We don’t, and shouldn’t, have to choose one or the other.

On the deeper constitutional analysis as to why Englishness needs to be given political expression, I am not an expert. But I believe we need to consider our identity associations with the heart, not just the head. 

What does embracing Englishness and feeling ‘more English’ mean? And how would it happen? Why hasn’t it happened so far? 

Of course, for some, it will have always meant something; always have been an identity that speaks to them. But from where will this affiliation have developed?


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While the political dimensions of Britishness and Englishness may be alive for some, I suspect for many more that the question of our identities is an exploration of the many forces that shape us on a personal level. 

The matters of Westminster and regional representation are not, I believe, outweighed by our experiences cultural, social and individual. Most of my reflections of my Britishness are personal reflections. And so merely giving England more political representation will not, in itself, change the state of my attachment to this identity.

I ask the same questions of my Punjabiness. If I am to be ‘more Indian’, what exactly am I supposed to be connecting with? And according to who and what? For some in my community, I’m not Indian enough even though I am Indian. Identities are complicated and not always knowable – to ourselves or to others.

One of the reasons I identify with Britishness is its plurality – for me, it doesn’t tell me what to be or what I need to be. Identities should not be imposed, but be created. They are reflections of the stories within us. The ideas we view the world with.

Could we not, then, create an Englishness that sits alongside our Britishness?

Could we decouple Britishness from its more imperial overtones and, alongside this more modern version, also develop a sense of Englishness – which appeals not just to the head but to the heart? Which is not merely about politics but personal? Not imposed but made available? 

Because I don’t think we need to choose. And neither Britishness nor Englishness needs to be fixed in what we have thought it was in the past.

In this age of the hyper-weaponisation of identities, the blood of tribalism, and the stoking of people’s baser instincts with division, we need to encourage an understanding of ourselves based on the idea of the multiple identities within us – the different, sometimes conflicting, sometimes shifting, aspects of who we are that sit side by side. That this is true but this is true too.

Britishness and Englishness are political and personal. Both can be part of our stories. But we have to be free to choose them. 

Hardeep Matharu is the Editor of Byline Times. This is an edited version of her speech at the ‘Break-Up of Britain? Confronting the UK’s Democratic Crisis’ Conference in Edinburgh on 18 November 2023

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