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Understanding the Rise of Political Englishness

‘Understanding the Rise of Political Englishness, c. 1990-2015’

27 November 2015, Old Divinity School, St John’s College, Cambridge.

A group of leading political thinkers, historians and commentators gathered at St John’s on 27 November 2015 to examine the intensifying political debate over what it means to be English, and the implications that may have for the country’s future.

The participants included the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, John Denham; the journalist and historian Peter Hennessy; Krishan Kumar, author of The Making Of English National Identity; Tristram Hunt MP, and Simon Heffer of the Telegraph.  Academic speakers included leading political scientists, lawyers and historians.  The mainly invited audience also included academics, political activists, diplomatic representatives and graduate students, who contributed actively to the discussions.   

All of the talks and discussions have been  recorded: each session is available as a video recording, and individual speakers can also be listened to on this page. The organisers are also planning to publish a report, outlining the main conclusions emerging from the event, and speakers will contribute some of their texts, all of which will be made available through the St John’s website at a later date. For recordings listed by speaker, please use the playlist towards the bottom of the page

Understanding and describing their national identity and characteristics has often seemed to be a far more elusive problem for English people than it is for the Scots, Welsh, Irish or many of their continental neighbours. In recent years, however, the “English question” has started to become a political hot topic once again, as demonstrated by the emergence of parties such as UKIP (a British party though strong mainly in England), or the recent debates over English votes for English laws.

Many analysts trace the origins of these concerns back to the 1990s, when a cluster of issues that require an understanding of Englishness and what it means first began to emerge. These include questions to do with migration into and out of the country, the relationship between Britain and Europe, the impact of devolution settlements with Wales and Scotland beginning under the Blair governments, and the economic and cultural consequences of globalisation.

The conference began with a keynote lecture by Professor Kumar on “The Idea of Englishness”, which was commented on by Professor Michael Kenny and Dr Tristram Hunt, MP.  This was followed by two panel discussions - the first on “Changing Outlines of Englishness” during the past 25 years, and the second on “Political Responses since Devolution”.

List of speakers

Session 1: The Idea of Englishness

Lecture by Krishan Kumar, William R. Kenan Jr Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia, author of The Making of English National Identity and The Idea of Englishness

Discussants: Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary, University of London, and author of The Politics of Nationhood in England

Tristram Hunt, MP, Senior Lecturer in Modern British History, Queen Mary, and author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, and Ten Cities that Made an Empire

Session 2: Changing outlines of Englishness, c. 1990-2015

Chair: Robert Tombs, Professor of French History in Cambridge, and the author of The English and Their History

Julia Stapleton is Reader in Politics, University of Durham.  Her two most recent books are Christianity, Patriotism and Nationhood: The England of G.K. Chesterton and Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain

Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics, University of Ulster.  His publications include The British Question; Englishness as Class; and England is the Country and the Country is England: But What of the Politics?

Simon Heffer is a journalist and historian, a regular columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and the author, most recently, of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain 

Gareth Stedman Jones is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and Professor of the History of Ideas, Queen Mary University of London.  Among his works is the classic Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982, and Religion and the Political Imagination, co-edited with Ira Katznelson

David Feldman is the Rouse Ball Professor of English Law, Cambridge; among his major works are English Public Law and Law in Politics, Politics in Law

Session 3: Political Responses since Devolution

Chair: Peter Hennessy (Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield) is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, and among his books are Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties, and The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution

John Denham is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Winchester, and former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

David Runciman is Professor of Politics, Cambridge, and author of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from the First World War to the Present and Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond

Emily Robinson is Lecturer in Politics, University of Sussex, and the author of History, heritage and tradition in contemporary British politics: past politics and present histories

Mary Riddell is a columnist and political interviewer with The Daily Telegraph, writing about politics, social policy, childhood and criminal justice

Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics; he is the author of Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities

Summing up

Andrew Gamble, emeritus Professor of Politics, Cambridge, author of The Spectre at the Feast:  capitalist crisis and the politics of recession and Between Europe and America: The Future of British Politics