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St John’s hosts conference on the rise of political Englishness

England fan's house with Christmas Decorations in Billesley, Birmingham. Credit: Elliott Brown via Flickr.

What does it mean to be English and what does that mean for our political future? Leading thinkers on the subject aim to reach some conclusions in a conference at St John's.

A group of leading political thinkers, historians and commentators are gathering at St John’s today (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.

Co-organised by College Fellow, Professor Robert Tombs, whose acclaimed book, The English And Their History was published last year, the event - “Understanding The Rise Of Political Englishness c. 1990 - 2015” will run all day in the College’s Old Divinity School.

The participants will include 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; and Tristram Hunt MP.

While the event itself is only open to members of the University of Cambridge, all of the talks are being recorded and will be published on the St John’s College website in the coming weeks. The organisers are also planning to publish a report, outlining the main conclusions emerging from the event, which will be made available to the public via the same channel and which, it is hoped, will feed into wider political and public debates.

Understanding and describing their national identity and characteristics has often seemed a far more elusive problem for English people than 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, or the recent debate 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 under the Blair governments, and the economic and cultural consequences of globalisation.

For some, the growing interest in Englishness seems to have arisen as the reality of life in England diverged ever further from what they hoped and believed Englishness to be. Just as much as England is sometimes used to represent conservative values, however, for others English identity is represented as characteristically tolerant, open-minded and culturally diverse.

To work out how to respond to this political debate requires a full appreciation of the different forces defining and debating Englishness and their historical context. The aim of the conference is to tease some of these out.

The event will begin with a keynote lecture by Professor Kumar on “The Idea of Englishness”, 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”.

Recordings of all events, along with published material, will be made available in the near future. Further information about history and politics at St John’s College and the University of Cambridge as a whole can be found here and here