I may not be the best person to write this post. I am not English, though I have now lived in this country for 50 years less a couple of months. But while I wouldn't live in any other country by preference, I have never got to feeling English. One small reason I haven't is that whenever I meet someone English for the first time they ask me where I'm from - even young whippersnappers who've been here, in a manner of speaking, for a shorter time than I have. I still have the accent of a white Rhodesian is why, albeit milder than it once was.
Despite not being English, I have become interested in the discussion of what Englishness amounts to, if indeed it amounts to anything at all. Back in April, Hilary Benn was suggesting that the English should be ready to 'talk proudly about being English', and more recently Ed Miliband has expressed the same sentiment, affirming that he is 'proud to be English'. This has brought forth sceptical responses from Owen Jones and Dan Hodges among others, whose arguments on the subject you can read here, here and here. Their arguments are not identical, but a roughly similar viewpoint emerges from what they write. This may be summarized as follows: it is difficult or impossible to offer defining criteria for English identity - for Englishness - and in fact there is no coherent identity there; or, more strongly still, one cannot define English identity since there is no such thing.
Even as a non-English person, I find this viewpoint difficult to accept. The difficulty has nothing to do with my own (nameless) identity; it is based, rather, on general philosophical considerations, as I now proceed to explain.
There are only three relevantly interesting cases of why Englishness might be said not to be either coherent enough or real enough to count as a meaningful national identity. It might be because:
(1) no national identity of any kind is coherent or real;
(2) national identity is coherent and real for all other putative cases (being Brazilian, being French etc) except Englishness;
(3) national identities are real for some putative cases but not for others, and Englishness falls into the latter category.
I consider these three possibilities in turn.
(1a) If no national identity of any kind is coherent or real, how is it that we can tell English people apart from French, Germans, Americans, Italians, Australians, Danes - and all these apart from one another? Here it might be said that this is just a matter of the language spoken by the people concerned: English as opposed to German or what have you, French as opposed to anything else. But even from the examples given above it is evident that that suggestion doesn't always work. To tell English people apart from other English-speakers - Americans, Australians, New Zealanders - you have to go beyond the language spoken to the accent in which it is spoken, the locutions used, and so forth. Why, then, not add on to language other identifying markers as well, such as birthplace, tastes in food, cultural preferences, feelings for particular landscapes, close knowledge of certain places, feelings of attachment to them, familial and other personal links? There's no preordained rule requiring that Englishness, to be coherent or to be anything, must consist of a very small number of defining characteristics.
(2a) If national identity is coherent and real for all other putative cases except Englishness, what is it that makes the English special in this strange way? Assuming there's an answer to the question, we would then have a unique defining property of Englishness that should satisfy those looking for one. But I very much doubt that English identity is different from all other national identities in the way indicated. On the contrary, my counter-hypothesis would be that the difficulty of defining it in a few words, by a few characteristics, is a quite general one with respect to national identities.
(3a) If national identities are real for some putative cases but not for others, and Englishness falls into the latter category, then those who claim this owe us an account of which national identities are coherent and real, and why they are, so that the difference between those cases and Englishness (and other non-coherent, non-real identities) is plain. Until they can do this, we are entitled to think that all national identities have in common the circumstance of being characterized by multiple features and not just a few that are easy to specify.
For this is the root of the problem. Some things it is possible to define by reference to a small number of features: triangles, for example; or electronic calculators; or passports. But other things are not so readily definable, without being any less real for all that. Wittgenstein famously wrote that there is nothing that all games have in common, but we can generally recognize a game when we see one. Englishness is unlike triangles, electronic calculators and passports, and more like certain historical and cultural ensembles, in being a combination of many features no single one of which constitutes a necessary condition of its presence. I would cite Marxism as a possible analogy; though not everyone will agree with this, I hold it to be the case that there is no one thesis or belief that is a necessary condition of someone's being a Marxist. Or, to take a case I know less well, I am advised that there are Christians who do not believe in the divinity of Christ or who do not believe at all, since Christianity can be a looser cultural identity.
A different kind of analogy may serve to underwrite the meaningfulness of people affirming their English identity, despite the lack of any parsimonious definition of Englishness. Think of sporting allegiances. Supporting a football (baseball, cricket) team makes sense to millions of people, where the identification amounts to not much more than wanting one's team to win, taking an interest in its long-term fortunes, the players who play for it, and so on. Being a supporter - of Manchester United or Liverpool, the Yankees or the Red Sox, Australia, England or the West Indies - is, or at least can be, a form of identity-affirmation on quite a 'thin' basis, when judged against life's other concerns. Some people, uninterested in or hostile to sport as a major preoccupation, find this difficult to understand, but they shouldn't. We are who we are and look for markers of this. Even if we are believers in universal rights, global justice, human equality, few people are satisfied with the identifier 'human being', and a sporting allegiance is merely part of that more general phenomenon. How much less puzzling is it that someone might feel attached to their much 'thicker' national identity and what they see in it of positive value. (Thanks: EG and AS.)