In the run up to Saint George’s Day, Richard Courtney, Lecturer in Employment Studies at the School, underlines why the nature of ‘Englishness’ should matter to scholars and practitioners of management
I’m not usually one for name-dropping but in 2007 I met Billy Bragg at a seminar on Englishness in Contemporary Britain. This was a career changing moment (for me at least)! Until then, my research had focused on issues of social class and social justice, rather than identity and nationalism. Englishness, in no small part thanks to Billy Bragg, has become a subject close to my heart for the better part of a decade. This, I don’t hasten to add, is not because I’m a nationalist but because I’m an inter-nationalist!
Within my presentation, I highlighted the necessarily multi-cultural nature of contemporary “Englishness”. Calling this phenomenon “Englishness”, to the then me, felt arbitrary – why not just call it Wabznazm? Or even Fluegaga? Bragg very quickly made reference to the heavy Essex whine which expressed this argument, suggesting we characterise it as English. For here we have, Bragg continued, an English man, with an English accent, researching life within English regions! More to the point, my then inner-felt Wabznazm-ishness notwithstanding, others – Billy Bragg among them – perceived me to be undeniably English. Point taken! I now positively embrace my Englishness, finding it a useful way of researching how regional identity is recognised by the institutions governing English life. It is in the context of discourses on inclusion and multi-culturalism that Englishness should be a topic of major concern for (Critical) Management Studies.
There have been many fascinating efforts to identify the essence of contemporary Englishness. Roger Scruton and Simon Heffer, for example, have offered up their own conservative ideas of Englishness whilst Jeremy Paxman, somewhat on the other hand, has endorsed a classical liberal perspective. Billy Bragg, for his part, has provided a radical affirmation of English identity in his book The Progressive Patriot, characterising it with reference to the welfare state, industrial protest, and social justice. There is also much discussion over where in England Englishness actually resides. Critics associate it with Home Counties rural spaces, reinforcing the notion that it is a conservative, nostalgic or privileged ideal. Conversely, regional studies affirm different versions of Englishness: Cockneys, Essex Men and Women, Scousers, Geordies etc. Englishness, a cursory glance over the contemporary literature will teach us, is place-dependent, gaining its cultural cues from local experience. An over-arching definition needs to signpost this diversity. Nevertheless, while there is no one essential Englishness, a major point of contention is the extent to which Englishness is often a shorthand for a white identity distrusted by black and minority ethnic Britons. Englishness, I would argue, needs to be re-appropriated as a civic, rather than as an ethnic identity, in order to fill the vacuum left by the lessening legitimacy of colonial ‘Britishness’ and as a ‘good riddance’ to Imperialism.
The danger, otherwise, is that a mono-cultural idea of Englishness would be allowed to prevail – one which would continue to meld together ‘land and people’ as a homogenous white identity. In the vacuum created by the demise of the colonial ideal of Britishness, and against today’s creeping regressive nationalism, public institutions need to incorporate critical understandings of Englishness when managing their constituencies. It is here that advocates and proponents of a critical understanding of Englishness – and I count myself among their number – need to make their voices heard. These voices should pronounce an essentially contentless model of Englishness, a model grounded in diversity, rather than one which patronisingly treats difference as a colourful appendage to an otherwise mono-cultural Englishness.
Such a critical engagement with Englishness would begin by asking if any given public institution’s activities might or might not have legitimacy. The National Trust, for example, might ask searching questions about the nature of the Nation it is entrusted with. So too, the National Health Service. The British Broadcasting Company, for its part, might also begin to assess its activities in response to a shifting sense of Britishness. The point is that so much institutional life hangs on the history of England existing as part of a Union and in this way becomes less about culture and civic identity and more a question of governance and ultimately management. But if the locus of identity changed from British to English, what aspects of identity would be included? Would the nation be addressed with the same homage to ‘multiculturalism’, or would this be dropped as being too British, not English enough? It is here that a critical engagement with the character of Englishness formalised through our major institutions is paramount.
The nature of Englishness requires much more discussion. I personally may care little for defining my identity in terms of where I was born but it will nevertheless determine the extent of my citizenship rights, my access to welfare and employment, and so on. As an internationalist I would like to see these rights applying to everyone regardless of cultural, religious, and ethnic difference. Others see the matter differently. For this very reason we need to find out more about how people living in England experience Englishness. More pertinently – for management studies – we need to question how Englishness is drawn into diversity policies. There is already a great deal of academic research surrounding these questions from the view of local government and urban planning, but more needs to be conducted with a specific critical management studies focus. From this research base greater working relationships need to be fostered between academics and practitioner communities because who the English are, what Englishness is, and how Englishness can be recognised in a cosmopolitan fashion will become a major aspect of policy and strategy planning.
Critical Management Studies needs to play a role in ensuring Englishness gets defined in a contentless and civic way, rather than as a way to talk about white people in post-colonial times. Billy Bragg would no doubt approve.