The concept of an 'English nation' (as opposed to a British one) has become increasingly popular after the devolution process in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland resulted in the four nations having semi-independent political and legal systems. Although England itself has no devolved government, the 1990s witnessed a rise in English self-consciousness. This is linked to the expressions of national self-awareness of the other British nations of Wales and Scotland – which take their most solid form in the new devolved political arrangements within the United Kingdom – and the waning of a shared British national identity with the growing distance between the end of the British Empire and the present.
Many recent immigrants to England have assumed a solely British identity, while others have developed dual or mixed identities. Use of the word "English" to describe Britons from ethnic minorities in England is complicated by most non-white people in England identifying as British rather than English. In their 2004 Annual Population Survey, the Office for National Statistics compared the ethnic identities of British people with their perceived national identity. They found that while 58% of white people in England described their nationality as "English", the vast majority of non-white people called themselves "British".
Relationship to Britishness
It is unclear how many British people consider themselves English. In the 2001 UK census, respondents were invited to state their ethnicity, but while there were tick boxes for 'Irish' and for 'Scottish', there were none for 'English', or 'Welsh', who were subsumed into the general heading 'White British'. Following complaints about this, the 2011 census was changed to "allow respondents to record their English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, Irish or other identity." Another complication in defining the English is a common tendency for the words "English" and "British" to be used interchangeably, especially overseas. In his study of English identity, Krishan Kumar describes a common slip of the tongue in which people say "English, I mean British". He notes that this slip is normally made only by the English themselves and by foreigners: "Non-English members of the United Kingdom rarely say 'British' when they mean 'English'". Kumar suggests that although this blurring is a sign of England's dominant position with the UK, it is also "problematic for the English [...] when it comes to conceiving of their national identity. It tells of the difficulty that most English people have of distinguishing themselves, in a collective way, from the other inhabitants of the British Isles".
In 1965, the historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote,
- "When the Oxford History of England was launched a generation ago, "England" was still an all-embracing word. It meant indiscriminately England and Wales; Great Britain; the United Kingdom; and even the British Empire. Foreigners used it as the name of a Great Power and indeed continue to do so. Bonar Law, by origin a Scotch Canadian, was not ashamed to describe himself as "Prime Minister of England" [...] Now terms have become more rigorous. The use of "England" except for a geographic area brings protests, especially from the Scotch."
However, although Taylor believed this blurring effect was dying out, in his book The Isles (1999), Norman Davies lists numerous examples in history books of "British" still being used to mean "English" and vice versa.
In December 2010, Matthew Parris in The Spectator, analysing the use of "English" over "British", argued that English identity, rather than growing, had existed all along but has recently been unmasked from behind a veneer of Britishness.
Historical origins and identity
There is a debate between historians, geneticists and others about the extent to which historical changes in the culture of the British Isles corresponds to historical migration events of Germanic tribes, and to the extent of these migrations. The traditional view of historians, based on contemporary accounts and linguistic evidence, was that the English are primarily descended from the Anglo-Saxons, the term used to describe the various Germanic tribes that migrated to the island of Great Britain following the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, with assimilation of later migrants such as the Norse Vikings and Normans.
This belief is now regarded by many historians as incorrect, on the basis of more recent genetic and archaeological research. Based on a re-estimation of the number of settlers, some have taken the view that it is highly unlikely that the British Celtic-speaking population was substantially displaced by the Anglo-Saxons and that instead a process of acculturation took place, with an Anglo-Saxon ruling elite imposing their culture on the local populations. Research into the genetic history of the British Isles, conducted by Stephen Oppenheimer in 2007 appears to support this theory, not showing a clear dividing line between the English and their 'Celtic' neighbours but a gradual clinal change from west coast Britain to east coast Britain, originating from upper palaeolithic and Mesolithic era variations in a pre-Indo-European population, which Oppenheimer argues form the basis of the modern population of the British Isles rather than Germanic tribes or Celts. More recent genetic studies of ancient British DNA have refuted the hypothesis that the Anglo-Saxon invaders formed an elite class largely separate from the indigenous population, finding that samples from culturally Anglo-Saxon graveyards contained individuals who were more Celtic, suggesting a high level of intermingling between the Anglo-Saxons and the native Britons.
The 2016 study authored by Stephan Schiffels et al. found the Anglo-Saxons to have significantly impacted the genetic composition of the British Isles, so that on average the contemporary East English population derives 38 percent of its ancestry from Anglo-Saxon migrations, with this proportion varying in other parts of Britain that saw less of the migration or the migration of different Germanic tribes. The remaining portion of English DNA is primarily French, introduced in a migration after the end of the Ice Age.
The theory that the English people are primarily descended from Anglo-Saxons is based largely on the dramatic cultural changes in Britain following their migration. The Celtic language was almost totally displaced by Anglo-Saxon and there was a complete shift towards North-West German farming methods and pottery styles. The Brythonic languages such as Cornish, Cumbric and Welsh, held on for several centuries in parts of western England such as Cornwall, Devon, Cumbria and a part of Lancashire.
Many historians, while making allowance for the limited survival of the Britons in England, hold to the view that there was significant displacement of the indigenous population after the Germanic migrations.