Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


The Making of English National Identity
Krishan Kumar
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
£17.95, 382 pages, ISBN 0-52-77736-4 (paperback).
£47.50, 382 pages, ISBN 0-52-77188-9 (hardback).

Steven Guilbert
University of Nottingham

Notions of nation, country, and state; of nationalism, consciousness, and identity; of Englishness, Britishness and UK(ness), are often conflated, commonly confused, and consequently can prove fairly difficult to pin down. In The Making of English National Identity Krishan Kumar, in a long, detailed and reflective excursion through history and across numerous academic fields, distinguishes, clarifies and skilfully get to grips with these slippery terms and concepts; yet, somehow, the notion of English national identity still remains as enigmatic and elusive as ever.

If the English are a people that have no particular sense of themselves, and no particular interest in issues of national identity, this is a position that has been, to a certain extent, reinforced by academia’s reluctance to fully critically engage with such issues. Indeed, Kumar remarks that if a culture shows a marked indifference to such questions of national identity, “it would be eccentric on the part of a scholar or intellectual to devote much time to their investigation” (18). This is precisely, however, what Kumar has done, in an extremely accessible, provocative and original book.

Theoretically informed, he confidently confronts key questions head-on. Why, he asks, unlike the Scots, Welsh, Irish and most of continental Europe, do the English find it so difficult to say who they are? Why are there virtually no expressions of English nationalism? And why is there no native tradition of reflection on English national identity? The answer to these questions, he suggests, is certainly not modesty, in fact, quite to the contrary. In their role as empire builders the English saw themselves as engaged in a no less an important project as the development and diffusion of civilisation throughout the world. The English therefore did not so much celebrate themselves as identify with this imperial or missionary project. They gained a sense of themselves not from looking inward, nor from introspection, but by looking outward, through projection, through reaction and comparison to numerous designated and constructed ‘others’ within the British Isles (the first English empire), within Europe, and eventually, throughout the world. This, Kumar convincingly argues, created a kind of English nationalism, a national identity of sorts, but only in relation to the ‘other’, and only by shifting the emphasis from the creators to the creations. Like many other imperial nations such as the Russians and the Austrians, the English, assured of their own self-importance, could not see themselves as “just another nation in a world of nations” (x). Traditional, ‘classical’ expressions of nationalism were substituted, therefore, in the interest of unity and empire for what the author refers to as a missionary or imperial nationalism. Only with the demise of this imperial mission were the English forced to look inward and reflect on their own sense of self. Only at the end of the nineteenth century, Kumar maintains, is it possible to identify any clear expressions of English nationalism (as it is usually understood); any clearly defined sense of national identity; or any serious concern with the character and constitution of ‘Englishness’.

This rather contentious assertion runs contrary to many theses. For although there has never been a general consensus, historians have been able, nevertheless, to persuasively posit numerous dates for the emergence of English nationalism and associated reflections on English national identity in the eleven hundred years preceding the nineteenth century. Patrick Worwald, for example, eloquently argues that something like an English national identity was in existence as early as the eighth century. Recognising that this period was a time of considerable political and geographical fragmentation, he proposes, that a strong sense of England and Englishness was constructed on ideological and theological grounds. Such an ideological foundation, Worwald suggest, was absolutely crucial in the development of statehood during the early medieval period for “a state was an “ideological artefact” or in the end nothing” (194: 10). This ideology of Englishness, which Worwald largely credits to Bede, once formed, proved highly influential and serviceable to later generations like Alfred the Great and his successors.

If the incidence of icons of Englishness are indicative of a strong sense of national identity, then the sixteenth century, the century of Shakespeare and Spenser, of Drake and Raleigh, of Henry VIII, the Faery Queen, and the Anglican Church, can justifiably be considered a strong candidate for the inauguration of a distinct English nationalism. It is unsurprising therefore that, traditionally, many historians have sought to position the emergence of nationalism in England precisely within this century. Most argued that England shared in a wave of nationalistic feeling that was spreading throughout Europe. The American sociologists Liah Greenfield, however, in her book Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, has recently advanced an altogether more striking and contentious claim, which not only argues that Nationalism was manifestly evident in sixteenth century England in various social, political and cultural guises, but that it was, in fact, the English who had actually invented and pioneered nationalism in Europe. Moreover, she insists, by 1600 it was possible to identify in England a distinct national consciousness and identity that resulted in the development of a new geo-political entity: the nation. England, according to Greenfield, was thus “the first nation in the world” (192: 14).

Other scholars claim to witness the rise of English nationalism in later centuries. The historian Hans Kohn, for example, saw the seventeenth century and in particular the ‘puritan revolution’ as the time when the English made their decisive contribution to the growth of nationalism. While the American historian Gerald Newman argued for the existence of a fully-fledged English nationalism (largely a result of the English intelligentsias’ reaction to the fashions and frivolity of the ‘frencified’ English aristocracy) in being by the late eighteenth century.

Kumar finds these and other positions often ‘misguided’, usually ‘unsubstantiated’, frequently ‘disputable’, largely ‘unconvincing’, and occasionally, simply ‘wrong’. Such confident refutations of respected and established views, would ring hollow however, were they not accompanied by such a deep and sustained critical engagement with both the theoretical and factual components of these theses. But what emerges from Kumar’s own analysis of the subject—an analysis not restricted to any particular epoch or disciplinary specialism—is an argument that is able to elegantly weave itself through various historical periods and regimes of meaning. His reading of history seems equally as close and comprehensive regardless of whether he is discussing the Anglo-Saxon, the Tudor, the Georgian; the social, the political or the cultural. This enables him to systematically unpick the threads of rival arguments. He has little difficulty in demonstrating, for example, how many scholars fail to recognise crucial distinctions between ideas of state and nation, national consciousness and nationalism, Englishness and Britishness; or how many are guilty of making dangerous theoretical and ideological presuppositions, and insisting that the facts can speak for themselves. So powerfully persuasive and provocative are some of these critiques that are on occasion they appear unnecessarily scathing. Kumar is particularly severe, for example, on the work of Gerald Newman but saves perhaps his most ruthless criticism for Liah Greenfield who he attacks with such persistence over the course of some twenty pages and across two chapters that you are occasionally left wondering if it is something personal.

The critique and refutation of the principal claims of rival academics for the emergence of English nationalism take up a large part of this book (chapters 3-6 of 8), and although Kumar is responsible for a fine succession of successful academic dismissals, it with not without relief and a degree of anticipation that the reader finally gets to the point of the book where the author comes to the crease to advance his own theory. At this point those looking for a detailed description and analysis of a full-bodied and full-blooded English nationalism will be disappointed. Those expecting Kumar to find evidence in England of the kind of nationalistic fervour that was establishing itself as a major ideological force in Europe and on the world stage during the nineteenth century, and those expecting him to identify an English nationalism, where so many other scholars had failed to see it, may feel equally let down. This is because, for Kumar, English nationalism is “the dog that did not bark” (175). It threatened and feigned but never really managed to fully materialise in the same way it did in say Ireland, Norway, Italy, Germany, France, Russia or a dozen other countries.

Kumar, therefore, offers no treatise on English nationalism, instead what he proposes is a rather more reserved, limited and low-key “moment of Englishness” (176). Preoccupied with immense and novel imperial adventures, the English, he argues, “felt neither the need or desire to engage in introspective speculations as to their nature as a people. It was only when these enterprises began to falter, only when new commercial rivals threatened Britain’s industrial supremacy and faith in empire began to waver that a degree of English self-consciousness began to emerge” (224). This is Kumar’s moment of Englishness, a period in which “English intellectuals and artists…for the first time began an inquiry into the character of English people as a nation—as a collectivity, that is, with a distinct sense of its history, its traditions, and its identity” (ibid).

A sense of Englishness and of English identity it seems was discovered residing in Anglo-Saxon mythology; in a tradition of liberalism; in language; in a pragmatic, empirical and individualistic philosophy; in a pipe-smoking, phlegmatic, commonsensical character; and perhaps most notably of all, within the lush downland landscapes of the English countryside. “England is the country and the country is England” pronounced Baldwin in a famous address to the Royal Society of St George on May 6th 1926. Indeed, the English countryside, a landscape of small towns and cathedral cities, of cricket pitches and village pubs, of ruined castles and abbeys, of rolling hills and meandering streams became the emblem and the quintessence of Englishness and was able to impose itself on national consciousness both directly and indirectly through endless nostalgic evocations in literature, music and art.

While there is a wealth of excellent scholarship exploring the relationship between the English countryside, notions of nostalgic ruralism and senses of Englishness, it is nevertheless slightly disappointing that Kumar was unable in this book to dwell a little longer both within this landscape, and on this ‘moment of Englishness’. In a book about English national identity what did not come through as strong as it might have done was a sense of England as a tangible, lived and geographically constituted place. The kind of England, for example, that was so vividly evoked by the great Historian W. G. Hoskins (who is not referenced) in The Making of the English Landscape (1955). Kumar only partially explores the extent to which this English landscape—so important to his moment of Englishness—has, and continues to have, the power to shape, frame and sustain English national identity.

Having said this however, his general argument for a ‘moment of Englishness’, largely defined in cultural terms and responding, in the main, to a sense of decline in empire and economic importance, remains extremely persuasive. The aim of this book, according to Kumar, was to simultaneously produce an intimate and contextualised account of the making of English national identity. On some occasions, in the interests of scope, analytical depth may have been compromised. There are also some other issues that Kumar fails to adequately address. He says little, for example, about the role of the ‘internal other’ in the construction of national identity, or how internal differentiation within England might have contributed to competing senses of Englishness. What this book may lack in intimate details though it more than makes up for in the sheer breath and originality of its analysis. Kumar may not ultimately have been able to fully explain “the enigma of English national identity” (ix) but his book will surely make a significant contribution to a number of important contemporary debates concerning questions of Englishness, identity and empire.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.