Being English: standing at the crossroads

In cross-cultural management studies the relationship between nationality and culture is not a simple one. After reviewing the book by Jasmin Mahadevan, Henriett Primecz, Laurence Romani, Cases in Critical Cross-Cultural Management: An Intersectional Approach to Culture for International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, it really made me think, particularly about bringing together some of my approaches to cross-cultural management studies in this concept. But at the same time pondering about what it means to be English, and applying this to other national identities. in trying to understand this from an intersectional point of view that considers ’national’ identity at the intersertion of race, gender, class and power, and moving well beyond the simple depictions of ‘national’ values of Hofstede, GLOBE and other such studies.

Some years ago, a colleague visiting from Turkey and travelling on the London Underground remarked to me that she didn’t realise how multicultural England (or at least London) is. England is a country of immigrants. This is our history. It’s nothing recent. Although over the last half and a bit century, and following the collapse of the British Empire, immigrants have come from much further afield. This makes it difficult to say what being English actually entails. It gets more complicated than this. England is a country. But it is also a county within a country: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK for short). So the English are also British. And so are the Welsh and Scottish. With the northern Irish it gets more complicated. They are also Irish, many of Irish descent, or some are (if we go back to the 17th century many are border Scots or northern English). Northern Ireland was part of Ireland (a British possession) until Ireland was partitioned in 1921, leaving Ireland Irish and Northern Ireland British. My wife’s mother and father were born in southern Ireland before partition, so had British citizenship (as well as Irish).

From the ancient Britons (Celts?), to invading Romans (Italians?), to Germanic interlopers (Angles and Saxons), Viking (Scandinavian) settlers in large parts of the east of England around the turn of the first millennium and then by the Norman French (many descended from Viking settlers in Normandy) after 1066, we really are a nation of immigrants. Our royal leaders have been variously Welsh (Tudors), Scottish (Stuarts), Dutch (William of Orange) and German (Hanoverians), while our current queen is a member of the House of Windsor that changed its name from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha following anti-German sentiment during the First World War.

A nation of immigrants

Despite this history it seems England has always been suspicious of immigrants and have had, and still have, some odd laws regarding who is entitled to live here. Edward I expelled the whole of the Jewish population in England in 1290, after their being here since the Norman conquest (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, has announced that he will be making a formal apology for this in 2022!). Of course, the Norman French were also immigrants, but no-one seemed to argue with them. More recently, 2010, eventually the Gurkhas, who have served in the British Army for 200 years, won the right to live in the UK following a high profile campaign. They had been denied British citizenship and full army pension rights, despite 43,000 of them dying in the two world wars. This is not a new attitude. Polish airmen serving with the RAF during WWII were denied residency after the war, despite their war record, as witnessed in the recent movie ‘Hurricane’. Closer to home, my wife’s brother, born in 1957 in what was (British) Malaya whose father was serving in the RAF, to parents who both held British citizenship was in adulthood denied a British passport. He had lived all his life in England, apart from a year or two when he was born and travelling with his parents with the RAF. He was told to seek a Malaysian passport. He obtained an Irish passport. He’s English (lived in England since a baby), but because of his Irish descent and passport might describe himself as Irish.

The history of the attitude and actions of the British Home Office towards ‘immigrants’ is a chilling one, including the very recent scandal of the ‘Windrush generation’, from Caribbean immigrants and their children during the 1950s and 1960s who were granted ‘leave to remain’, and then in 2018 threatened with deportation as the Home Office had claimed there was no record of leave to remain. And, very recently, the plan by the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, herself a second generation immigrant, to transport asylum seekers making the dangerous Channel crossing, to Rwanda (with echoes of transporting criminals two centuries ago to Botany Bay in Australia).

In 2017 the 1 Day Without Us campaign asked people to imagine a country without migrants.
In 2017 the 1 Day Without Us campaign asked people to imagine a country without migrants.

So, who are the English, and what does it mean to be English? In some ways this is frightening, as with any group identification there will always be an out-group or ‘the other’. England, as above, has a long history of both incorporating immigration, but having a very strong concept of the other. Being English is a lot about who is and who isn’t English. Right wing groups might claim being English is about being white in England, while others may put the label ‘British’ to those who have obtained British citizenship (there is no such thing as English citizenship) who do not look as though they are ‘Anglo-Saxon’. This is a vexed issue, and one that is clearly about ‘race’. But this isn’t the only consideration when looking at what it means to be English.

A matter of class

What about ’class’. Is Boris Johnson’s and his cabinet’s England the same as mine, or the same as, for example, the dismissed workers of P&O Ferries, or those many people struggling with the rising cost of living and those trying to manage on Universal Credits? One could claim that the class structure is all part of being English. People know their place. Clearly they do if they continue to vote into power multimillionaires, and those whose parents afforded to send them to the best ‘public’ schools such as Eton, Harrow and Westminster, and then on to the finishing schools of Oxbridge colleges.

The reverence still shown to that anachronism the Royal Family may also attest to knowing one’s place in the class system and what it means to be English.

I’ve previously pondered over the shared cultural characteristics between, say, me and those products of the Bullingdon Club (ex-UK prime minister David Cameron and now the present incumbent Boris Johnson), and if I have more in common with some of my contemporaries in Cameroon or Nigeria, where we can perhaps talk about occupational culture or class culture.

An English institution? Bullingdon Club in 1987 - featuring Conservative PMs Cameron and Johnson
An English institution? Bullingdon Club in 1987 – featuring Conservative PMs Cameron and Johnson

Is there one “England’?

So far, I don’t think I have answered the question of what it means to be English. Perhaps because there is not an answer, or perhaps because this is the wrong question. To look at this again, I need to revisit the concept of intersectionality.

Mahadevan, Primecz and Romani propose an approach that considers ‘…culture in intersection, namely as involving the interrelated facets of culture, power and diversity’ (p. 2). The key appears to be the understanding of the way categories are generated historically and formulated as truths, because of the way power relations act to determine difference, and being culturally formulated as part of culture, which is power related. They trace the heritage of intersectionality theory to the black feminism work of African American lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw that has strongly influenced critical diversity studies.

Here, female life-experience is intersected by diversity categories such as black and white. Taking a lead from Crenshaw who used the concept of intersectionality to change the narrative around discrimination and used a ‘crossroads’ analogy, Mahadevan and colleagues state in their introduction:

‘An intersectional approach thus wishes to understand how exactly exclusion and inclusion and advantage and disadvantage are brought about at the crossroads of multiple diversity categories’ (p.4).

The main task is to dissect those categories and to analyses them in terms of power dynamics extending this to the historical and geopolitical levels. This isn’t about challenging paradigms in cross-cultural management scholarship, although it does raise important issues on the restrictive nature of the comparative approach and the intercultural interactions approach. But, as the three editors state:

‘.. an intersectional approach to culture integrates objectivist and interpretive perspectives of mainstream CCM and adds power, diversity and reflexivity as complementary angles from which to approach— and potentially change—the situation’.

If it doesn’t introduce a new paradigm, it certainly presents a different narrative and opens up additional methodological approaches. Considering what it means to be English (or for that matter any other ‘nationality’) opens up a narrative that has the potential to incorporate Hofstede’s cultural dimensions (which presents data for ‘Great Britain’) and the GLOBE study (which presents data for ‘England’), while challenging the tenuous nature of national identity.

Recently, the non-domiciled status of number of very rich, influential British politicians and spouses has been in the news. This essentially is to avoid paying tax in the UK on earnings outside the UK. Wikipedia provides a useful list. Some of these well known figures might be seen to be upholders of English (or British) values, but are not keen to pay taxes to the British government (of which some are, or have been part). Their ‘Englishness’ is far removed from those struggling with the rising cost of living.

Also prominent in the news is that of ‘racial profiling’ by police, where black people in England and Wales are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. There are scary stories about this. A 2016 YouGov survey of 1,773 ‘English’ adults that asked the question ‘What makes a person English?’, 81% said ‘Born in England’. Oddly, they don’t say what criteria they used to select ‘English’ adults, and they don’t state the ethnic composition of their survey. I would surmise that the lived experience of black people, who are more likely than white people to be stopped and search by police, is different from other ‘English’ despite being born in England.

Power and other categories

Culture is about how we create and define our experience as a collective. This involves identifying two things. What is the collective? And, what are the categories we create to share our experience as a collective. These two are connected.

One thing we learn from cross-cultural theorists such as Triandis and Hofstede, is that collectives can be very tight (collectivism) or can be loose (individualism), if we can live with this degree of oversimplification. What we can take from this is an understanding of the ease to which the collective can be identified (who is in and who is out), and its capacity for self-identification (who I am and who I am not). In George Orwell’s 1940 essay England Your England, he suggested that in times of war a nation will come together. But we could also add in times of important international football matches (only the Americans call it ‘soccer’!), and possibly when the English go abroad, they become more ‘English’. Yet these experiences are far from shared. From a concept of the other at football matches, when English fans oppose themselves to, say, German fans, why, in a different concept of the other, do some fans make monkey noises when a black player has the ball? What can we describe as resulting from culture or from an individual aberration? Is the latter more prevalent where the collective is loose and not so easily to identify?

What about war? Is Ukrainian national identity easier to define in 2022 and in a time of war with Russia? Can I say more clearly what it means to be English when I’m abroad and interacting with foreigners?

I would suggest that the English are not an easy collective to define and identify.

Working with the principle that everything human-made is part of culture, I would propose that all the above are a result of categories created as a part of culture (including ‘English’), and that these are created as part of the power structure of any society that itself is part of the culture that human societies ’invent’ for themselves or have been invented on behalf of the society (the latter assuming a power structure). Certainly the roots of racism can be traced back to historic power structures (e.g. the slave trade; divide and rule policies of colonial authorities as well as in the industrial sectors at home – certainly the England of today, its institutions such as the Bank of England, buildings and attitudes have been built on the backs of the slave trade). Racial categories are cultural constructs.

Clearly different people living in England, and born in England, have different ideas of what it means to be English and who can be included within this collective noun. England may define a geographic area, but it is still a human construct. Its borders have changed over the centuries (Calais in France was once part of the Kingdom of England). Indeed before the 1500s nation-states in Europe barely existed. People identified more with their immediate locality, which they rarely travelled from. Nations mainly developed from conquest and power. Certainly ‘Great Britain’ was forged in this way, dominated by England. On other continents, African countries were dictated by the colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85. Local people didn’t have a choice. Nations are cultural constructs driven by power relations (often, for example in the case of Africa, by global power relations).

Similarly, the composition of the ‘English’ has changed, is changing and will continue to change. And this is driven by power relations (who is in and who is out, and who defines what is English and what is not). ‘English’ is not a natural, innate, category. As such, it (as any other ‘nationality) should be studied by cross-cultural management scholars as part of culture. Culture, therefore, is not defined by nationality. Nationality is defined by culture. This, for many scholars, will constitute a shift in narrative: a different story informed by a concept of intersectionality.

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