GILLINGHAM, England (Reuters) - With a tattoo of Winston Churchill’s face on his right forearm and a poem about English pride on his t-shirt, Michael Clarkson is not shy about his patriotism or his disdain for a Europe that lies “miles away, over the sea”.
Even his little dog, Elsa, was sporting England’s flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, around her neck to celebrate the feast of the nation’s patron saint at an “English Festival” on the outskirts of Gillingham, southeast of London.
With displays of sheep-shearing skills and vintage tractors, donkey rides for children and stalls selling old-fashioned foods like jellied eel, this was a nostalgic vision of England.
For Clarkson, it was a welcome opportunity to show his love for his country. In his view, English identity is being eroded as immigration rises, Scotland asserts itself and the government bows to diktats from the European Union in Brussels.
This sentiment is widespread in some parts of England that are struggling economically, and polling data shows that people who feel that way about England are most likely to vote to leave the EU in a referendum on June 23.
“I’ve always said I’d like to leave,” said Clarkson, 35, a chemicals salesman from Chatham, a town neighboring Gillingham. “We’re part of an establishment of bureaucrats in Brussels that make up rules for us.”
The poem on the back of his t-shirt made his feelings about this very clear, with a line about telling Brussels “we want our England back” and a verse that read “We are not Europeans, how can we be? Europe is miles away, over the sea”.
England lies 21 miles (34 km) from continental Europe, with the French coast visible from Dover on a clear day.
An analysis by political scientist Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent, using polling data from YouGov, found that 43 percent of those firmly committed to voting “Leave” in the referendum were people who felt more English than British.
Those who felt equally British and English made up 28 percent of that group while only 14 percent felt more British.
Confusing to outsiders, the distinction between Englishness and Britishness is complex.
England has 85 percent of the United Kingdom’s population and its dominance is such that in the past “British” and “English” were often used interchangeably by many English people as well as foreigners - although not in the UK’s three other constituent parts.
Major changes since World War Two including the end of the British Empire, EU membership, economic globalization and the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have weakened some of the pillars of British unity.
The three smaller countries had always retained a strong sense of identity, partly as a reaction to England’s dominance, but the English had not previously felt the need to assert themselves, and a consensus on how to do so has yet to emerge.
“There is a desire in this era of devolution for England’s voice to be heard,” said Toby Perkins, a member of parliament from the opposition Labour Party.
A passionate English patriot who nevertheless wants Britain to remain in the EU, Perkins spoke of a need to “define and claim patriotism for all of us” rather than abandon the mantle of Englishness to those who want to cut loose from the bloc.
He has proposed a bill that would give England sports teams their own song to sing before matches. As things stand, England sing “God Save The Queen”, the anthem of the whole United Kingdom, while Scotland and Wales have their own songs.
Apart from his initiative, the two main national parties, the Conservatives and Labour, have been slow to respond to English discontent, allowing forces such as the anti-EU party UKIP and the small, far-right English Defense League to tap into it.
Successive governments have tended to celebrate Britishness, often linking it to values like tolerance, cultural diversity, openness to the world and creativity in the arts or in business.
This was epitomized by the “Cool Britannia” brand promoted by then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in the late 1990s, and the current Conservative government’s “GREAT Britain” campaign.
But some sections of English society, especially older white people from blue collar backgrounds whose skills do not equip them to thrive in a globalized, services-oriented economy, do not identify with this official vision.
These disenfranchised English people are the core supporters of UKIP and the campaign to leave the EU.
“It is a key hallmark of these voters that they are far more inclined, perhaps as a result of their more precarious position in society, to prioritize a narrower and more exclusive form of national identity,” said political scientist Goodwin.
“AN ENGLAND-SHAPED HOLE”
English identity came to the fore during a 2014 parliamentary by-election in Rochester and Strood, neighboring towns to Chatham and Gillingham, which was won by UKIP.
During the campaign, Labour member of parliament Emily Thornberry tweeted a photo of a house displaying three large flags of St George. Her tweet read: “Image from #Rochester”.
Unlike Americans, Britons rarely display flags outside their homes, and Thornberry said she tweeted the image only because it was amazing.
But her tweet was widely seen as a condescending look at ordinary English people by a member of the London elite. After an outcry, she had to resign from a senior party job.
For Clarkson, it was about English pride being denigrated.
“If she had uploaded the picture and used the small caption of ‘look how proud this person is of his nation’ it would have done her a lot of credit,” he said. “She discredited herself because it was more ‘guess what I‘m trying to tell you’.”
Michael Kenny, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London and author of a book on the politics of Englishness, said there had been a flowering of interest in English cultural identity since the 1990s that went far beyond flags and anthems.
“Jerusalem”, a play about Englishness by Jez Butterworth that ranged from folk culture to drug-fuelled rave parties, was a huge hit in London. Musician PJ Harvey’s album “Let England Shake”, a critique of involvement in overseas wars, was widely acclaimed and commercially successful.
Kenny said that from pop music to poetry, fiction to film, there was “an absolute outpouring of stuff” about Englishness to which the political establishment did not know how to respond.
“There is great unease and reluctance, because most people in the political world believe Englishness is not a terribly progressive identity. There is a lingering fear that if this becomes political it’s right-wing and reactionary,” he said.
Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in an article marking St George’s Day last month that there was “an England-shaped hole in British politics”. This allowed the emotional power of Englishness to be channeled into eurosceptic politics and support for a British exit from the EU or “Brexit”.
“Wherever the flag with a red cross on a white background flutters on St George’s Day, there as likely as not a vote for Brexit will follow on referendum day,” he wrote.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and David Stamp