The resurgence of English identity, Michael Kenny explains, is being driven by an internal struggle between the competing cultural strands that make up contemporary Englishness.

The political fate of the Coalition government is umbilically tied to the fluctuating fortunes of the British economy and the storms that continue to buffet the eurozone. But while the fallout from the government's austerity programme and the spluttering recovery of the UK economy are the main axes around which British politics turns, less attention has been paid to the other defining theme of the day. This is the national question - or, more accurately, the various interlocking national questions - which have, for the first time for a century, moved front-and-centre in British political life. There are good reasons to think that these are just as likely to affect the fortunes of all the political parties in the short and medium term.

The development of a more compelling, contemporary case for Britain's union requires not just a fine-grained understanding of Scottish sensibilities and arguments, but also makes imperative a proper consideration of the nature and implications of developing forms of English identity. A growing body of social science research points to a gradual reassertion of English nationhood in the current period, a trend that is more deeply rooted and politically significant than is generally appreciated. Several different, contending versions of what it means to be English are quietly and inexorably leaving their imprint upon the agendas and assumptions of politics at Westminster.

National questions in British politics

For the most part, a considered and strategic approach to the issues and themes bound up with 'the nation' is notable by its absence from the British political scene. All of the main parties have obvious, short-term incentives for averting their eyes from these issues, or for playing them tactically, given their own internal differences on Europe and the union and the difficulties they have in engaging with the public on such matters.

And yet each is likely to find an evasive or purely tactical stance increasingly difficult to sustain. In part, this is a result of the dramatic coincidence of loud questions about Britain's role in Europe, the referendum on Scottish independence and the attendant debate about the union, the likelihood of further devolutionary developments in Scotland and Wales, even if Scottish independence does not come to pass, and the forthcoming McKay commission on the implications of devolution for the Westminster parliament. The chronological overlap of these issues makes the muddling-through, issue-by-issue approach increasingly implausible.

More generally, national questions are necessarily difficult for politicians who are schooled in the dominant British narrative of centralised and functional, rather than territorial, governance. And yet the blood has been seeping away from the Westminster model for some time, primarily because long-established ideas about what was special and unique about Britain and its evolving system of parliamentary government began to lose their appeal as the last century drew to a close. This was apparent from the rise of nationalist sentiments outside England from the 1970s, but it also became palpable among the English during the early and mid-1990s.

Now that the efficacy and legitimacy of this system of government and its national corollary - the United Kingdom, or 'fifth nation', as some commentators have called it - is being increasingly called into question, it is impossible for the political parties at Westminster to address such difficult issues using the codes and assumptions that have held sway since the late 18th century. Above all, the ingrained assumption that England is coterminous with British institutions and affiliations is at odds with wider patterns of national self-awareness among the English people. Engaging more positively with today's national questions is therefore unavoidable if UK-wide politics, and the systems of governance upon which it rests, are to restore their faltering legitimacy. Our politicians need to start pointing towards the outlines of a new constitutional settlement founded upon a better balance between the demands of territorial justice and the imperative to coordinate more closely the UK-wide dimensions of citizenship and statehood.

And yet each of the three main parties appears either uncomfortable or uncertain as they grapple with these national questions. For the Conservatives, David Cameron's deployment of familiar unionist arguments in the debate over Scottish independence sits awkwardly with the reality that the Tories look increasingly like the party that represents the most affluent parts of southern and middle England. Many voters within their electoral core are increasingly impatient with the union and Scottish demands upon it.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats' desire to ensure that the two commissions which the Coalition has set up - looking at a British bill of rights and how devolution impacts upon parliament - are kicked into the longest grass it can find suggests an increasingly conservative and defensive disposition. And this from a party that normally regards bold measures of constitutional reform as its unique selling point.

And for Labour, Ed Miliband's 'one nation' rhetoric is vulnerable to a pretty obvious rejoinder - 'which nation?' Perhaps best known as a Tory phrase, it is heard in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a decidedly English trope. This illustrates a broader pattern: when politicians at Westminster assume they are addressing audiences across the UK, increasingly they are ever-more Anglocentric in the tone and substance of their words.

For Labour, engaging with contemporary English sensibilities raises another pressing question: how can its rediscovery of an authentic, radical lineage of progressive patriotism - as proposed by figures such as the chair of its policy review, Jon Cruddas - be reconciled with the widespread perception that the party clings to the established order because of its heavy reliance upon the votes of Scottish MPs? At the same time, electoral considerations also dictate that the party should engage more carefully and deeply with those parts of England where it performed so disastrously in the general election of 2010. That result fuelled the notion that Labour speaks primarily for its former industrial heartlands, as well as the Welsh and Scots, and struggles to provide an 'offer' to and point of identification for those living in the new towns, the suburbs and the semi-rural hinterlands of large parts of southern and eastern England and the Midlands.

Narrow nationalism or English nationhood?

In the broadest terms, the main parties at Westminster still cling to the orthodoxies embedded in the Whig narrative of British government forged in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the forms of English identity which are starting to loom into view bring with them major challenges to the assumptions at the core of this national story, not least the supposed disinclination of the English to develop their own sense of national identity.

This does not mean accepting the dramatic claim that we are living in a 'moment' of English nationalism. For while many commentators and campaigners have long been frustrated by the apparent unwillingness of the English to give up their attachment to the premodern institutions of the British state and embrace the principle of popular sovereignty, the current trajectory of English nationhood suggests that a different scenario is much more likely to play out. A wide range of social scientific research finds very little evidence of a collective English desire to reclaim national sovereignty from the British state. But there are signs that the idea of a new, more 'delineated' relationship between England and the UK is becoming increasingly attractive.

This suggests, in policy terms, that the state should provide greater recognition of the distinctive forms of nationhood that the English are developing. It also implies that a more concerted effort to reform the centralised and top-down model of state-led governance - a model which is fraying the bonds between governors and the governed in England - is overdue. This system represents a major brake upon the prospect of renewing England's cities as engines for economic growth and civic pride, as Lord Heseltine has most recently pointed out.

Not that inertia is inevitable. Already there are signs that leading visions of Englishness are transforming the culture and agendas of British politics - albeit almost imperceptibly. Research has shown that the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have generated political cultures that are increasingly detached from developments elsewhere in the UK, but the English equivalent of this trend - the shrinkage in the imagined community addressed by the London-based media - has gone largely unnoticed. England (or most usually London and the south) serves as the taken-for-granted national community addressed by most media coverage of a political system that remains nominally British.

In constitutional terms, as soon as key areas of domestic legislation were devolved, the UK parliament began gradually to turn into a parliament for England. The result is that, as leading experts have put it: 'As an unintended consequence of devolution ... an English polity has (re)emerged as an incubus [sic] at the heart of the UK state'.

Most importantly of all, there are also numerous signs - for those who care to look - that Englishness has become the national identity of choice for many people in the last few years, and that its core concerns and dynamics are starting to imprint themselves on the Westminster political scene. Recent academic studies suggest that since roughly 2006-07 an important shift in national self-understanding may have been gathering pace. Its extent and underlying causes are hard to determine with confidence because of its embryonic character and the problems of methodology and measurement that accompany analysis of national identities. But it is striking that different accounts, using different methodologies, report that respondents were similarly willing to voice a sharp sense of irritation, and occasional resentment, at the prevalence of Scottish ministers in the Labour governments of the day.

While this may not be entirely surprising, given the nature of some of the media coverage during these years, elements of this research also suggest that such sentiments do not stem simply or only from the kind of base anti-Scottish prejudice that is stoked by parts of the media. Instead, these attitudes can be seen as reflecting a significant shift in ethical outlook that may have lasting implications. Social psychologist Susan Condor illustrates how the English, far from being indifferent or resentful about the idea of devolution for the non-English territories in the UK, have tended to see this as a reasonable means of 'evening things up' for the smaller, more vulnerable nations. In the last few years, then, it appears that this intuitive, liberal sense of the need to provide equitable treatment to different national groups in the multinational union state has increasingly been applied to England itself.

The advent to the British premiership of a Scottish MP known for his enthusiastic promotion of Britishness may have catalysed a flintier and more resentful sense of Englishness in some quarters, perhaps accentuated by the economic storm that broke during 2007. Lurking beneath this trend, however, there is the glimmer of a truly challenging English question: will the English now tolerate a prime minister who does not represent an English seat?

At the same time, an assessment of the various dynamics that have informed the re-emergence of English identity since the early 1990s suggests that devolution has not been the sole or even primary factor to have altered existing patterns of national identification. It is important to appreciate the impact of a cocktail of deepening cultural anxiety, rising economic insecurity and growing disillusion with the political system - mixed up together, these factors have made the organic and resonant language and symbols of Albion more appealing. Different strands of English identity emerged from an extended bout of national soul-searching in the early and mid-1990s, preceding devolution and prompted instead by the realisation that the pillars upon which sat the familiar glories of Britannia were crumbling away.

During the New Labour years, Englishness offered a language of inheritance and tradition that expressed a deep opposition to the metropolitan hubris and state-led managerialism with which those governments were often associated. These sentiments in turn created the conditions in which a populist, hard-edged nationalism was able to emerge among a minority of the English population. This version of 'the nation' revolves around the fantasy of a return to an ethnically pure England, without the complications and conflicts that modernity, urbanisation and cultural diversity have brought in their wake. Indeed, it may well be that this form of English identity has particular appeal to some who fall into the category of the 'squeezed middle', a group that is more commonly referenced in economic terms but which is also among the most politically fickle and culturally anxious in British society.

Recognising the English

Despite this development, there is much more to English nationhood than feelings of resentment and fear. As the summer of 2012 demonstrated, many people across the UK are still responsive to the inclusive and progressive account of the Anglo-British story, of the kind Danny Boyle assembled during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. A similarly inclusive mood was generated by the attitude and diversity of the crowds who flocked to the Olympics and to the Paralympic Games as well, which were culturally significant in their own way.

While nationalists struggle to explain the enduring popularity of these pro-British sentiments, this patriotic effusion should be seen as one of the many different faces of contemporary English nationhood. Older ideas about Britain's greatness may no longer command the sentimental power they once did, but there are still occasions when many English people are happy to signal their continuing attachment to and latent affection for Britain and its representatives. But this does not mean that the long-term trend towards greater national self-awareness among the English ground to a halt last summer. The assumption that national identity is a zero-sum game, in which people choose between being English and being British, is wide of the mark, especially in a state where multiple identities are the norm, not the exception.

At the same time, if this slowly burgeoning sense of English nationhood remains unvoiced in mainstream politics then there is a greater chance that such sentiments will mutate into a harder-edged nationalism that frames the political system and the post-devolution constitution as alien impositions. The dearth of meaningful forms of cultural and institutional recognition for English identity means that sentiments which need to be aired and engaged with are being bottled up. In this closeted environment even relatively trivial issues - such as being unable to tick 'English' as your national identity on official forms - can take on disproportionate significance.

The absence of such opportunities is all the more important given that there is, in the strictest sense, no such thing as Englishness. Rather, there are different, contending versions of what it means to be English. These converge upon a familiar set of national myths, stories and icons, and diverge in terms of the political and cultural sensibilities they promote.

And so, along with harder-edged English nationalism, other rival ideas of Englishness have arisen. Such contenders include an ordinary, everyday kind of broadly conservative Englishness which is politically moderate, underpinned by the enduring myth that the spirit of England lies in its rural past, takes a broadly tolerant stance towards those from other cultural backgrounds, and holds to an intuitive sense of fairness. This broad seam of English national sentiment, which spans the villages and towns of rural and suburban England, is also a hotbed of Europhobia.

This sense of Englishness is in competition with another strand - that associated with various attempts to promote a modern, liberal vision of a multicultural England. This resonates with younger people, professional groups and growing numbers of ethnic-minority citizens. It is, as yet, the most inchoate of these English blocs, but it has considerable potential for further development. In combination, these three forms of national understanding - broadly, the nationalist-populist, the conservative-traditional and the liberal-modern - stake out the territory of Englishness.

Understanding the plural nature of the emerging English 'national-popular' (to use Gramsci's term) suggests a sceptical response to grandiose claims about the rise of English nationalism. While nationalism tends to develop through a symbolic process of negative self-definition against various external 'others', current forms of Englishness are less likely to be shaped by external cultural contrasts - although Euroscepticism has undoubtedly served as an external stimulus to English self-awareness - than by internal contrasts.

Longstanding rivalries between 'North' and 'South', for instance, figure in many accounts of the meaning, culture and landscapes of Englishness, so that the national 'us' is often defined against a 'them' who represent a very different kind of English sensibility and politics. In contemporary terms, hostility to the power and wealth of London and the south east is one of the most powerful dynamics within the English imagination.

Secondly, differences rooted in social class remain a distinguishing feature of Englishness, in contrast to other forms of European national identity. This gives rise to expressions that conjure up the national spirit through archetypical representations of distinct social classes - a familiar motif of TV dramas like Downton Abbey, for instance. From this perspective, there is a continuing sense of order and hierarchy within English culture, with the two main political parties providing the political vehicles for divergent accounts of the national character.

More recently, a third axis of Englishness has emerged around the nationalist-populist contention that it is indigenous white people who constitute 'the last tribe in England', and who have been neglected by a state that is said to treat cultural minorities, immigrants and the non-English nations more favourably. Given the coexistence of, and tensions between, these rival ideas of Englishness, generic appeals to patriotism by politicians are likely to miss the mark. The politics of Englishness is now defined by the struggles in which these contending accounts are engaged. Political actors will gain most traction by framing their arguments in these diverse conservative and progressive traditions.

The Anglicisation of British politics

The Anglicisation of British politics has not, for the most part, resulted in a highly political nationalism demanding the creation of English-only institutions. Instead, it has led to a more Anglocentric way of thinking and talking about politics, which has bubbled up into the political mainstream in the form of an increasingly Anglocentric view of political priorities and focus. Anglo-British politics is increasingly defined by the very different experiences of recession and public sector cuts in the south east and other parts of England, the growing resentment occasioned by rising inequality and the irresponsible behaviour of political and economic elites, and debates over who counts as a deserving member of the national community (with migrants and those dependent on welfare benefits often framed as undeserving outsiders). Each of these themes has been played out within, and stoked by, the rhetorical repertoire associated with a revitalised sense of English heritage and culture.

But, while politicians at Westminster are, usually unwittingly, reflecting an ever-more Anglicised set of priorities, it is wrong to think that this amounts to a coherent or strategic response to the various challenges posed by a growing sense of Englishness. There is, in the longer term, a real prize available to the political party that is able to harness the evolving sensibilities of the English and to address credibly the normative claim at their heart - that England merits greater recognition in both cultural and political terms.

Such a venture should be seen as integral to the project of defending and reconfiguring the union. In current circumstances, the greatest threat it faces is not from nationalists in Scotland. Rather, it is from those at the centre of the political system who cling to the assumption that the English will always 'get' the merits and quirks of the union and of the asymmetrical model of devolution that Labour introduced. Now, however, letting England breathe a little, bringing decision-making and governance closer to its cities and towns, and re-engaging its people with the case for the union - these offer a better and smarter way of reinvigorating the United Kingdom.

This point may now be slowly dawning at Westminster. Cameron has taken a small but important step in this direction by signalling his support for the idea of an English national anthem to be played when representative teams are in action. Labour, for all its talk of Englishness, has not been as bold.

In the end, the most effective response to increasingly prominent populist-nationalist sentiments is not to disengage from the terrain of 'the national popular' in the name of universal liberal values, nor to try to recycle or appropriate the simplicities of nationalist-populist rhetoric on issues like immigration. The better, more enduring alternative is to work much harder and more imaginatively - in intellectual, cultural and policy terms - to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation, and to connect these to a renewed case for union. This is the major challenge linking the various national questions of British politics. It is time that the parties stopped dithering and embraced it.

This essay is the lead article in the latest issue of Juncture, IPPR's journal for rethinking the centre-left.