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  • Online publication date: December 2014

Introduction

Summary

In the past two decades the nature of English national identity has attracted a significant amount of both public and scholarly attention. Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair made plain in public speeches their opinions on the topic, parroting a patriotic version of English exceptionalism that few historians would now accept. They celebrated uncritically English achievements such as parliamentary government, the slow evolution towards democracy and the rule of law. Current public policy debates on the nature and purpose of history in the National Curriculum abound, focused on how and what should be taught about the national past. Peter Mandler, president of the Royal Historical Society, noted in 2013 that ‘all of the main professional bodies of historians have united in criticism of this draft’. This creates a dilemma because the legally enforced curriculum ‘is also used to explore concepts of nationhood, which operate in tension with people's history’. Meanwhile scholars have sought to locate identity in a wide variety of activities: from music to gardening, from patterns of foreign travel to constitutional achievements, from the cinema to imperial governance and a host of other categories. Even Prince Charles has weighed in on the subject in 2013, calling the English countryside the unacknowledged backbone of the nation's national identity.

In each of these areas, as well as all others, the definition of national identity possesses a historical aspect.