What’s in a Name?

New academic research from Professor John Denham & Professor Richard Webber finds links between the origins of our family names, our geography, and our propensity to identify as ‘English’ or ‘British’.

Of all the concerns people carry about immigration, it’s fear of the cultural impact that is most strongly held. It’s also the one least easy for those of a liberal disposition to grapple with. Cultural reassurance is much less amenable to technocratic policy than, say, low wages, building more homes or even the promise of future controls. At the root of popular worries is the fear that ‘people like us’ will lose our identity in the face of large numbers of ‘people who are different’ and, crucially, ‘people who don’t want to be like us’.

For this reason, understanding what has happened with past waves of migration is important: the past may not be an entirely reliable guide to the future but it can give us some sense of how things work out. Even more critically, it can help us to understand how long it can take for things to work out successfully. In a recent study, we wanted to explore what happened to migrants to England from other parts of the UK, and to those who migrated from one English region to another.

Englishness only exists as an identity; it does not exist as a legal citizenship. Access to English identity is not unconditional. Contrary to popular myth, most people don’t think you have to be white to be English, but Englishness is widely associated with birth. Around three in four citizens think you can be ‘English’ if you were born here.

So new migrants into England may not be seen as (or feel) English, but their children and grandchildren are likely to have the choice of identifying as English. On the other hand, migrants from other parts of the UK are hardly cut off from their family origins or from symbols and organisations of Welsh, Scottish and Irish identity, whether in sport, music, culture or in politics. With a shared British culture available to most UK migrants (other than those with an Irish Republican background), most would not seem to be under huge social pressures to conform to any dominant English identity. We wanted to see what choices they have made.

Analysis of the Brexit vote in England has highlighted the divergence between Leave voters, predominantly identifying as English, and Remain voters, mainly identifying as British. There’s a similar divide between socially mobile graduates and those who have spent less time in education.

Anecdotally at least, a sense of Englishness is often built on attachment to a particular place or part of England. Our study also tested the possibility that families that have lived for a long time in the same area may be more English and less British than those with the aspiration and ability to move.

We drew on a YouGov poll of nearly 6000 residents of England, commissioned by the Centre of English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester at the end of 2016. Respondents were asked whether they identified as ‘mainly English’, ‘equally English and British’, ‘’mainly British’, ‘Other’ and ‘Don’t Know’.

Using a database containing the 25,000 most common British surnames, categorised by the region of their highest incidence and by culture of origin, we’ve been able to study the national identities held today by people whose families (at least on the male side) came originally from Scotland, Wales, Ireland or from different regions of England.

After a sharp movement from British identity around the turn of the 20th Century, a settled pattern has emerged that was confirmed by our survey: the most common identity (38 per cent) is ‘equally English and British’. Either side of this, the ‘predominantly English’ (34 per cent) heavily outweigh the ‘predominantly British’ (19 per cent). This means that English is now established as the most widely shared national identity in England.

Surname origins shed more light on different groups within the English population. As expected, the most strongly English are those living in the region of their surname’s heartland. We can’t be sure that an individual respondent’s family has always lived in there, but this will be sufficiently common to explain variations in the responses. These most rooted English are more likely to be ‘predominantly English’ and ‘equally English and British’, and much less ‘predominantly British’ than the average. Geographically mobile people with an English name are still more English than average but to a less marked extent.

More surprising are the national identities of those with surnames of Celtic origin – see here. Overall, the Celtic community has not only widely adopted English as an identity, it too has come to prioritise its Englishness over its Britishness. 32 per cent of ‘Celts’ are predominantly English, 37 per cent ‘equally English and British’ and just 20 per cent predominantly British.

These results add some insight into recent political events. Brexit was a vote of English identifiers, and these are most likely to be amongst people who have been least geographically, and perhaps socially, mobile. At the same time, the figures show the weakness of Britishness as a single unifying identity for people from different parts of the United Kingdom. It’s a widely shared identity, but, even in England and even amongst historic migrants, less powerful than English identity.

Within the Celtic groups, people with Scottish surnames are most likely to feel predominantly English and the Irish least likely. The Irish are also more likely (14 per cent) to reject both Englishness and Britishness. Some will be Irish by citizenship, but it’s also likely that the history of Anglo-Irish relations limit the accessibility of English and British identities for Irish migrants.

Outside London, the pattern of identities is broadly in line with the national average, though the North East and Yorkshire are more ‘equally English and British’, the South East and South West least likely to be ‘predominantly British’, and ‘Englishness’ strongest across the East and West Midlands and Eastern England.

Often regarded as more homogenously British than the rest of England, London is actually sharply polarised – see here. There are more ‘predominantly British’ but markedly fewer ‘equally English and British’. Within the capital, those with English surnames are ‘more English’ than across England as a whole. The pattern of Celtic identities is also different, with London Celts emphasising their British rather than their English identity.

Our sample gave some insight into non-British surnames, though not in large enough numbers to allow a detailed examination. White, non-British surnames tended (59 per cent) to reject both English and British identities, presumably because they are new migrants or transient. BME respondents were more ‘predominantly British’ and ‘equally English and British’ than predominantly English.

The widespread adoption of English identity by Celtic migrants in England, albeit to a lesser than the majority population, suggests that migrants have come, over time, to adopt a similar mix of identities to those around them (helped no doubt by inter-marriages). The question is the extent to which this pattern will be followed by more recent waves of migration. We’d suggest that the same course is likely in areas where the migrant population is relatively small compared with the majority community.

It’s less clear what will happen where the influence of the English majority is less marked. It is positive that most migrants adopt British identity and the large minority of them some element of English identity. But the apparent polarisation of identities in London, with the entrenchment of English identity amongst English origin surnames should raise concerns. While there is no ‘correct’ identity, it is important that choices between English and British identities are open to all long-term residents and not determined by barriers of ethnicity.