In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • The Idea of English Ethnicity
  • Stefan Berger (bio)
The Idea of English Ethnicity by Robert J.C. Young; pp. 312. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. $29.30 cloth.

The idea of English ethnicity, as outlined in this latest offering from the intriguing Blackwell Manifestos series, is a patriot's tale. In a nutshell, Robert Young argues that the idea of Englishness was transformed in the course of the nineteenth century from a national identity for the English living in England to a diasporic and global identity without firm geographical borders. This, Young's more implicit than explicit conclusion, makes Englishness more open, tolerant, and inclusive than other national identities. Young begins with accounts of the rise of Saxonism in nineteenth-century England and the juxtaposition of the Saxon to the Celt (ch. 1, 2). Focusing on Robert Knox and W.F. Edwards, he subsequently describes the merger of philosophy, history, and morality with anatomy and the attribution of moral qualities to physiognomy (ch. 3). After devoting much attention to the vociferous anti-Celtic campaigns of The Times newspaper from the 1840s onwards, he outlines the growing resistance to anti-Celticism. Paradoxically, the arguments for a more inclusive Englishness that incorporated the Celts (often holding out the "generous" possibility of assimilating them) were based on more "scientific" racial theories than that of their opponents. Matthew Arnold's critique of "Englishism" completed the reintegration of the Celt in a more inclusive Englishness, although, as Young does not fail to point out, the rise of anti-Semitism paralleled the downplaying of anti-Celtic discourse in constructions of Englishness. The incorporation of the Celt in more inclusive constructions of Englishness provided a stepping stone toward further expansion of Englishness, which ultimately came to incorporate the entire English-speaking empire (ch. 6, 7). Young traces the making of a "transnational brotherhood" (179-80) and a "globalised race" (180) and postulates that Anglo-Saxonism possibly represented the "first hyphenated identity" (181). Charles Dilke, John Ruskin, Cecil Rhodes, John Seeley, and J.A. Froude figured prominently in the construction of this hyphenated identity. Throughout the book, Young stresses the importance of historians and historical discourse for constructions of national identity—something confirmed by the five-year European Science Foundation-funded project "Representations of the Past: The Writing of National Histories in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Europe" (

While Young is always intriguing and mostly convincing in outlining the changing discourse on Englishness in the nineteenth century, his conclusions, as presented in the final chapter of the book, are not. For it is here that he unconvincingly links the global identity of the English with a cosmopolitan and open nationalism that makes the English into a tolerant and welcoming people. He even goes so far as to say that today's refugees desperately try to get across the Channel because they want to enjoy the greater tolerance of the English and to live in "a comparatively gentle, compassionate and inclusive society" [End Page 155] (240 ff.). He presents no evidence for this assertion, and it would seem entirely reasonable to refer to other reasons as to why today's illegal refugees prefer Britain to France (language being one, and the relative ease with which one can disappear from the radar of the British authorities being another), and this lack of evidence points to a greater problem in Young's argument. Throughout the book he chooses to ignore any evidence that does not fit his argument about the global extension of a cosmopolitan Englishness. Thus, he does not engage at all with Bernard Porter's important intervention in the wider debate on "absentminded imperialism" (Porter, see title) and he systematically excludes any discussion of the exclusive othering that went on even under a more diasporic and globalized construction of English ethnicity. Clear enmities and hostilities characterized this definition of Englishness, and it is by no means obvious that it was more open or tolerant than other national identities in Europe. In fact, this implicit comparative argument in Young's book cannot be made on the basis of an exclusive discussion of Englishness. It would need a thorough comparative treatment of the construction of English ethnicity...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 155-156
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.