Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Saturday, 3 April 2010 12:49 UK

Journey up the M1 in search of English identity


Komla Dumor watches a citizenship ceremony at Leeds civic hall

As the general election nears, the major parties are courting the 'middle-England' vote.

Komla Dumor

But who are these middle-England voters and how do they view their identity?

The BBC's Komla Dumor has been travelling up the M1 motorway for the World Today programme to find out.

As road trips go this is a different one for me.

In the three years that I have worked for the BBC I have racked up the air and road miles on journeys around the world - Botswana, Tanzania, Spain and recently Nigeria, just to name a few.

But what about England?

To be honest the only locations I am familiar with are Bush house in London, home of the BBC World Service; Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush and my home in Hertfordshire.

Frankly the only time I stray off this path is when I am heading to… well Heathrow.

Terminal 5 is my second home.

It has reached a point where the folks at the duty free shops recognise me and ask: "Komla, where are you off to this time?"

So this latest trip is quite welcome.

This week I have been travelling up the M1 motorway.

I travelled north to Luton, Leicester, Sheffield and Leeds with some questions in mind - what does it mean to be "English" in 2010?

And, ahead of the general election, will people's feelings about their identity shape the way they vote?

Monday: Luton

My first stop is a boxing gym.

It was set up by a Polish boxing coach.

Boxing Gym
The boxing gym attracts people from many different backgrounds

As I step into the ring for a lesson I am told not only how to improve my jab but how this gym brings people together in the community.

The young people skipping and hitting the speed bags are from different backgrounds - Muslim, Christian, Asian, Afro-Caribbean and White.

They all have one goal in mind - to be good boxers.

The work is tough but it seems that this is what bonds the young athletes.

I have been told that Luton has a history of racial tensions but in this gym, getting fit and dodging punches is more important.

Later, I meet a Portsmouth fan wearing an England badge on his coat. I ask him how he defines himself.

He says he thinks of himself as English and describes the English as decent, hard working people with a sense of fair play.

This is unusual as so far, most people have describe themselves as British, with quite a few saying they felt there was stigma attached to calling themselves as English.

Some say that right-wing politicians have hijacked the idea of being proud to be English, so they feel uncomfortable describing themselves as English.

Tuesday: Leicester

Leicester is a bigger city and presents a fascinating case study of how the country is changing.

According to the city council, after 2011 Leicester is forecast to be a city where white people will be a minority.

Woman playing bingo
At the bingo hall, people talk about the fast pace of change

This should not be a problem according to Manjul Sood, who in 2008 became the first asian woman to be elected lord mayor of a major city.

She insists that Leicester has made tremendous progress in race relations.

However later that evening, at a bingo hall, I meet some people who do not entirely agree with her.

Of the 400 or so players there, most are white.

I strike up a conversation with one middle-aged woman who tells me quite bluntly that political correctness has gone too far.

She says that English identity is gradually being eroded and that while other cultures celebrate their identity with pride, expressions of Englishness have become a by-word for loutish behaviour or at its worst, racism.

What upsets her most is that the social changes seem to be occurring so fast that it is difficult to adjust.

But it is not only people like her who are concerned about identity.

I take a small detour off the M1 to the east to Peterborough.

There, at the Italian Community centre, I meet some first generation Italians - men and women who came to this country to work after the second world war.

They tell me stories of the hardships they faced working in the brick industries of the time.

Italian centre
An Italian woman posts her thoughts on England for the World Today

They have gathered for a Catholic mass, spoken in Italian by an Italian priest.

Later I catch up with Father Angelo Buffoli who believes that in the next five or 10 years this religious practice is likely to fade away.

He says the newest generation of Italians are less committed to the religion and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to come to church.

Later that afternoon, a wonderful Italian woman who came to England around 50 years ago teaches me something that seems pretty resistant to change - how to cook a real Italian meal.

As she walks me through the preparation of bragiole, I hear someone say how sad it is that kids these days don't speak enough Italian.

What lessons can be learned from the Italian immigrant experience?

An 82 year old man tells me: "It doesn't matter where you come from. Work hard, pay your taxes and respect the law. That's all that matters."

Wednesday: Sheffield

The strongest comments I hear about identity are from a young man of Yemeni ancestry on the streets of the former steel city of Sheffield.

Sitting in the local cultural centre, he tells me that the debate about immigration has gotten out of hand.

"No matter what I do I will always be seen as an immigrant or a foreigner," he says.

"I pay taxes, I contribute to this country and every now and then a few of us make a name for ourselves.

But mainstream British society will always see me as an outsider."

Views on England gathered during the journey
"A peaceful people within an increasingly divided society"
"The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer"
"Democracy in action"
"A mess"
"Somewhere I am still proud to call my home"
"An expanding multiracial society"
"Opportunities to succeed and lovely people who look after you once they get to know you"

He tells me that in his community the issues of poverty and unemployment are not being addressed by the politicians because in his words, "no one cares what a poor man has to say in this country."

I suggest to him that this has nothing to do with his ethnicity.

Pretty soon a small group of young men gathers and a very engaging good-natured debate ensues.

Soon I have to leave as my next location is calling, but meeting young Yemenis for whom their religious identity is more important than their nationality has broadened my understanding of these contemporary issues.

Thursday: Leeds

This is the last stop on my trip.

This morning I attend a citizenship ceremony at the civic hall.

Citizenship ceremony
At the citizenship ceremony people talk with pride about becoming British

After years of waiting and completing paperwork, people from Iraq, Jamaica, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Russian federation swear the pledge of loyalty, and sing the national anthem and become British citizens.

For some it is a moment of celebration.

They come with friends and family dressed in their best outfits, smiling nervously and waiting for the moment when their nationality - and presumably their futures - will change.

There are many children here, smiling, waving flags, excited by all the formality of it all.

When it is over I speak to a man and his heavily pregnant wife who have just become British citizens.

He is originally from central Africa and his wife is from Cameroon.

With pride he tells me that his son, who is due in a few days, will be British.

This week I have struggled to get people to define their identity and now here is a man who knows exactly what it means to him.

"We have already chosen a name," he says. "We will call him Alastair- we want him to have a typical British name."

Turning to his wife's protruding tummy he says: "You heard that!"

A week is certainly not enough time to fully understand how people in England view their identity, but at least when I travel along the familiar route of the M25 heading to Heathrow for my next BBC trip, my understanding of this country will be much better than it used to be.

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