It’s England’s Brexit
The referendum is an English question. When it is over the UK will need an English parliament. Chapter 10 of Blimey, it could be Brexit!
Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?
Less than a month before the vote and polls suggest the outcome of the referendum might be Brexit. Why? I want to point the finger at my own kind: the progressive, well-educated, middle class, Europe-loving, opinion makers, 91% of whom, if you are Guardian-readers like me want to stay in the EU. Yes, my kin and kind, it is your fault that a Brexit result you so abhor is even possible. Like a bad cyclist who stares at the large, wild-looking dog they are trying to avoid and therefore steers into it, the English nation that alarms you so much is now giving you a well deserved bite up the bum. You should have befriended it.
Whatever the result of the referendum, whether it is a healthy majority forRemain, a narrow one, or a vote to Leave, the heart of the matter is that England has to have its own parliament. What the referendum reveals is that England both monopolises and is imprisoned by British Westminster and its culture of ‘to the victor the spoils’. To escape from this England is embracing Brexit because no other solution is on offer. It may be intimidated into remaining in the EU through fear of the economic consequences. But England’s frustrated desire for democracy has turned it against the EU rather than the real culprit, the British state.
Although a long fruitless succession of calls for England to ‘awake’ should warn off any further attempts, mine has three parts, each in a different tone. First, sociological, showing that England is the force behind the referendum. Second, subjective, highlighting the nature of Englishness. Third, political, arguing that action has to be taken to represent England fairly in all its glorious polyphony.
England not Britain is driving the Referendum
A recent ICM online poll has England showing Remain 43% with Leave on 44% and undecided 12%. Telephone polls have shown a significant lead for Remain,which the betting says is still the likely outcome on 23rd June. The reason that I’m bothering with an uncertain statistic is that this one allows comparison with Scotland where there is certainty. North of the border the same poll showsRemain is on 59% and Leave 28%, also with 12% undecided. The majority forRemain in Scotland is already more than twice as large as the ‘don’t knows’. This is reflected in its politicians. In Edinburgh Allan Little reports for the BBC, “It is striking how little high-profile support there is for Brexit in Scotland… During a debate in the Holyrood chamber last week, only eight of the 129 MSPsvoted to leave the EU”. In England’s Westminster there was no such debate – a significant failure of nerve.
With the Remain lead unassailable, the Scottish nation has made up its mind. It is England that has yet to decide. The present uncertainty is not a question of how ‘Britain’ will vote. Leave or Remain is an English question.
The English nature of the referendum does not please the political-media caste that rules the UK, or my Guardian-reading friends. There are divisions over the EU but not over the reluctance to be ‘reduced’ to being ‘merely’ English administrators, politicians, broadcasters or listeners. Thanks to devolution there is an Arts Council England, English Heritage and NHS England But there is not a single major English civic organisation or think tank I know of, that seeks to represent English opinion, framing itself within the necessary national consciousness. England has no voice, no civic institutions, no parliament or even assembly.
Here in England, there is unease that if the vote is for Brexit the Scottish government might demand “another independence referendum” as Alan Little puts it. From the point of view of the British political-media caste, it is further evidence that the Scots remain uppity about the British and that Scotland might once again try to “go off on its own”. It is not – at least not yet – understood that all the Scots would be doing is seeking to Remain! The Scots will simply aim to stay as they are, like most of Europe. It will be England’s Westminster that will be the oddball – for proclaiming independence from Scotland along with the rest of the EU.
Two years ago, my openDemocracy colleague Adam Ramsay wrote a short article on the peculiarity of the Westminster system, Scotland isn’t different, it’s Britain that’s bizarre. Through the debates over last year’s independence referendum it was repeatedly shared until about 8% of the Scottish population read it. As yet the ‘Brits in England’ do not yet know how bizarre they are. Instead, the Westminster political and media caste observe the universe through Ptolemaic binoculars that make it appear that all movement revolves around them, as the fixed ‘historic’ centre. This applies as much to Cameron as to Johnson and Corbyn. All seem to believe that somehow Scotland has sought to ‘leave’ them and will in the end come back if not in this decade in the next. Whereas in fact England is on the move. This is the inadmissible secret of so-called British politics. They call it a Brexit referendum. Wrongly. It would be better abbreviated to Exit.
Even Martin Kettle, a Guardian columnist who advocates constitutional reform cannot escape the optic of “British voters”. Pulling his hair out at the fearful closeness of the polls he writes (I’m quoting key phrases and emphasing):
If Brexit wins, it will be because a majority of British voters have simply lost confidence in the way they are governed… why is this happening… the closeness of the polls says something new is afoot among us as a people… Why is it so hard to persuade the British electorate… ifBritain walks away, it will be an act of immense political impulsiveness by one of the last countries in Europe that many would expect to behave that way. France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary maybe, according to the old stereotypes. But Britain?
It’s wrong to write about the UK like this. Britain is no longer a single political country with a unified people. If Brexit happens it will only be because a majority of English voters have lost confidence in the way they are governed. To focus on what this means, I’ll declare my interest. England is my country; I’d like it to come alive in a healthy way and don’t like to see it driven by UKIP. I am very conscious of the good people I know who are English in so many ways – one being that they deny their national identity any overt expression. Not just individuals, but political parties too, in particular the Labour Party, which lost the last election because it had no English programme and will go on losing them until it creates one.
This is a very hard argument for most English readers to take, because it involves the need to untie a knot in their own identity that they fear to loosen. It has to be done. There can be no progress without it.
Eighteen months ago a careful study by Nick Vivyan and Chris Hanretty of Durham and East Anglia universities mapped support for leaving the EU, constituency by constituency across the UK. The darker the blue the higher the support for leaving.
Hanretty told the Aberdeen Press and Journal, “What this analysis shows is that Scottish views on the European Union are distinct from English views. Even looking at constituencies just north of the border – areas that are by no means bedrocks of SNP support – you find a more favourable opinion of the EU than you do in the north of England.”
Within England there are big variations, with London supporting Remain. These should not distract from the political and cultural divide between the nations. I’m not going to discuss Wales and Northern Ireland here, which appears discourteous but comes from my respect for their own specific responses. I intend to go and report from there separately.
Here is an FT image made in the final month of the referendum campaign.
Three Future of England surveys in 2011, 2012 1nd 2014, the first two publishedby ippr, the third by the Centre for Constitutional Change – probe what is happening. A finding from the third report is striking. When people were asked which of several different levels of government has “most influence” over how their nation is run, 6% of respondents in Wales thought the EU had the most influence; in Scotland just 4%. But in England an astonishing 26% thought the EU has “the most influence” on the way their country is run. Of course the English could not say that their national parliament has any influence, as they don’t have one. The point is simply to register that there is a huge body of opinion in England quite different in its view of Europe from anything found in Scotland or Wales. If you are Scottish or Welsh and reading this, you will find the point perfectly obvious. But if you are living in England you are more likely to think it is a British problem. It isn’t. It is a frustrated Englishness.
The question is whether this a residual sentiment or an emergent one, to use terms developed by Raymond Williams. His argument was that at all times different hegemonic systems (meaning both political and cultural) co-exist: the dominant, the emergent and the residual. Englishness is certainly not dominant but is it coming or going? Is it a force for the future or a hangover from the past?
One way of trying to get a measure of this is by comparing today’s opinion (acknowledging they are soft samples) with the hard figures of the 1975 referendum, on whether to vote Yes to stay in, or No to leave Europe.
Forty years ago, just under 60% of Scots voted Yes to remaining. Today such support is still around 60%. Then, Scotland was about 41% for leaving, today that figure is just below 30% (with the additional 10% being undecided). The drop in support for leaving reflects the secular decline of the size of working class, who in the 1970s were largely hostile to being in Europe.
Scotland has gone through a domestic political revolution since 1975. Thanks to a mobilisation around the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly and the 1989Claim of Right for Scotland, it gained its own parliament a decade later and then saw the elimination of all three unionist parties (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat) from Westminster seats and their replacement as the domestic government by the SNP, now into its third term of office. Yet this far-reaching transformation has consolidated the country’s perception of itself as a European nation. From a European perspective what has taken place is no revolution at all. Instead, the last forty years have seen the normalisation of Scotland, thanks to its sloughing off the abnormality of sub-fusc Westminster rule.
In England apparently the opposite has taken place. Despite all the constitutional changes, there has been a tightening of the traditional Westminster grip. Third party challenges – first of the Social Democrats and then, after their merger with the Liberals, the Liberal Democrats – have been decimated. Labour attempted to transform itself into New Labour to become a vehicle for neoliberal globalisation with added, if marketised, welfare – a more far-reaching revolution than anything attempted in Scotland – only for it to be reduced to dust by the financial crash. Now it has a left-wing leader mocked like Neil Kinnock while the Tories enjoy outright majority rule even more Thatcherite than Thatcher’s. The Queen has her 90th birthday, Rupert Murdoch gets married in London. If someone were to step out of a time machine from 30 years ago, they would be amazed by the internet and smart phones, but the political scene would at first glance be similar to 1986.
At second glance he or she would be surprised to learn that whereas Thatcher had just abolished the GLC now London has a Muslim mayor; that Scotland had its own parliament, and Wales too! That there is a Supreme Court… and the divisions over the referendum would be more than puzzling. Where are “the wets”, as the figures from the old establishment were called? What is this UKIP party with 4 million votes? The visitor from 1986 looking past the immediately recognisable would observe the much-diminished character of the familiar regime, perhaps noting that the House of Commons did not even debate the renegotiated terms of the deal with Europe, an unimaginable loss of authority neither Commons nor the then largely hereditary House of Lords would have tolerated in 1986.
Among the public an extraordinary alteration of opinion in England could be observed. In 1975 nearly 70% of England embraced the ruling establishment’s assurance that Europe was the way to go for prosperity and influence – a significantly higher number than in Scotland. Today the current average is around 50%. Whereas forty years ago those who voted to leave were 30%, today it looks like being 45% or maybe more. Three weeks before the vote and the movement is towards Leave. We are witnessing a gravely reduced and weakened Westminster system whose legitimacy is bleeding away; a historic shift in temper and opinion in England; a ferocious, open battle within the governing Tory party, and an even more fundamentally divided opposition. In this concatenation the only point of influential, positive verve is coming from the Tories of the Leave campaign who are reaching out to hostility to elites and thereby energising it.
They are reading the energy as British, hoping what is at heart English sentiment will return to the old British exoskeleton. Like Michael Gove only more so, Boris Johnson’s appeal is entirely couched in the language of British patriotism,
do you see Britain’s future as an open, global, free trading, dynamic economy based on confidence in tried and tested British institutions? Or do you believe that in order to survive we need to remain embedded in something that fundamentally takes away our powers… We are asking the British people to be brave, to be confident in themselves and to believe in Britain.
But as the Leave and Remain campaigns drive their battle buses along the ramparts of Britain, working beneath them is the old mole of history. Not Marx’s revolution but the spirit of the country’s ancestor: England is rising. And the English mole aims to snap off the cobra’s head of corporate globalisation before it wraps the island in its suffocating embrace.
The 2014 Future of England survey compared those in England who self-described themselves as British or as English since 1992.
Over time, we see a gradual reduction in the proportion of people describing themselves as British. The increase in support for English identity appears to occur in waves, rising to heights in 1999 –just as the devolved legislatures held their first Elections – then 2006 and again in 2011… English and British identity both appear strong in England.
This is the graph of an emergent Englishness. It is becoming numerically equal to the still dominant Britishness that occupies institutional hegemony. It’s the self-identifying English who are driving hostility to the EU. Without them British Boris would be nowhere. The table below compares the attitudes to the EU of the British-in-England to those of the English-in-England.
The Political Quarterly has just published an article co-researched by six academics including Richard Wyn Jones on England, Englishness and Brexit. They looked careful at comparative surveys of national and regional differences towards the EU across the UK. While people talk about the EU’s threat to Britain and Britishness, they noted, in England, those “who felt more British than English were actually most positive in their attitudes towards the EU”. While in Scotland and Wales those who identified with their distinct nations were favourable towards the EU, “England is very different”. They continue,
The more strongly or exclusively English their sense of national identity, the more likely respondents were to think EU membership a bad thing and to want to leave the EU. The contrast between England and Scotland in these data is striking.
Whereas the rise of Scottish nationalism consolidated allegiance to membership of the EU, what is best described as the rise of English sentiment (for it does not have an honest political expression) is associated with something very different. The authors of The Future of England describe their findings,
The 2014 survey presents further evidence that England has a distinctive politics that combines a politicisation of English national identity with an increasingly clear political prospectus, and an increasingly vocal advocate for that prospectus. The rallying point is an English desire for self-government. Some of that desire is defined by a continuing sense that Scotland has privileges that are unjustly denied to England. Some also has to do with a perceived loss of political control due to European integration, which in policy and practical terms is related to a perceived loss of control over immigration. But people in England are not just reacting against their ‘others’ in Scotland and the EU. They are also searching more positively for an institutional recognition of England that can express their concerns better than the current political system, which submerges the representation of England within the wider UK’s institutions in Westminster and Whitehall. More by default than by design the United Kingdom Independence Party appears to have become a vessel for those concerns.
When Cameron made his fateful decision to embrace a referendum after negotiating a reform of the EU, Clegg warned him that it was “risky and could easily backfire.” Cameron just shrugged and said: “You may be right. But what else can I do? My backbenchers are unbelievably Eurosceptic and UKIP are breathing down my neck.” It seems clear that he regarded the risk from UKIP in the same way you would the danger of a spill if you decided you had to move some toxic materials to the dump for disposal. Cameron shared the arrogance of the political caste that the rise of UKIP was a protest by the old and the marginal at the price they were being forced to pay for progress.
In this Cameron and his kind got UKIP wrong. They could not see the future positive nature of some of the energy it appeals to. Gary Younge has just written that the referendum is not just “a battle between cosmopolitans and internationalists on one side and bigots and bumpkins on the other”. Indeed, for any democrat the super-rich cosmopolitans of globalisation are a legitimate enemy. They have created a business-class elite who travel the world from limousine to hospitality room, to plane, hotel, conference room, office suite and back to their private apartment, without once leaving the comforts of well-controlled air-conditioning. Multi-racial and multi-national in their marriages, affairs and nannies, they observe the parochialism of those of us on the other side of the tinted windows with amusement and license us smart phones on lucrative rentals to keep us entertained.
Against their world order we need to insist on the democracy of nationalism as an open framework shaped by cities and networks. Civic nationalism that applies self-government, accountability and sharing sovereignty internationally is neither bumpkinness nor bigotry. It is the home of pluralism and an open world, a progressive opposition not regressive exclusivism.
There is a democratic force within English nationalism currently trapped in the toxic sludge carried along by UKIP (as well as seeking to escape it within UKIP itself, for example Douglas Carswell). This force is not going away, nor should it. It is oblivious to instrumental appeals about the loss of income and, if anything, is stirred into resistance by warnings about the danger of foreign disapproval. It no longer identifies with the interests of the Westminster state – indeed it feels betrayed by them with good cause.
Which is why the referendum debate is starting to feel like the prelude to a reshaping of the country’s political order whatever the outcome. Rather than the result being a definitive termination of a distraction it is shaping up as the start of a deeper reckoning. For those of us for whom England is our country, nothing could be more fascinating or important. It is an indictment of the official left that it seems to have nothing to say of any interest with respect to how England is governed. This is something that will have to change.
I’m not saying I want a neverendum. For me the ideal would be an overwhelmingRemain majority of at least 20% so that the question of membership of the EU is definitely settled. Then everyone would have to focus on democratising both Europe and the UK, as the fetish of the sovereignty of parliament sinks beneath the Thames. Even then the question of what part England plays in any new settlement will need to be addressed as Britishness weakens in the European context. If, as seems more likely at present, the result is close, or if there is a Brexit success, the differences between national affiliation to the EU will come to the fore. If we leave the EU thanks to England voting Exit, the national question will explode, because Scotland will have voted to stay. If a vote to stay is so narrow that Scottish and Northern Irish votes keep England in when it wanted out, it will explode in a different, equally demanding fashion. Should the outcome be a more comfortable majority for Remain across all the UK’s nations, English nationalism will have been stirred but not satisfied.
Then, within England, UKIP will bear down on Labour’s northern and the Conservative’s southern seats. And the only force able to hold them back will be a democratic nationalism. This means that democrats in England, especially on the left, will have to fess up to being English.
I first hit the problem of what is Englishness in an effort to understand the motivations behind the Falklands War. It was as if the Nazis had invaded Ambridge. The English were particularly upset by a violation that touched a national identification, one utilised by Thatcher whose premiership depended on outright victory. In Iron Britannia I used a chapter on ‘Falkland’s Pastoralism’ to investigate the popular images set in play. I questioned people about their national identities. Those who were Scottish or Welsh had no problem saying if they felt Welsh first and British second, or British first and Scottish second. They experienced two distinct national identities, which they could rank in terms of their own allegiance. But when you asked the English the same question: “Which comes first being English or British?” they did not understand the question. This was 1982, remember. It was not just that they were both – so too were the Scots and Welsh. The English could not separate out their experience of being both.
My explanation was that asking the English to rank their primary identification in terms of whether they were more British or English was like asking a coin if it was more obverse or reverse. Such a question genuinely does not make sense. For the Scots, Welsh and Irish, Britishness is a separate identity which they share with the English. For the English, Britishness was built into who they were. If all human life has an inside and an outside, then they were British without and English within. The outer face of the coin was British – the British navy – while the inner was English – the English countryside. The lyrical interior and the buccaneering exterior were a single fused national romance.
The two sides of the coin are now separating into different currencies. This painful process has been pushed by the creation of the separate parliaments in Scotland and Wales and by the European Union. It sits astride the country’s definition of the UK in the world, and by occupying our exterior definition of who we are weakens our sense of “being British”, while at the same time penetrating our domestic regulation and challenging what it means to “be English” (for while we can give up “ruling” the waves, we “never, never, never, shall be slaves”). A recent, pre-referendum Daily Mail editorial illustrated the current state of uncertainty. When it looked as if Cameron might stitch up the entire cabinet behind his deal to stay in the EU, a great lamentation broke out and the Daily Mail donated its front page to a protest headlined “Who Will Speak for England?” Some way into its analysis the editorial added a parenthesis, “and, of course, by ‘England’… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.
The episode exposes the tension I want to identify. It is not just that “WHO WILL SPEAK FOR THE WHOLE OF THE UNITED KINGDOM!” is longer and more ungainly. It would have provoked the obvious response: “Sorry, Daily Mail, Scotland is already spoken for!” North of the border there is a nation where clearly its leaders do speak for their country. The Daily Mail prints in Scotland. Its Scottish editors replaced the front page.
The word “England” no longer means “the whole of the United Kingdom”. There is no “of course” about it. The Daily Mail’s editors know how to attend to its English readers’ inner passions and concerns. For them England is at stake. At the same time, the moment they pause, they see that taken to its natural conclusion their call points away from the Union and therefore from the ‘Great Britain’ they also desire England to be. So they include the rest of the nations of the UK with a mere “of course”. The quiet presumption is that they are in effect colonies bound to the mother country. Just as quietly the shout is dropped into the wastebin by their Scottish colleagues.
The English nationalism that shouts out today from the Daily Mail is at once over-baked and half-cooked. Unable to find a proper home it feeds UKIP’s appeal for self-government and control of our borders. The response needs to be what Billy Bragg calls Progressive Patriotism in his autobiographical argument for the need to prevent the right with its capacity for racism and neo-fascism from occupying the terrain of national identity – with a songwriter’s sense of public need. Instead of being acclaimed, Bragg’s arguments have been largely ignored, even patronized, as being the voice of an unsophisticated, working-class Essex boy. Others have called for a left-wing Englishness to be embraced, notably Mark Perryman emphasising the role of sport especially football. Today, British Future has launched #WeAreAllEngland to integrate multiculturalism into public support for England’s Euro 2016 bid. A Campaign for an English Parliament continues and The Future of England research found that an astonishing 31% of those living in England want an English Parliament even though no major party has ever proposed it. The Anglo-British elite resist any such reform. To understand the psychological force behind this resistance I want to engage with one example.
After the Conservatives won the 2015 election with their promise to bring in English Votes for English Laws (aptly abbreviated to EVEL), Paul Mason wrote a column in the Guardian headlined I do not want to be English. I’m going to write about it at length because it is a representative sentiment expressed, thanks to Mason’s quality, in a trenchant and thorough way. I am not trying to get at him – I’m largely on his side – I’m getting at a widespread attitude across the educated classes of all political persuasions.
Mason observes that it is thanks to the SNP’s victory in Scotland that English institutions or laws like EVEL are coming. Nonetheless, “as an English person I would like to declare up front: I do not want to be English”. It was not about any revulsion he felt at the cross of St George – he accepts that football has taken back the flag from the racists. But “If I examine my own gut feelings”, he wrote, he found that he has more in common with his class and Celtic cultures than an Englishness defined for him by “public schools and the officer class”. These, of course, are British institutions par excellence, a distinction he is not interested in pursuing. Thanks to the fact that “English institutions” are coming, “sooner or later someone is going to try and foist an English narrative on us”. These will fail, Mason predicts, because “at the centre of English culture lies neither institutions, nor customs, nor sports teams, but a global language”. (Unknowingly, this echoes an argument of Boris Johnson). No “English national identity” will emerge as a result of the Scottish shock, Mason predicts,
because of the class and cultural divides within England, and because our linguistic identity is so full of free gifts from the rest of the world. This, of course, is a legacy of empire. But the empire itself was born out of trade and sailing, two activities whose identities are central to English identity, which explains why it’s so difficult to pin down.
Mason concludes, “Please don’t try to burden me with yet another layer of bogus identity politics. The only identity I need can be created by speaking and writing in the most malleable language on earth”.
What is shocking about this complacent and ignorant confession is that Mason is among England’s foremost political intellectuals. I’m confident that there are many similar repudiations of their nationality by less interesting and important English figures and I pick on Mason because his Post-Capitalism is a contemporary masterwork by a brilliant reporter whose grasp of political economy and forthright impatience with the stultifying banalities of the media machine have provided a unique analysis of the global crisis. He’s been in Wall Street where the Occupy movement flew the American flag quite naturally. He reported at length from Athens on the overtly Greek resistance to German-imposed austerity. He witnessed the invigorating mobilisation for independence during the Scottish referendum, where we met as he was filming a demonstration. All these movements demonstrated how a vivid, networked national identity was a natural part of the fight against exclusivist nationalism while expressing defiance of neoliberal globalism. Yet somehow or other, Mason regards his own country and himself as being in no need of the democratic patriotism that he has analysed so sympathetically and acutely around the rest of the world.
There is a vast literature on nationalism, none of which Mason seems to feel any need to consider. Instead he thinks an examination of his own “gut feelings” tells him what is happening, as if their spontaneous readout provides him with the truth. For someone who is a master at seeing past the manipulations of spontaneity in the market place to understand the larger forces at work in generating economic subjectivity, it is extraordinary that he should regard his personal attitude to his country as being the outcome of his own experience alone.
What the literature tells us is that nationalism is a product of the mobilisation of identity under conditions of industrialisation. The nation that led this was “God’s firstborn: England”, in Liah Greenfeld’s term. It undertook the first modern revolution, as Steve Pincus put it, in 1688, and thanks to its legal structures and naval power precipitated the industrial revolution that transformed humankind. All other societies had to mobilize their resources to resist its impact, fighting the English to “stand up” in the industrialized world – from France and America to Germany and China – as Ernest Geller argued, while gathering together a shared culture as Ben Anderson sets out in Imagined Communities.
The English, however, enjoyed the enormous advantage of being the first mover. They did not need to rebel against others or forge their different, exceptional nature. Being first it came naturally. One of Tom Nairn’s earliest explorations of this process is in The Left against Europe, in his explanation of why the workers’ movement felt it had no need to become part of Europe:
British imperialists were not simply the first, the biggest, and the most successful plunderers on the international scene; they were also the best at pretending that their empire was really something else. It was this ‘liberal imperialism’ which the British workers’ movements grew up within. From the outset therefore, nationalism was to assume for them this distinctive and tenacious colouring. Their ‘living community’, their ‘participant democracy’ was not that of a mere battling nation-state: it merged into a greater, spiritual, multi-racial, inter-continental and realistically heterogeneous something-or-other. Britain’s greatness—unlike French or Prussian greatness—was somehow world-wide, Sunday-suited, unselfish and open-armed. It was this imperialist false consciousness that provided one of the central vehicles for British nationalism.
It being 1975 when he wrote this, the English nationalism at the heart of Britishness was not yet an issue. The argument is developed strongly in his later essays. All imperial nationalisms express themselves in universal terms, as America’s still does. The distinction of England’s British nationalism was that it did so without an explicit French-style enlightenment ideology or nonsense about human rights.
We can shorten the argument for brevity. When Paul Mason says that he doesn’t feel any need to be English, or have this identity “foisted” on him because he already is a citizen of the world with unrestricted access to its global language, it’s a perfect expression of the English unselfconscious superiority to all the other poor sods of the world who have to suffer a mere attachment to a country. He is being an English nationalist when he reports that he has no requirement of nationalism. In their ‘guts’ the English feel no need to proclaim their existence as being English in order to enjoy their place in the sun. This is thanks to the specific national history of being a prime mover, not access to a wonderful, global language. Neither Americans nor Scots who are activists on the left like Mason would feel the need to deny their national identity in the way that Mason does, yet have exactly the same access to the English language as a world resource. To put it in the Marxist terms he fluently deploys, to deny that one’s nationalism is nationalism is false-consciousness.
All nationalisms are special, and rightly regard themselves as such. What’s special about English nationalism is that it doesn’t feel a need to define its existence. This is a historic inheritance; a residual expression of imperialism that has entered our souls and can prevent us from feeling at home in what is just our own home.
Finally, Mason suggests that the creation of an English parliament will “burden me with yet another layer of bogus identity politics”. I’m as opposed to identity politics as he is – that is to say a politics that defines what we are as the figuration of our inner origins. But the natural expression of being an American in Occupy Wall Street or being Greek in Syntagma Square was a forward looking defiance of an unequal world order, not a regressive attempt to identify with the signifier buried in one’s personal past. Identity in the emancipating sense is a relationship to be found in the movement outside yourself, in the wider politics you are undertaking. Here, how you carry and share your national identity matters. If the English were to embrace the truth of their existence it would be an act of modesty, equalising matters. Its denial has become a middle-class privilege.
Labour and England
Which brings us to the class element in this. The pro-UKIP, pro-Brexit, self-defining as English, are often from working class backgrounds. In the fight for their support, a strong element of social class conflict has emerged even within the Tory battle over the referendum (as Rachel Sylvester writes, in a revealing column in The Times). The educated middle-classes are much more likely to back Remain, as Nick Pearce shows. At the moment the left is having to relearn how to reach out to working class Leave supporters on terms they appreciate rather than leaving it to UKIP and now to the Tory Brexiteers.
This is not an argument for what was tagged ‘blue’ politics whose concern to preserve existing blighted communities from the upset of change and immigration. Imperial enthusiasm in which the working classes participated was always a future-oriented, scientifically-energised ideology. It is an argument for the creation of exactly what Mason appears to dread as the “foisted” – a civic parliament, elected proportionally, discarding winner-takes-all triumphalism, giving voice and power to Cornwell and Yorkshire and the multi-cultural cities of England, fulfilling the function of a representative legislature, namely: to be an on-going defining process of ‘who we are’.
Without this, deprived of any way to self-define themselves in a shared, civic represented way, English working class communities will start to fall back on pro-UKIP, pro-Brexit, anti-immigrant attitudes. When he was faced with this as Labour leader, Ed Miliband sought to address the economic costs that generated the discontent. This was never going to be enough. Through UKIP and Brexit a democratic protest is being articulated about the way the country is governed and in whose interests. A class-based anger expressed in patriotic themes cannot just be answered by economic policies. Indeed it is patronising and evasive. If ‘C2s’, a detestably dehumanising category, articulate their problem with calls for democratic, national self-government in a bigoted language, they have to be answered with arguments for better forms of democracy and national government.
John Denham and Jon Cruddas along with many others fought a long and fruitless effort in the Labour Party. Both, significantly, were MPs from the south of England where Labour could not draw on a northern regional patriotism and ‘safe’ seats. They tried to get Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband to see sense on this – to “pivot” into England and not allow UKIP to appropriate working class sentiment. Back in June 2012, pushed by them and his own advisors, Miliband made a special speech on England in an upper room of the Royal Festival Hall.
We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And this was one of the greatest achievements of the last government. We have rightly applauded the expression of Scottish identity within the United Kingdom. But for too long people have believed that to express English identity is to undermine the United Kingdom. This does not make sense. You can be proudly Scottish and British. And you can be proudly English and British . . . We have been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character . . . Now more than ever, as we make the case for the United Kingdom throughout the United Kingdom, we must talk about England.
Such talk is only worthwhile if it offers something. On what Labour should offer to England and the English, Miliband was Ed the Silent. It was also embarrassing: you could feel him wrestling with his inner Paul Mason:
But I know what I love about England. What I remember when I think about English identity. What I love is the spirit of quiet determination in the face of adversity and the sense of common decency that goes with it. My father – as so many parents did —talked about the spirit of the Blitz.
Interviewed afterwards, he repeated this when asked what was special about English values – and had to be reminded that the Luftwaffe bombed Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast and England has no special monopoly of the spirit of the Blitz, or indeed quiet determination…
I attempted to engage with the hopeless lack of substance a year later in 2013 as part of the New Statesman’s concerted effort to persuade the Labour leader to take the initiative on England. It was already clear that UKIP supporters would swing the election and that,
Immigration as an ‘issue’ is about ‘who we are’ and the nature of our democracy… the dishonesty, evasiveness and hypocrisy of the Westminster ‘political class’, a phrase Nigel Farage uses so forcefully. UKIP’s call to leave the EU is plainly an argument over constitutional sovereignty. Most important of all, linking these assertions that our political system is broken, is the way UKIP draws strength, despite its name, from its role as the English party… the opposition needs to… speak for England. It has to liberate a healthy, tolerant, pluralist Englishness from the strangulated, heartfelt rage of those who join UKIP’s ranks and find themselves trapped in its deranged prejudice against the EU; its absurd concoction that the UK can take on the world single-handed as a “trading nation”; and its mobilisation of the fear of immigrants. All of these draw sustenance from a reasonable desire for England to enjoy self-determination just like any other country
I quote this not because I was a lone voice but because so many were giving similar advice. Miliband’s “timidity”, the outcome of his effort to prevent division described in the last chapter, frustrated everyone. It was blindingly obvious that the SNP’s displacement of Labour in Scotland meant the national question had to be addressed in England. That doing so meant taking on UKIP’s gathering of an English sentiment to attack Westminster’s elitism via anti-Europeanism and hostility to immigration. That Labour needed to call for its own referendum on the principle of sharing sovereignty for the common good. Many inside the party and, like me, outside, pressed for all these aims until the inevitable happened at the election and voters quite rightly concluded that the Labour Party did not know what country it stood for.
This month a booklet edited by Tristram Hunt on England and the politics of patriotism, Labour’s Identity Crisis has just been published. Ten Labour MPs and candidates reflect on their experience of the 2015 election, of how Labour was seen on the doorsteps and the looming presence of UKIP. Its theme is the need for Labour to relate to England. If there can be such a thing it is a form of urban arcadianism, relating that ‘inner’ doorstep side of Anglo-Britishness, its fairness, humour and energy as well as its pains. But once again, what to offer? How to look outwards with a relevant English not British politics? Hunt describes in his introduction how the election felt like a “cultural collapse”, how a confidence in democracy is needed, and how he supports “a more federal” United Kingdom to be put to the English people in a referendum after a “constitutional convention” the party is committed to. This is far too cautious a gruel to warm any hearts.
No Great Escape
Also, Labour will shortly be completely outflanked. At the beginning of July Robert Salisbury’s Constitutional Reform Group will present its draft Act of Union in the wake of the referendum. One of its options, carefully spelt out in detailed legislative format, will be the proposal to have an English parliament take the place of the House of Commons and an elected Union chamber replace the House of Lords, with all four nations being presented with the new act of union to decide upon in their own referendums. The aim, to encourage the expression of a UK identity within the framework of a shared union, legitimised by popular will.
Many of Salisbury’s forebears have played a role in high politics since their ancestor William Cecil, the first Earl of Burghley, was advisor to Elizabeth the First. In 2015 he spotted the writing, or rather the lack of writing, on the wall. A Unionist, he wants a lasting settlement with Scotland and understands that this must mean a federal solution for the UK. He justified his approach in the Sunday Times on 1 March 2015 by cracking a joke few others could make. Normally, “we Tories believe only in necessary evolutionary change. However, once in several centuries, the true Tory must accept that the nation demands more radical solutions if it is to survive. This is one of those times.”
What Salisbury has understood is that the separation of Scotland from Britain, thanks to having its own parliament with significant revenue raising powers, will eventually end the union – unless the Scots feel their new status is fully recognised and not patronised or marginalised. For this is to happen they need to be offered democratic equality as a nation within the UK. Which means the offer must come from England. For the union to be lasting in the century it needs to be entered (or rather re-entered) equally by all, so that England can enter into a union with Scotland. Even then it might not work from Salisbury’s point of view, but as someone who likes to think in centuries, he recognises it is the only long-run option. He grasped the paradox that England has to discard Anglo-Britain and become itself in order for the union to survive. Because now that Scotland is distinct it can only do so as a union of distinct nations – which means England has to follow suit.
The boldness of the Salisbury group’s proposals can be measured by the response to them of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. Chaired by Ian Lang, who notoriously said that if the Scots voted for independence it would dishonour their war dead, they published long report in May on The Union and Devolution. Dismissing any idea of a ‘bottom up’ approach from the nations they firmly concluded after 100 closely argued pages for keeping the show on the road, “An English Parliament is not a viable option for the future of the governance of England”.
The referendum may have accelerated Salisbury’s time-scale. If there is a Brexit vote (as he argues for in a fine exchange in CapX in which he eviscerates Bruce Anderson) his Act of Union will need to be offered to the Scots very fast. If Remain succeeds it will be ideal timing to offer a constructive way forward. Meanwhile the Labour party will be on the sideline worrying about whether it might have a convention some time down the road or hold a debate about PR at its next conference.
Setting out from the opposite, republican tradition, David Marquand also calls for English self-rule. Writing in the New Statesman, he insists that English nationalism “is now a force to be reckoned with”. He puts it well,
At the moment two answers hold the field. The first, embodied in the Cameron Government’s ‘Project Fear’ over EU membership, is essentially deracinated. For the globe-trotting super-rich… the answer to the English Question is that there is no such Question. The notion that the English have to decide who they are and who they want to be is a backward-looking fantasy… The second answer, implicit in Eurosceptic rhetoric, is romantically archaic. At its heart is a vision of England as a sea-girt and providential nation, cut off from the European mainland by a thousand years of history and a unique constitutional tradition… No one with progressive instincts can possibly be satisfied with either of these answers. The great question is whether there is a better one.
Meanwhile, Labour figures are still asking what problem supporting English self-government would solve. Such a query comes from the depth of Labour’s identification with Westminster, especially those who wish to retire to the House of Lords. The answer is that self-government is not a policy, or a means to an end, or the answer to a problem, it is a fundamental right.
England captured the world through its British Empire that had encompassed its immediate neighbours within its parliamentary sovereignty. The empire was lost, in the Far East to Japan and then everywhere to America, through the course of the Second World War. From it Great Britain emerged as a country, undefeated but bereft. As this century began, new parliaments within what was now the UK disunited the Kingdom domestically as membership of the European Union dissolved its uncodified sovereignty without. What had been a careless English-Britishness, happy to encompass others although preferably with white skins, became compressed and disoriented. A separated Englishness emerged by default without any means of honest expression. A nation that had captured so many has become itself a captive nation. It is trapped within a Westminster system run by the descendants of the imperial elite trained in exclusive network of its caste, their schools, universities, law-courts, newspapers, broadcasters and banks. England now seeks to escape and claim its independence.
One apparent escape route is through Brexit. The lure of Brexit is England renewing Anglo-Britishness on a world scale, escaping the protectionist cartel of Europe. It won’t work. Not because it cannot do so economically. With another crash all too likely no one can foretell, let alone forecast, what is going to happen to trade and growth. It won’t work because the moment a vote for Brexit is announced the Scottish government will ask its parliament’s permission to open discussion with the European Union on ways in which it can remain within the EU. From the get-go of Brexit, the Scottish people will in effect challenge the Britishness that has been crucial to Brexit’s appeal across England. What will Labour or the Greens do in this situation? Hope the Scottish negotiations fail? In this circumstance only parties prepared to be English actors mobilising English support will be able to define a way forward.
Perhaps because this is such a devastating scenario for the British political class, not least the Tory Brexiteers, it may not happen The ‘national card’ won David Cameron and George Osborne the 2015 election and if they can play it again maybe it will win them the referendum. But the old mole is burrowing, if maybe not as fast as Hamlet’s ghostly father. England will rise. If it does not do so through Brexit we need to ensure it has a healthy expression because confined it will express itself sideways, through Faragism, UKIP, loathing of Europe and hostility to immigrants. Which is why far from conserving the status quo, Remain also will demand political parties capable of acting on behalf of England. The way to achieve this is through the creation of an English parliament.
In a wonderful essay in Mark Perryman’s collection, Imagined Nation, England after Britain, Paul Gilroy excoriates Enoch Powell, asking why his hateful Rivers of Blood speech, which was laced with incitement as well as false prophecy, is still treated with reverence. Taking in the larger picture he discusses John Sturgess’s 1963 movie, The Great Escape
There is something about the idea of escape itself that has become deeply pleasurable. The mythology of that thwarted wartime breakout and the peculiar mixture of failure and triumph that it articulates provides ways to make the nation’s painful geo-political and economic transition psychologically bearable to many who experience its unhappy consequences without appreciating their underlying cause. There is also something else at stake. It can be interpreted as a repressed desire to be able to escape from the grip in which the invented memory of that anti-Nazi war has held us. Somewhere, against the odds and in opposition to the logic of our national melancholia, many people do want to work through the past. Half the country is desperate to move on.
Now that Scotland has moved on, it is half of England that is desperate. This has its dangers. The rising far-right party Alternative for Germany has just adopted “Islam does not belong to Germany” as part of its official platform. This is not a time to play with nationalism or appease exclusivity and expulsion. Nor, however, is the time to try and liquidate, scorn or deny its relevance. In my previous chapter I investigated why Labour’s role in such a momentous referendum choice is so feeble. Part of the reason is the collapse of social democratic politics across Europe as they have proved incapable of the obvious need for solidarity with opposition to austerity. The decisive reason for this was their embrace of globalisation as the replacement of internationalism. The need now is for an international movement of the left to recreate internationalism in a modern, networked form – as DiEM 25 is attempted, for example. There cannot be internationalism without nations.
The authors of the England, Englishness and Brexit looked back on their detailed analysis of opinion surveys in the context of the referendum campaign and foresee a further,
development of a politicised English national identity, institutionalising a form of politics that cuts across conventional party lines. In this context it is worth recalling that one of the central insights of the vast academic literature on nationalism is that nationalists create nations. To ‘speak for England’ is, in an important sense, to call England into being. There is far more at stake in the forthcoming referendum than simply the future of the UK’s relationship with the European Union; at stake too is the political identity of the UK’s largest component territory
The dangers of Brexit may be wild and unpredictable but if it were to happen the need to rethink will be obvious. In the long term, great danger lies with a vote to Remain, if it is followed by a suffocating sigh of relief that prevents the English from resolving their democratic identity. The Labour Party will nod its head at fine booklets on the English experience, provided this is safely confined to doorsteps, while talking occasionally about how long it will take to ‘win back Scotland’. Cameron will step down and everyone will gossip about the Tory leadership crisis. Scratch, scratch, the English family of moles is working towards the surface. Someone will speak for them as they break through. The question is who.