In January this year, Theresa May told an audience of American Republican politicians that by leaving the European Union the United Kingdom had taken a decision to restore our ‘national self-determination’. Even Scots, and Welsh who voted for Brexit, will wince at the claim. She was speaking for England. Last October, in her set-piece speech to her own party, she spoke of the ‘divisive nationalists’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At the same time, throughout that speech she refers repeatedly to Britain as a ‘nation’ – and how she intends to build a ‘new united Britain’. Apparently, her English nationalism is not divisive. It is unifying. It is British.
The Daily Mail provides a dramatic example of the sleight of hand, regarded as natural if not amusing if you are from south of the Scottish border, infuriating if you are to its north. In February 2016, it was clear that a referendum on EU membership was coming soon. But had not yet been announced. It seemed that Cameron might stitch up his entire Cabinet to support his renegotiation and then back is call to stay with Brussels. Deprived of a leader with a unifying, traditional Conservative appeal the campaign to Leave would be reduced to the leadership of Farage and UKIP and Brexit would be lost.
The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, ran a pained, ferocious editorial. It was headlined in huge, bold capital letters, across most of the paper’s front page: WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND? Its opening words (the italics are mine) went: ‘Today the Mail asks a question of profound significance to our destiny as a sovereign nation and the fate of our children and grandchildren. Who will speak for England?’ The editorial continued over on an inside page. There, buried in a parenthesis he wrote: ‘and, of course, by “England”… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’.
The Daily Mail prints a separate Scottish edition. Its editors replaced the front page.
‘By England… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’. This admission lies at the heart of Theresa May’s project for Brexit Britain. As her government seeks to pull the UK away from Europe and gain trade with the rest of the world to compensate, the Westminster state must impose unity at home, especially on the smaller nations. To make her Brexit work, the prime minister of England, for that is what she is, must discipline Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, as well as London and subordinate them to her will.
“As her government seeks to pull the UK away from Europe and gain trade with the rest of the world to compensate, the Westminster state must impose unity at home, especially on the smaller nations. To make her Brexit work, the prime minister of England, for that is what she is, must discipline Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, as well as London and subordinate them to her will.”
For as I demonstrate in The Lure of Greatness, when the voters of the UK were asked if they wanted to renew their membership of the European Union, it became a vote on how the country is governed. Different forces, tangible and intangible, were at work. These included immigration, the refugee emergency, the effects of austerity, the outrageous rip-off of the financial crash, the loosening of loyalties thanks to the internet, the undemocratic nature of the EU, the implosion of social democracy. The popular response to these forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland was to seek closer relations with the EU, with more and better continental solidarity. A similar response came from London, the global city. But across the more numerous England-without-London, an overwhelming majority was for Leave and carried the day.
This is the central fact of the referendum’s outcome. All the wider influences were concentrated into the force-field of the English spirit. There, they reinforced each other in the prejudices, longings and judgement of English voters across their land to create a decisive majority for Brexit, one that overwhelmed the proportionally larger majorities for Remain in the cities, the capital, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was undeniably England’s Brexit. To understand why this was so, is to understand why it happened.
The heart of the answer is the unique, hybrid nature of Anglo-British self-consciousness. This goes unchallenged by what can be called England’s ‘defining classes’ (its media and cultural intelligentsia) who, excepting Billy Bragg, adamantly refused to be English. Or ‘merely English’ as many put it.
Nations and nationalism are a shaping force in our contemporary history, not mere superstructures or false consciousness. But they are not defined by their froth. What matters are their institutions, which include their constitutions and their governing principles as well as their media; their military, financial, educational and industrial nature as well as the relationship of their cities, suburbs and countryside to one another. My focus will be on Britain’s governing institutions, their political culture and how they organise self-belief in the country’s political system, something that is especially important in a democracy that does not have a written constitution.
A proud, imperial set-up with its institutions and codes has been trashed over the last thirty years. Tony Blair played a significant role due to his form of high-energy ambition, originally developed to escape Labour’s long tradition of losing. His politics and Cameron’s inheritance of them undermined traditional loyalty to Westminster government. In turn led to Brexit.
Think of it as the people living in the debris of their land, watching on their screens the new skyscrapers of London rise and shine. The debris is not poverty or lack of money but something intangible and inescapable: the end of Great Britain. They’d love to have it back but know they cannot and should not. Theresa May pitches them her Global Britain in its place, to feed their ambivalent desire. In doing so this most English of premiers, a vicar’s daughter from rural Oxfordshire, drives straight to the heart of the longing. Post-imperial England–Britain is a hybrid. It has generated a special nationalism, a two-sided entity: English within and British without. The English aspect of this identity is more often personal, even whimsical, and has a romance as well as a coldness and hooligan element. It is the English countryside, the English rose, the English sense of humour.
“Think of it as the people living in the debris of their land, watching on their screens the new skyscrapers of London rise and shine. The debris is not poverty or lack of money but something intangible and inescapable: the end of Great Britain. They’d love to have it back but know they cannot and should not. Theresa May pitches them her Global Britain in its place, to feed their ambivalent desire. In doing so this most English of premiers, a vicar’s daughter from rural Oxfordshire, drives straight to the heart of the longing.”
Whereas Britishness is exterior-facing, bullying and imposing: it is the British navy and Britain’s government in Whitehall that carries the lure of greatness. The sweet and the violent are attached. When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands it was as if ‘the Nazis invaded Ambridge’. The 800 families of the barren islands of the South Atlantic became the personification of a bleak, pastoral England. Politically, however, the islands were British and the country rallied every sinew to support a British task force, sent to liberate the innocents on the other side of the globe.
In a period when the UK’s global influence was rapidly diminishing, the Falklands episode was a high point. Since then the institutions of Britishness have lost their capacity to hold the country in their thrall. The Monarchy, the Cabinet, the House of Lords, MPs, the civil service and now the judiciary have come under assault, as being out of touch or corrupt, or both. But Britishness is an old ruling culture, it does not give up easily and clings to its English roots. Reciprocally, the political expression of English nationalism is trapped in its diminishing Britishness until, like the grin on the Cheshire cat, not much more is left than shouts of ‘sovereignty’.
This creates an extraordinary anomaly when it comes to the representation of English interests. Thanks to devolution and the creation of national governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is an Arts Council England, English Heritage and NHS England. Huge sums of money are involved. But there is not a single major English organisation or think tank that sees its role as representing English concerns, opinion and interests as such. England has no civic institutions, no parliament or assembly, no body of its own, to give it voice. After stepping down as an MP, John Denham founded the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, to study this lack, which underlines the reality of it. The Church of England is a British institution supporting the Crown that referees Anglicanism internationally. The Bank of England is Britain’s bank. There is the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, with a BBC Scotland, a BBC Wales, a BBC Northern Ireland and . . . the BBC. There is the British Council, which exists to project the UK’s culture and language around the world. There is no English Council.
The Labour movement too is a British formation. There is a TUC Scotland, the Trade Union Congress in London speaks for Britain – there is no English TUC. Although there are Scottish and Welsh Labour parties, the Labour Party has no English section. The Greens have a separate party in Scotland but it is the Green Party of England and Wales. Only the Lib Dems have a formally federal structure with an English section, but you would not know it. The Tories are the Conservative and Unionist Party.
English votes for English laws, known as EVEL, was introduced in October 2015, but this was far from a measure that gave English people voice. It was only a change to the standing orders of the House of Commons that dealt with the anomaly of Scottish MPs being able to vote on legislation that effects only England. This may protect England from unfair attention of Scottish MPs, it does nothing to enhance England’s representation in any sense comprehensible to the English public. MPs, concerned at the loss of legitimacy thanks to the lopsided nature of devolution, sucked the issue into the protocols of the House of Commons and turned it into a problem of their own procedure.
A House of Commons backbench debate about parliamentary sovereignty on 4 February 2016 had a classic example connected to Brexit. Bill Cash, a famous anti-EU obsessive, quoted G. K. Chesterton to his fellow MPs: ‘Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget, For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.’ No one said: ‘Shame, this is a British parliament!’. The SNP’s Peter Grant, a lonely pro-EU speaker, responded: ‘But we are not the people of England; we are the people of Scotland.’ The English ignored him.
An undeniable reason for this state of affairs is that there is no popular demand for distinct English political representation. The Campaign for an English Parliament does its best, but the unassailable logic of its arguments falls on deaf ears. There is not the concern or desire amongst the English to insist on what is condemned as ‘another layer of government’. The idea is seen as stifling not enhancing representation. The Scottish parliament may be resented by the English, but there is no wish to copy it. On the contrary, the House of Commons, which was England’s parliament in another time and a previous building, is still regarded as England’s representative body by the English, even though it is British. English presumption is being reproduced there every day, as Cash showed.
The English enjoy a high degree of self-belief inside a shell that does not belong to just them. As Michael Kenny shows in his fully researched study, the English have ‘a hybrid form of self-understanding’ thanks to their Britishness. Writing before Brexit he argues that a struggle for ‘the soul of Englishness’ is emerging, but does not foresee it being resolved by a traditional call for a civic, English nationhood.
In 2014, a Future of England survey, initiated by IPPR and edited by Richard Wyn Jones, tracked the rising numbers identifying themselves as being English. In the process, it asked people which levels of government they thought had ‘most influence’ over them. In Scotland 4 per cent of respondents thought the EU had the most influence; in Wales this rose to 6 per cent. In England, an astonishing 26 per cent thought the EU had ‘the most influence’.
In an earlier survey, they had asked this question across the EU, where the highest results outside England were 9 per cent in three peripheral areas: Brittany, Upper Austria and Galicia. In that survey 31 per cent, that is, nearly a third of their English respondents named Brussels as having the greatest government impact on their lives. It is bizarre. Between a quarter and a third of a major nation believe something plain wrong about how they are ruled. It follows they feel their own government is not just misguided but useless. English delusion about the extent of the EU’s influence is linked to a nihilistic sense of the futility of Westminster.
Deprived of a credible, representative power leads to anger with the most remote authority of all, which is blamed as the source of your powerlessness. You can only feel comfortable within as large an international association as the EU if you feel represented by a government formed around your primary identity.
Born out of imperialism, in its heyday England’s Britishness was a wonderful nationalism if you were privileged to be a part of it, tolerant and respectable at home and gung-ho abroad. Gradually it has been compressed. First the Irish and now the Scots want to escape. The English still want to be represented by Britain – it remains the other side of their singular coin.
But they also feel ill-treated by the class system that lies at the heart of Britishness; a feeling of grievance that is justified. Especially when it comes to public education for those from families unable to pay for it privately, i.e. a large majority – because public education is poor and confining.
The English lower classes, which is most of us, have an anxiety that comes from not being real citizens with constitutional ownership of our country. It makes us even more stroppy, while inducing a sense of vulnerability. At the back of the mind of every English person who has not been to public school, and feels shut out of the networks of access and privilege, is the fear that they are a mere native, subject to the whim of blundering masters. Brexit was not a revolt of the natives. The British are not natives. It was a revolt of the English against being treated as if they are natives – and against a feeling of vulnerability that they cannot prevent this. The anxiety is justified because the exposure is real, if your sense of national identity is a hybrid, Anglo-British one.
Anglo-Britain is a crustacean of a country. It has a soft English interior and a hard British exoskeleton. From the point of view of the English inside the beast, the relationship between inside and outside is indeed under threat. The Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh cohabit it, because the whole point of the shell is to enclose a multinational greatness, or else it ceases to be British. A point Theresa May makes emphatically. The smaller nations threaten the shell from within by trying to leave. The European Union, which the British crab itself partly inhabits, challenges its shell from without. It is an even larger and more dynamic crustacean actively defining itself as a future project. Sharing the sea, patrolling the ocean bed for sustenance in such circumstances, became nerve-racking for the English within their increasingly ill-fitting old British exoskeleton. For as well as the Scots hammering at it from within and the EU pressing on it from without, the great British crab’s once magnificent shell is in structural disrepair in terms of its own mechanics. No wonder the English felt angry and anxious. They seized the opportunity of Brexit as the offer of a wonderful solution: England can once again be an ‘independent’ British crab. A liberated, self-determining decapod, free at last to be a Global Crab and grab trade deals at will from the ocean floor with its own sovereign claws.
Provided the Scots and the Irish come along, that is, and can you really trust the Welsh? By being committed to the British Westminster and Whitehall, the English deprive themselves of their own political self-determination. This is the irony. The real foreign threat comes from their British masters. Their attachment to Britain prevents the English from realising themselves. Unable to exit Britain, the English did the next-best thing and told the EU to ‘fuck off’. It was a displacement of feelings for their own elite. English attachment to the British state is the problem. A cruel master, it gave them a choice: the English could abandon Europe, or carry on as before, feeling threatened and vulnerable, under Cameron the heir to Blair. Understandably, the English refused to carry on. But their chosen alternative will trap them even more deeply into the source of their misery: the British state. It needs to go. It is the deep cause of Brexit.
There is a simple way for us English to be free. Just ask the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish to take their fate into their own hands. In a cooperative spirit, the English should request them to be independent. In this way, the English too will emancipate themselves from the integument of the British system. English government can then be transformed into a democracy by the English. England will then have its own parliament, the house of the common people, preferably elected on a practical but proportional basis like any modern democracy – and with its own constitution and the political self-confidence to share sovereignty with Europe.
Britishness will not disappear. The opposite is likely. Its historic legacy and ongoing influence has never belonged exclusively to the English. Relieved of its political confinement in Whitehall, Britishness will flourish in the many sites and sources of British identity including outside the British Isles – and doubtless in shared institutions as well.
If this suggestion seems incredible, it is not because the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots would be tremendously opposed to their own independence in Europe, but because it seems unthinkable to those who lead England that they should be on their own. To step out of the clothes of the past should not be that hard for a country with a spirit of adventure. Instead it has led to a breakdown called Brexit.
This is an edited extract from Chapter 11 of Anthony Barnett’s The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump published by Unbound this month.
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