England in a room – and England as Britain
Last Sunday the BBC Laura Kuenssberg programme made great play of engaging with a spectrum of public opinion via a focus group of voters. In its pre-publicity, and during the show, this was presented as ‘Britain in a room’ – fifty individuals who would embody the hopes, fears and anxieties of UK voters.
Trouble is it was nothing of the kind. Rather, as many viewers pointed out, this was ‘England in a room’: 50 England-based voters talking for the UK and missing out Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Rather than dwell on this one programme and its miscalculation, let’s look at the wider framing which demonstrates that this is far from an isolated example. That is the perennial problem of the deliberate confusion and synonymous use of the terms ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ as if they were the same. And for many a Tory politician they were. Tory leader Stanley Baldwin for one, declared in 1924 that ‘To me, England is the country, and the country is England.’
The Kuenssberg example offers us ‘Britain as England’ where the entire union is presented as an extended version of England, and the diversity, difference and four nation composition of the union can just be rolled over. This is a politics of appropriation and silencing, of often deliberate and conscious historical, political and cultural collective amnesia. It is about a certain way of looking at the world and the UK, of seeing the latter from the vantage point of the towers and corridors of Westminster, Whitehall and Millbank, and extrapolating it out into a notion of ‘Britain’.
The more prevalent version of this is ‘England as Britain’ where ‘England’ is expressly named and referenced, but with the assertion that it is an adequate, even uncontroversial, substitute for the union and the UK. The long-lasting tradition amongst Tory politicians of identifying Englishness as a core part of Toryism but within a union was so uncontested it did not have to be spoken about and championed every day: it just was the reality.
‘England as Britain’ can be found everywhere. It is present on the dust jackets of such imperious tomes as A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914-1945, published in 1965, the year of Winston Churchill’s death, and which is a history of the UK over the period. It is evident in writings of such Labour radicals such as Tony Benn and Michael Foot who both loved to wax lyrically about English pioneers and campaigners, while never stopping to note that they were only invoking one single national tradition in these isles.
The conceited assumption of many in Westminster and media elites is that is all a long time ago when the past was a foreign country and that, the odd media slip apart, we live in much more sensitive and aware times. If only that were true.
Take the recently published A Century of Labour by former Labour frontbencher Jon Cruddas. This book has received much attention as Cruddas worked for Blair but was always independent minded and critical of New Labour, and for its less than entirely positive assessment of Keir Starmer (which has been repeatedly cited by Rishi Sunak at PMQs).
Cruddas overviews one hundred years of Labour Government – from the party’s first experience under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. He concludes with a clarion call reminding readers that ‘Labour is part of a rich tradition dating back to Magna Carta, the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Civil Wars.’ And, er, that’s it. No ‘Red Clydeside’, ‘Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’, anti-poll tax protesters, or campaigners for crofting rights and land reform.
This is an articulation exclusively of an English radical tradition, presented not as ‘English’ but as the rich lineage of the British labour movement. Clearly there is something amiss in this; only drawing from one of the four nations of the UK without qualification or acknowledging that this is a partial representation of the story of the British-wide Labour Party and the wider currents that it has drawn from.
Obviously the rich traditions of Scottish and Welsh self-determination woven deep into the Labour movement from the late 19th century onwards are not worthy of mention; and while many a Labour politician wants to steer clear of Ireland there is at the minimum the example of the Irish civil rights movement which challenged the grotesque malpractice of the Stormont one-party state. You might even get the impression from Cruddas’s list that Labour does not even understand its own history.
What really is the problem with all the above, some might say? We all know what the likes of Kuenssberg and Cruddas are really talking about. These are just everyday ways of describing territories – and after all England is by far the biggest component in the union.
‘England as Britain’ does a disservice to the union that is the UK. It excludes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It does not understand or take any care to comprehend the nature and composition of the UK: of the United Kingdom as a union state. This is unitary state nationalism.
Moreover, another problem is at play. ‘England as Britain’ uses England as a substitute for Britain. In this it excludes England as England and in so doing reinforces the current political dispensation and power dynamics whereby England is deliberately not afforded the space and time to speak and exist as a nation.
‘England as Britain’ makes England an anomaly. A nation that has to be governed and subsumed into the concept of Britain, daring in accounts to be speaking for everyone, but in reality being denied the right to speak collectively as England.
None of this is accidental. The presentation of ‘England as Britain’ works directly in the interests of one power elite in the UK: namely the Westminster political system and class, and current concentration of political power. Tories, Labour and Lib Dems have all historically and contemporaneously bought into this. The sublimation of a genuine England into a greater England presented as Britain with the commensurate cost that the ancien regime must be maintained and within it England – the last part of the UK subject to direct rule from Westminster.
There is major political cost to this state of affairs. Not only does it offer ‘England as Britain’ as a major pillar of the existing form of government and state and representation of the UK, it leaves England undemocratically run and un-championed. This has resulted in the likes of Nigel Farage and right-wing populists seizing the terrain of English nationhood and victimhood and weaponising it within the UK and out with, providing fuel and groundwork for the popular backlash of Brexit. England with all its many strands and progressive sentiments was basically abandoned by the Westminster class leaving it vulnerable to the advances and false promises of the populist right.
This is not then about the odd slip in language or even just about how the BBC from its London and Salford bases still miscalls and misrepresents the UK in the most basic ways. Rather it is about a conscious making and remaking of the union which has been going on down the years to suit the self-interest of those who gain most out of the current arrangements that make up the UK.
All of this is despite 25 years of devolution and the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly. The Westminster political and media elite see these as little more than provincial examples. They have just not let them shift their basic core assumptions about what their idea of Britain is – one which is revealed when we see the condescension and hubris revealed that is ‘England as Britain.’