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.’

Comments (26)

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  1. Alan C says:

    England, The only UK country without its own parliament.

    1. HENRY MCINTOSH says:

      A bit niaive there, Westminster is 85% English constituencies and the rituals of both Houses are of English tradition so bit hard to argue any english democratic deficit don’t you agree ?

      1. Edward Cairney says:

        So why are we hanging around in the place?

    2. John says:

      They don’t need their own parliament because the government each country gets at Westminster is virtually always decided by electorate in England.

      1. John Wood says:

        “They don’t need their own parliament because the government each country gets at Westminster is virtually always decided by electorate in England.”

        Try saying that to people in the north of England, or Cornwall, or anywhere but London and its surrounding suburbs and ‘Home Counties’. For 1000 years, the City of London has been a state within a state. Even today the City has a ‘Remembrancer’ sitting behind the Speaker in the Commons making sure that the City gets its way. The metro area population of London in 2023 was 9,648,000, a 1.12% increase from 2022. The metro area population of London in 2022 was 9,541,000, a 1.22% increase from 2021. (The population of the whole of Scotland is 5,480,000, and of that Eighth of Great Britain comprising the Highlands and Islands is less that 500, 000. And over much of that area it is in serious decline).

        London sucks power and wealth out of the rest of the islands as it does out of the rest of the world.. Not only does England need a parliament, but we’d be better off without London, its oligarchs, organised crime and its tax havens altogether. If you are looking for ‘Britishness’ That’s where you’ll find the Masters of War.

        1. John says:

          What you are say may all be true or not but that is up to electorate in England to decide. The way the government at Westminster is elected they could decide to do something if they voted for it.
          The electorate in Scotland cannot even decide to hold an independence referendum without requiring Westminster (effectively electorate in England) approval.

  2. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

    This is nothing new, ever since the Anglo-Saxon sub-kings imagined their ‘Bretwalda’ status (overlords of the entire Island), England as the deservedly dominating entity has been a constant in English policy. 1000 years of violent aggression followed in pursuit of Britain as England. This ambition has always been assisted by a sizable segment of Scots and therein lies the problem. To quote Alex Cole-Hamilton, that pillar of LibDem excellence, “We are a people trapped between flags, between politicians who mythologise and pine for ancient nations that can never and should never exist again in the global world in which we find ourselves.” In other words, let’s please forget about this unworthy wee crap pretendy nation’
    For an excellent description of the English supremacy doctrine and how it developed since Athelstan take a look at Lorna Hutson’s ‘England’s Insular Imagining’. Nothing has really changed since then and the days of Edward I, just the tactics are a bit different. You’ve got to hand it to the English, they have been very consistent over a millennia in this policy towards their neighbouring inferior fiefdoms.

  3. Cathie Lloyd says:

    There have been subtle shifts. Anyone old enough to remember bbc radio for schools may recall programmes which taught us songs from all four nations. Maybe a paternalistic mishmash of stereotypes but there was diversity of representation. Now it takes an attentive listener/ viewer to untangle how England is taken as the norm in presenting trends. Sometimes it’s shocking but all too often comes across as though common sense.

    1. Wul says:

      Listening to the BBC, I sometimes I wonder if the whole country has shrunk to simply London.

      Recently, I listened to a whole programme on BBC Radio 3 recently devoted to “Oxford Street”. They didn’t take the time to explain if it was Oxford Street in Kirkintilloch or Newcastle, but eventually I worked out it was the one in London. We all live in London and have numerous stories about our experiences in London after all eh?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Wul, indeed, the BBC’s Doctor Who, despite having a fully-functional TARDIS these days, can hardly be bothered leaving London (except when ditzy woman spills coffee into its console, oh dear). To BBC management, London is not simply the centre of the World, but of the Universe too.

        1. Wul says:

          True. Those pesky aliens always find their way to London too. They must know it’s grim up north.

        2. Graeme Purves says:

          Wot??? ‘As the Doctor given up on Cardiff??? I just can’t watch it these days. It has become so exhaustingly frenetic and unjustifiably pleased with itself.

  4. George S Gordon says:

    Has something happened to your Twitter account?

    1. Yes, taking some time off social media.

      1. Wul says:

        Good idea. It’s an open sewer pipe.

      2. Alex McCulloch says:

        Excellent move !
        – it is a very unproductive place!

        I am sure you will have plans to use all the time you will bow have on your hands well..but…if you are at a loose end, and want to collaborate on a brainstorm around how to involve , inform and inspire the many people ( I.e. two out of three) to choose a form of Independence that enables an even better Scotland, and World, over the future decades…then ..give me a shout!

  5. Edward Cairney says:

    It’s always been this way. Very subtle, very cosy brainwashing. No need to throw buckets of water on the Scottish fire, the sparks are kept a bay with with a fine mist. Holyrood is a firebreak just in case.

  6. Richard Anderson says:

    I read the book ‘How They Broke Britain’ by the LBC broadcaster@jamesob and was struck by how disconnected the main players are from the awareness of Scots. An ‘in’ tale which has affected Scots greatly but purely an account of incestuous political England. Marina Hyde’s work is in a similar vein. Scotland isn’t even an afterthought.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    All the more reason not to confuse the USA with America. However, this article fails to address the fact that the UK is itself a component of the ongoing British Empire, some territories of which are yearly considered by the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization (C-24) to be non-self-governing.
    While similar applies to the USAmerican Empire, and a handful of European ones, of course.

  8. John Wood says:

    Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation

    Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
    Fareweel our ancient glory;
    Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name,
    Sae fam’d in martial story.
    Now Sark rins over Solway sands,
    An’ Tweed rins to the ocean,
    To mark where England’s province stands-
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

    What force or guile could not subdue,
    Thro’ many warlike ages,
    Is wrought now by a coward few,
    For hireling traitor’s wages.
    The English steel we could disdain,
    Secure in valour’s station;
    But English gold has been our bane
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

    O would, ere I had seen the day
    That Treason thus could sell us,
    My auld grey head had lien in clay,
    Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
    But pith and power, till my last hour,
    I’ll mak this declaration;
    We’re bought and sold for English gold-
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

    Sadly, Scotland and England are both ruled by parcels of rogues. But these days, the gold is American.

  9. Devine says:

    Great on the nose article from Gerry.
    The SNP are in a terrible state at the moment; mortally wounded and its merciless enemies can smell the bleeding from a mile away. We only have to look at the increasing levels of aggression among the more or less coordinated Scottish media. The Sturgeon camper van, her resignation, the fallouts from the internal woke wars, the Salmond and his Alba cults attacks, Margaret Ferrier and ‘that’ by-election, gender reform, Kate Forbes fallout, Lisa Cameron and Humza Yousaf as the ultimate unifier of all the nations bigots. Much of the damaged has been self-inflicted. You only have to look at the arrogance of the Unionists and the Labour variety in particular now they have sniffed out the SNP’s weaknesses…https://www.glasgowtimes.co.uk/news/24082447.john-daly-remember-created-mess-devolution-scotland/
    Openly sneering and disparaging the very concept of Scottish devolution. This is certainly not the home rule Scottish Labour of Kier Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and John MacLean. This isn’t even the New labour of Donald Dewar. This is a Scottish Labour Party of Jackie Baillie, Alex Rowley, Ian Murray, Michael Shanks, George Foulkes etc that is a very centre right British nationalist party- this is what the people of Scotland are letting back in the door by voting for this Bratva who fully revealed themselves for what they are in the referendum of 2014. They’ve since reconfigured their mask with lots of media backed cosmetic surgery so that people have forgotten what they are looking at. The SNP for many people are now a party they cannot give their vote to. No right minded person can vote Tory and so by default all they can do is vote the old SLAB bratva with its new shiny face. The older generation of course are the drivers of much of these shifts back to SLAB and are the demographics of Scotland are the only thing keeping unionism afloat in Scotland- are the older generation at risk of becoming damaged by what they wish for? How much would a roll back on free prescriptions, cuts to the public services, free bus passes, eye tests, lower council tax etc effect the older generation in particular? The SNP have been a political and democratic miracle for the last 15 years or so. They have won election after election in Scotland against the intergenerational might and corruption of SLAB, of the Scottish establishment, the Unionist Media across all the print media and the broadcast media, including the ubiquitous presence of the pro-unionist state broadcaster. What an achievement that has been. Maybe now the SNP have just come up against the natural life span of modern political parties- maybe now the party has to resurrect itself into something different, something a little more radical, with a set of values, principles and beliefs that openly mark its distinctive identity from not only SLAB, but also the Greens. None of this is to detract from the great successes of the SNP, which the Scottish unionist media conceal, such as the success on knife crime, how the NHS, dentistry, education and public services in general are all superior in Scotland than the rest of the UK, and England in particular. But if the party is to recover its old successes it has to reinvent itself. Now that the rich tory donors are openly supporting Labour and Starmer speaks for itself- Starmer is a friend of power, of the rich, of the British establishment. Now due to many Scottish people’s disatisfaction with the SNP many are now contemplating, according to recent polls, voting for a Starmer stamped SLAB party- this is would be a huge act of national self harm: there is a real danger that such an overtly London centric Labour Party, in cahoots with the tribalistic rascals in SLAB, and with the aid of the Unionist media in Scotland, will conspire to overturn the progress and successes of devolution under Holyrood- as the wee ginger says in his latest article: ‘Keir Starmer’s Labour party will gleefully kick any talk of independence off the political table, proclaim that it has defeated nationalism and double down on attacks on the Scottish Parliament, even as it wraps any vestige of socialism in a union flag shroud and embarks on the quixotic British nationalist delusion of ‘making Brexit work’. All Scotland will get is Starmer’s brand of Tory-lite policies and the meaningful change that voters in Scotland seek will remain as elusive as ever.’

    1. Satan says:

      The SNP are currently the personification of globalised neoliberalism, and I think an election defeat would probably shift them to the right. Possibly the Greens would go with them in that direction, if anyone cares about them any more since they became inept SNP puppets. I found it hard to picure people as inept as the SNP governance, then along came bottles Slater and heat pumps Harvie who seem to wish to save the biosphere by being incompetent.

  10. George Archibald says:

    Well, to all those who won’t vote for independence…..suck it up. Gerry Hassan has described the position extremely well, and it ain’t going to change.
    Again to anyone who votes for ANY unionist party and who won’t vote for independence…suck it up. Stop complaining and get used to the fact that England and the UK are effectively the same thing.
    Unless someone DOES something (vote for independence for example) then nothing will change. I have seen this type of article/comment many times over the last 50 years and this England/UK thing will not ever change. Unless……….
    Now, to be clear, I think that England (now and historically) is one of the great countries of the world, and if you want to continue to be a part of England then don’t vote for independence. But if you really do want to see a differentiation……well you know what to do!

  11. John says:

    Today on news media was a typical example of how Anglocentric media are in UK.
    Lots of news coverage about the introduction of extended role for Pharmacists prescribing for minor ailments in England when this has already been online in Scotland and Wales. Big discussion over rights and wrongs but absolutely no review of how this had previously worked in Scotland and Wales only a mention at end of article on some channels.
    I have lived in all 3 countries and much asI liked living in England and made many good friends there was an ignorance bordering on arrogance with regard to Scotland, Wales and NI due to media coverage.

  12. Alasdair Angus Macdonald says:

    The lynch mob mentality and not just of the unionist Scottish media (i.e. just about all of it), but the entire UK media in the nasty hounding of Nicola Sturgeon during the Covid enquiry is an indication of just how feart the English/British nationalists are about the prospect of an independent Scotland. Under Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor Mr Salmond, disuniting the UK was nearly achieved and despite the travails of the SNP, support for independence has, if anything grown, albeit slowly, during the past 10 years.

    The hatred towards her is indicative of the colonialist mindset amongst those who most fear the break up of Britannia with its non-constitution and its gerrymandered electoral system.

    With the DUP bowing to the inevitable in Northern Ireland and the possibility of Sinn Fein in power in Eire and in Northern Ireland, the prospect of reunification of Ireland has inched closer. In Wales, Labour has sustained itself in power by emphasising its Welshness and commissioned a report of the governance of Wales which reported that independence is ‘viable.’

    It is time that the ‘plain people of England’ began to think about how they are treated by the Britannia elite, which has for centuries, has conflated England with a different concept of Great Britain, and denied them the right to govern themselves.

    1. John Wood says:

      “It is time that the ‘plain people of England’ began to think about how they are treated by the Britannia elite, which has for centuries, has conflated England with a different concept of Great Britain, and denied them the right to govern themselves.” Spot on Alasdair, though many of us have been thinking about just that for a long time. It denies a genuine ‘English’ identity altogether. And no-one – apart from those who have descended into fascism – wants to be ‘English’ anymore because of that identification. The plain people of England are in much the same situation as the poor whites in Bob Dylan’s song, of many years ago, “Only a Pawn in their Game’. A large and growing number of English people are horrified at what that establishment does in their name and want no part of it.

      In Scotland, thank goodness, it is possible to reject a ‘British’ identity, which is really all about Empire. The British Empire was built by people who dreamt of the might and wealth of Rome, and received a classical education. However Britannia was always only the name of the Roman province. It claimed to rule the whole island, even Orkney, but it never did – although that claim has been maintained ever since. The north of Scotland was never ‘British’, and throughout later history it has always offered a refuge for those escaping from tyranny. Romans generally regarded any people not under their control as uncivilised barbarians and that attitude was adopted by the British Empire. But Tacitus gives that timeless speech to Calgacus at the battle of Mons Graupius – perhaps that helps to explain why I – like so many people before me, am not ‘British’ at all but an ‘English Scot’.

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