In this article, Professor Michael Kenny, director of the QMUL Mile End Institute, considers the debate around English nationalism, "one of the great bogeymen of British politics". He says there is a real danger that simplistic and misleading characterisations of its genesis and character take hold. "This is a phenomenon that seems to lend itself, almost without exception, to the twin perils of overstatement and underestimation."
One of the most striking consequences of the recent election has been the sudden shift of attention onto the spectre of a burgeoning English nationalism. Various talking heads have seen intimations of it in the strength of Ukip’s performance in England, the apparent impact of the Conservatives’ relentless focus upon the prospect of SNP involvement in a putative government on southern voters and the Tory focus on English votes for English laws.
It has even been suggested that “shy English nationalists” are the explanation for why the polling companies got the election so badly wrong.
So the notion of an English nationalism – one of the great bogeymen of British politics – is once again the topic of the day. But there is a real danger that simplistic and misleading characterisations of its genesis and character take hold. This is a phenomenon that seems to lend itself, almost without exception, to the twin perils of overstatement and underestimation.
Senior Labour figures were quick to blame the party’s defeat on the way it was supposedly squeezed between Scottish and English nationalism. And it has been widely suggested that a mood of English resentment was orchestrated by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum result, signalling the Conservatives’ readiness to “play politics with the Union”, putting the party’s electoral prospects before the integrity of the UK.
These judgements run the risk of overstating the coherence of English nationalism. They also reflect a misapprehension of the shift in national mood that has happened among many English people over the past two decades, and rest upon crude assumptions about what motivates voters. In fact, if you want to understand Labour’s electoral disaster, you need an appreciation of perceptions of economic competence and leadership capability, along with ideas about national decline, cultural anxiety and a growing sense of shared English interests.
The inability of the Labour Party to grasp the importance of various questions of identity, democracy and constitution reflects one of the root sources of its inadequate response to new currents of national sentiment in Scotland and England.
Labour was no victim to nationalism
The Conservatives’ attack on Labour’s relationship with the SNP actually played upon long-established concerns among significant parts of the English electorate about Labour’s approach to fiscal policy. The party responded with repeated, implausible denials that it would come to some kind of arrangement with the SNP.
This defensive stance carried echoes of Labour’s inability to muster a credible response to the posing of the English question by the Conservatives after the referendum. Indeed, rather than blaming these different nationalisms as causes for its defeat, Labour would do better to consider the strategic errors it made in both of these contexts.
It may well be that nationalism was diminishing in significance in both England and Scotland before and during the election. Research in Scotland certainly suggests this was the case. And in England, while there does appear to have been an intensification of nationalism among some parts of the electorate in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, a combination of the rise of UKIP and the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK may well have shifted some away from nationalist positions.
Polling during the referendum suggests that support for the UK grew over time, and the number of those in England supporting the UK’s membership of the EU has also risen of late.
But the notion that the Tories sparked a nationalist surge among the English also ignores the considerable body of evidence pointing to the rising political significance of this vein of national sentiment over a much longer period – and this is where the dangers of under-estimation become relevant.
The Conservatives did not conjure up or politicise English nationalism. They were simply more astute in reading the changing national mood than their political opponents – and swift to sense Labour’s fundamental difficulties in this area. The notion that the Tories illegitimately mobilised Englishness grossly overstates the impact that politicians have upon public attitudes and perceptions of national interest.
English nationalism was invented neither by Ukip or the Conservatives. It is in fact a longer-range, multifaceted trend, which in all probability began during the 1990s. Some researchers see the mid-late 2000s as a key moment when political forms of English identity became apparent. The British Social Attitudes Survey, for instance, tracks a growing sense of irritation and unease among the majority of English adults about how England fares within the post-devolved constitution in those years.
The Future of England survey, conducted during 2014, highlights a strengthening relationship between English identification and political allegiance, but found that English nationalism was much more notable among Ukip supporters than those favouring the Conservatives, whose commitment to Englishness was not much higher than that exhibited by Labour supporters.
The most marked cleavage in terms of attitudes towards an English sense of identification is between those who live outside London – who are much more inclined to see themselves as English — and those who live in the capital and the south-east, for whom Britain remains a stronger point of national orientation. The markedly different feelings about national identity of many ethnic minority communities, with a large and growing black and minority ethnic population in London, is also a significant factor here, as many from minority backgrounds remain wary of an English nationalism.
Differences in class are also important; an English identity is most strongly felt, according to some surveys, by anxious and aspirational voters in the “squeezed middle” whom Labour notably failed to win to their side at the election.
What is English nationalism?
But it is an overstatement to characterise the English majority as “nationalist” in its orientation. About one in five consistently hold beliefs which could reasonably be characterised in this way – and this is a pool of opinion and sentiment in which Ukip swims ever more confidently.
The majority continue to see themselves as both English and British, are in favour of the continuation of the Union and are also increasingly likely to think that the English are not treated fairly within the current settlement, and ought to be given more opportunity to celebrate their own nationhood.
While there are undoubtedly streaks of grievance and resentment in this worldview, there are very few indications that it corresponds to the kind of little Englandism that rejects all entanglements with the wider world, or craves a sundering of the Union.
The endlessly repeated accusation that Ed Miliband would be unable to stop the SNP from using its position to win significant, unfair benefits for the Scots worked because of already existing currents of sentiment and resentment, and their intimate connection with an emerging sense of collective English interest.
Blanket characterisations of English nationalism are misleading in two additional respects. First they sustain the fear that any such expression is inherently illiberal and regressive – the imagined opposite to a constitutional Britishness. Yet there is very little evidence to suggest a consistent or entrenched relationship between right-wing political beliefs and an inclination to identity as English.
There are, however, myriad examples from the world of the arts, popular culture and public discourse of England being depicted in all sorts of ideological colours. Jez Butterworth’s hit play Jerusalem, P.J.Harvey’s award winning album Let England Shake and Graham Swift’s collection England and Other Stories can hardly be dismissed as exercises in conservatism or nostalgia. They are among numerous texts that offer different kinds of representative claim upon England.
Some of these speak the language of democracy, rights and popular sovereignty – for instance those campaigners for a renewal of a radical English constitutionalism that harks back to the spirit of Magna Carta. Others are advanced in more exclusivist, angry and populist ways, including some of the arguments advanced by Ukip. It is ultimately in the contest between these different kinds of claim that the political character of English nationhood will be determined.
In a situation where the idea of creating a more devolved UK has become mainstream, the question of how English identity is political expressed and imagined is one that liberal political parties can no longer afford to ignore.
- This article first appeared in The Conversation
About the author
Michael Kenny is Director of the Mile End Institute and Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research.