By Alan Crawford
12 April 2019
At first glance, there’s little to betray the village of Edington’s status as the lodestar of Brexit. Squeezed between the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain and Wiltshire’s clay downs to the north, Edington lacks a school, a shop, or an obvious center. It has a village pub, the Three Daggers, and an ornate priory church serving a population the 2011 census put at 734 souls.
It’s here, though, that historians broadly agree England was born. And England is key to understanding what’s happening in the U.K. today. For if anything is clear from its tortuous divorce from the European Union, the spectacle of an angry and divided nation in desperate need of direction is an English phenomenon, not a British one.
Edington lies in an ancient landscape dotted with Neolithic long barrows and overlooked by an Iron Age hill fort. It’s Anglo-Saxon country, the heart of the onetime kingdom of Wessex. Some 400 years ago, a giant figure of a horse was cut into the chalk: It’s thought to commemorate a decisive victory by King Alfred over a marauding Viking army. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative lawmaker, cites Alfred and his triumph over the pagan Danes at this spot in 878 A.D. as political inspirations. Edington, the Brexit cheerleader has said, is the site of “the great battle on which our freedoms depend.” Alfred the Great, as he is known, “wanted to tell people what ancient rights they had and how they ought to have their liberties,” Rees-Mogg told the House of Commons in 2010 in his maiden speech after winning a parliamentary seat in the nearby county of Somerset. Alfred’s grandson “became the first King of England on borders we would recognize to this day.”
Back then, Eton-educated Rees-Mogg was considered a fringe figure whose attempts to re-create England’s past greatness were disregarded as curious anachronisms. Now he chairs the European Research Group of hard-line Brexiters, and his notion of a besieged England standing up to defend its values is mainstream among those seeking to shake off the EU’s yoke.
There are many reasons behind Brexit, from concerns over immigration and globalization’s impact, to an urge to regain the nebulous concept of sovereignty (take back control), or simply to kick the establishment. But at its emotional core is an increasingly disaffected England struggling to find its role in the world. When Brexiters carry placards saying “Believe in Britain,” they really mean “Believe in England.”
Of the U.K.’s four constituent nations, two—England and Wales—voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Scotland and Northern Ireland chose to remain; not a single Scottish council area saw a majority vote for leaving. Yet England’s population outweighs that of the rest of the U.K. by more than 5 to 1, so it will drag the others out, anti-Brexit London included.
As the process has run into trouble, there are indications that pro-Brexit voters in England are doubling down rather than reconsidering their choice. An April YouGov poll suggested that every English and Welsh region other than London would be happy to quit the EU without a deal, risking the threat of economic harm, trade chaos, and shortages in stores and hospitals to get their way. In one of the many recent Brexit votes at Westminster, 160 members of Parliament—two-fifths of the total—supported such a “No Deal” exit, 156 of them from constituencies in England. Edington’s Conservative MP, Andrew Murrison, was among them.
Thanks to the results of the Brexit referendum, the contours of resentment are clearly delineated. Winchester, the royal residence of King Alfred and home to one of England’s great cathedrals, forms the western periphery of the Remain vote emanating from the capital. Beyond, it’s near-uniform Leave territory all the way to the Celtic Sea. This is the England that’s lost its voice, that feels ignored by and alienated from its multicultural, cosmopolitan capital, says John Denham, director of the University of Winchester’s Centre for English Identity and Politics and a former minister in Tony Blair’s Labour Party government.
Surveys, including one of 20,000 people conducted with the help of the BBC last year, show that these people tend to be older, haven’t been to university, and live in smaller places that have lost their purpose. They also tend to identify as being more English than British. The result is a deep unease at large in much of England that urgently needs to be addressed. “It would appear that Englishness is becoming the identity of people who are least comfortable with change in the modern world,” Denham says. “These divisions were there before Brexit. Brexit revealed them, it didn’t create them. The great danger is that it’s not dealt with and that it will continue to break out in disruptive ways.”
What is it to be English today, shorn of the British Empire, its World War II victories and sacrifices fading in memory? Conservative Prime Minister John Major, another occupant of 10 Downing Street bedeviled by arguments over Europe, made a stab at it in 1993. “Fifty years on from now,” he said, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.’” In reality, only dogs and filling in the pools—a form of weekly lottery—were British; everything else listed was archetypal England.
England and Britain are often used interchangeably in places such as Germany and the U.S. The English, as the dominant force in the 312-year-old union, have traditionally not minded much. But that began to change around the turn of the century, when surveys showed differences in attitude emerging between those who identify as more English than British and those who see themselves as predominantly British. The identities aren’t mutually exclusive, but there are political differences: Those describing themselves as English are more likely to vote for the UK Independence Party or the Conservatives, while those who say they’re British are more likely to vote Liberal or Labour. Those calling themselves English were overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Brexit.
This bifurcation between the identities can be traced back to the Blair government’s election in 1997 on a commitment to parcel out powers from London under a policy known as devolution. The Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999, almost 300 years after it was adjourned at the onset of the union; the Welsh Assembly was established the same year. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 also created a Northern Ireland Assembly, while London got its own assembly in 2000.
England would have to wait another five years for its turn. But even then the elected assemblies proposed for the English regions by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott were toothless, with no power to draft laws. Voters in the pilot region of North East England resoundingly rejected the body in a vote in November 2004. The plans were quietly dropped.
Since then, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even London have been forging their own identities. England hasn’t had that chance—its only legislative outlet is the U.K. Parliament in London. There, England has had to witness the humiliation of a Conservative government dependent upon Northern Ireland’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party for votes; it’s looked on impotently as Ireland dictates the terms of Brexit; and it’s watched a pro-independence Scottish government that tries to appear more concerned about the union’s future than that of its U.K. counterpart.
Those who perceive England to lack a voice in domestic matters are the same people most concerned about EU regulations and migration, according to Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, who analyzed the results of the 2018 Future of England Survey. “The U.K. is not now, nor has it been for a long time, a union of shared identities,” she wrote in a December paper, “Brexit, the Union, and the Future of England.” “The more English one feels, the more likely one is to express dissatisfaction with each of England’s two unions, one external, the other internal.”
For Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, who happens to be a Dane like King Alfred’s vanquished opponents, the Brexit vote was evidence of “an element of English nationalism” that’s stirred up a hornet’s nest. The end result could be a federal U.K., Irish unification, Scotland going its own way, or even England’s secession from the union. Identity politics has gained the upper hand; traditional parties lose their relevance as voters identify as pro- or anti-Brexit. “The pervasive sense of uncertainty surrounding the U.K.’s role in the world, relationship to Europe, cohesion among itself as a country, its political system—that’s going to continue,” he says. “That damage has been done. There’s nothing that can be done to undo that now.”
As a Scot living in Berlin, I’ve looked on in horror at the unfolding Brexit debacle. I’ve taken it as a personal affront, and it’s prompted me to seek German citizenship. But having covered the early days of the Scottish Parliament and Executive—later renamed the Scottish Government—I can relate to attempts to reinvent Scotland as a progressive place open to the world, and I understand English frustration at not having the same opportunity.
Denham, of the Centre for English Identity and Politics, favors the term “nationhood” to “nationalism,” though he concedes far-right forces such as the English Defence League are working hard to occupy the space opened up by Brexit’s focus on identity. He sees a need to establish a Parliament to handle specifically English matters and to reinvent a new narrative to save the union. Brexit, he says, is an historic moment that offers the chance to build a new national identity that takes the English into account. He admits that his is a minority view.
The road from Winchester to Edington, from Remain to Leave country, offers impressions of one version of England’s identity. It’s a lush landscape of pheasants and badgers, judging from the number of dead animals on the roadside; of ancient monuments, including the megalithic circle of Stonehenge; and country pubs with names like the Rose & Crown and the Churchill Arms. But those rustic images are set against the reality of the vast military training ground that is Salisbury Plain. Chinook helicopters fly overhead, red flags denote live firing exercises, and road signs warn of tanks crossing and “Danger: unexploded bombs.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Brexiters often turn to historic battlefield analogies in their search for parallels with Brexit, the paradox being that the EU was formed to promote peace. UKIP’s former leader, Nigel Farage, wore ties depicting the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, where the English King Harold fought the invading Norman force (and, in the popular account, took an arrow in the eye as his army fell to defeat). Nick Timothy, Prime Minister Theresa May’s former chief of staff, urged her in an op-ed in the Sun to “find her inner Boudicca” in negotiations with the EU—a reference to the first century rebellion led by the warrior queen of the indigenous Iceni tribe, which was ultimately crushed by the Roman occupiers.
Edington seems a more apt analogy, and Alfred a less divisive figure as the first consciously English nation builder. Yet there’s no monument to him in the town: It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a modest sandstone memorial was raised by the hill fort at nearby Bratton Camp, the inscription paying tribute to Alfred’s victory, “giving birth to English nationhood.”
The English nation will be asserting itself anew—whatever the outcome of the chaotic divorce from Europe. “If anything is clear from our data, English dissatisfaction with the union is unlikely to go away with time,” says Edinburgh’s Henderson. “Or with Brexit.”
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