By John Denham
Campaigners for ‘remain and reform’ need to offer a new democratic settlement to win over hearts and minds.
13 August 2019
Over the past three years the spectre of a rampant English nationalism has gripped the imagination of the liberal left. The rise of a racist, backward-looking, imperialistic and xenophobic political force has been conjured up by politicians and commentators alike, serving as a convenient whipping boy for Brexit chaos and other travails.
English discontent certainly does lie at the root of much recent turmoil. In 2015 fears that the SNP would dominate a weak minority Labour government helped give David Cameron his surprise majority (John McDonnell’s courting of the SNP on the subject of a second independence vote suggests that Jeremy Corbyn may face the same “Scottish question” very soon). In 2016 the bulk of the leave vote was provided by voters more likely to emphasise their English rather than their British identity. And it was Conservatism’s appeal to working-class English voters with a similar profile that denied Labour a majority in 2017.
If we are to understand the dynamics of our times then, we need to understand Englishness. But our research at the Centre for English Identity and Politics suggests that this is not the virulent nationalism of liberal nightmares. This nationalism has no political party or programme. Nor does it boast public intellectuals, cultural expressions or social institutions. Party activists knocking on doors rarely meet voters who express explicitly English political demands. The worst they might come across is a despairing “you’re not even allowed to say you are English any more”.
Of course, not everyone who lives in England says they think of themselves as primarily English. The research found that while most citizens identify as both English and British, around a third prioritise their English identity (“I’m more English than British”). It is among this group, and those considering themselves “equally English and British”, that English interests are most strongly expressed.
These are not, by and large, the people who hold power in England. They tend to live outside the cities and didn’t go to university. They include working-class voters important to Labour heartlands and those from the world of small business; people who see themselves as embodying an ethos of hard work and public service, shaped in an era when banks had managers based in the high street rather than tower blocks in Canary Wharf. If both these groups are nostalgic, it is less for empire than for the place they once held at the centre of national life. Power in England now lies with the graduates, with those who lead corporate business and hold sway in culture and the arts, and in much of the media and academia. Influential positions are more likely to be held by the small minority who consider themselves “British not English” than by the self-identifying “English not British”.
English-identifying voters are the least satisfied with their political representation and are unlikely to feel Westminster understands them. They want English laws made by English MPs, and many would like a parliament for England. These English identifiers resent the Barnett formula that gives deprived English regions less public spending per head than Scotland. Many see the NHS, university fees, social care and education – even the EU and immigration – as issues where the English interest is distinct from the UK as a whole. Far from being “Greater Britain” unionists they place as little store on the union as they do on the EU. Nine out of 10 think it is important that a political party stands up for English interests, but nearly half can’t identify one that does.
Rather than being in thrall to Boris Johnson’s “Greater Britain” unionism, these citizens see both of England’s unions – the United Kingdom and the EU – as working against the interests of the particular England they see as excluded from power. This clash between the “establishment” and the English is about aspirations for power, representation and democracy that would be taken for granted in any other nation; it’s neither necessarily regressive nor inherently rightwing. Indeed, it might well have formed the programme of a coherent and democratic political project. But without clear articulation or leadership, the English interest remains inchoate: a powerful yet volatile and unpredictable force. Certainly, if the union is to survive, English voters need to be convinced of its modern relevance just as much as voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The genius of the leave campaign was to associate the remoteness of Brussels with the marginalisation felt by the English at home, and with the decline of their public services. Concern about immigration was important,: Englishness is a national identity deeply rooted in the identities of local places and it was inevitably disrupted by the rapid impact of unexpected levels of migration. Racism played a part, but it was by no means the whole story. The number of people claiming you have to be white to be English has halved over the past seven years – to just 10% – undermining claims that Brexit was driven by ethnically exclusive English nationalism. It was being told that EU immigration couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be controlled that really rankled.
The caricaturing of English nationalism as inherently reactionary and xenophobic has made the left and centre reluctant to hear what the English really want. It’s one reason why the People’s Vote campaign has found it so hard to really shift the dial on Europe despite the looming threat of no deal.
Labour has failed to establish a commanding poll lead among the same voters despite competing with an unpopular and incompetent government. Even electoral reformers and democracy campaigners shy away from recognising English aspirations to enjoy the same level of democracy as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. No mainstream party is willing to speak directly to England.
Many English-identifying voters want left-of-centre policies on the economy, public ownership, redistribution and the welfare state, but progressives’ reluctance to engage with their English agenda has left them in the hands of Brexiteers of one shade or another. Promises of more policing, NHS spending and immigration controls, as Brexit looms, suggest that Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummings know which buttons to press. But the Brexiteer-English alliance is by no means secure. Leaving aside the difficulty of actually delivering, the inescapable logic of Brexit is to drive global market forces ever more deeply into the very communities desperate for protection from them.
It’s late in the day, but “remain and reform” campaigners could acknowledge that England’s governance needs every bit as much reform as that of the EU. Labour could set out a vision for the English nation within the union. Perceptive Liberal Democrats should understand that the voters who abandoned them for the Tories in 2015 were driven by the English interest. If England’s democratic aspirations were recognised, the English could once again become part of the mainstream political conversation from which they have been excluded for too long. Misplaced fears of English nationalism could be put back in the box.
John Denham is a former Labour cabinet minister and Patron of the Constitution Reform Group. He is director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics and the English Labour Network.
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