Poor old England?

Mike Phipps reviews Englishness: the political force transforming Britain, by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, published by OUP.

The authors claim to offer “a new perspective on the current remaking of British politics by focusing on what we regard as the major force behind it – namely, Englishness.” Commentators long assumed that there were no significant differences on English identity within the core of the UK. But today the issue has increasing electoral salience in relation to England’s place both in the world and within the four nations of the UK itself. This book produces detailed survey data to analyse this phenomenon in detail.

It was David Cameron who propelled the issue of English attitudes to the forefront when he said, immediately following the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, “Now the millions of voices of England must also be heard.” The authors conclude: “It is hard not to detect a sense that Cameron was, in effect, highlighting a problem that did not really exist and doing so for the basest of motives.”

One of these motives was an attempt to undercut UKIP support and its link with English identification. However, Cameron’s promotion of the idea that there was a particularly English grievance about how the UK was governed would actually bolster UKIP and their push for a referendum on the EU.

So the new Englishness defines itself both in relation to the rest of the world and the rest of the UK. But how connected are these two aspects – one that rejects independence or further devolution for Scotland and Wales, and the other that is hostile to the EU and other features of globalism?  Certainly the two are linked in Conservative ideology, but I suspect that many people who are viscerally hostile to the EU and beyond, either from a nationalist or sovereigntist standpoint, are almost indifferent to greater autonomy for the UK’s smaller nations.

The book’s research confirms this: “support in England for the territorial integrity of the UK is weak, quite remarkably so.” What concerns those voters who prize their Englishness above other identifiers is a belief that the case for independence, in Scotland particularly, has been weaponised by its supporters to get more access to central government favours, leaving the English at the back of the queue. So the central idea uniting the two aspects of English nationalism is a false sense of victimhood – the ‘poor English’, screwed first by the EU and then by the Scots.

Of course most people haven’t a clue about central government grant to Scotland and the workings of the Barnett formula – the mechanism the Treasury uses to adjust the amounts of public expenditure allocated to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. So this sense of grievance, like some of those relating to the EU, may be something that has been externally implanted, rather than directly experienced by those who raise it. But it may well chime with a sense of eroding identities and communities, itself a deracinating effect of neoliberalism.

Such sentiments are unlikely to be overcome by constitutional change, as Brexit shows. In any case, it seems incorrect to infer either from the Brexit vote or from demands in Scotland and Wales for greater independence that voters are now primarily interested in constitutional questions as such. The campaigns on both sides of the two recent referendums emphasised the ‘bread and butter’ advantages of independence or not, and of Brexit or not. If the constitutional issue appears to dominate Scottish electoral politics nowadays, it is because so many voters have conclusively decided that it is in their material interest to resolve this question: for many, the best or only way to get the kind of Scotland they want is via independence. The surge in support from working class voters for independence in 2014 was a recognition that it offered a way out of a Tory Britain that most Scots had never voted for.

Far from being a cause for despair, this constitutional pragmatism on the part of voters should be seen as an opportunity for Labour. After eighteen months of Keir Starmer, Labour’s English image is looking pretty unappealing to many voters. But Labour performs much better in Wales, or in cities like Manchester and Liverpool, where there is a strong regional or local brand, distinct from the national Westminster-based offering, which identifies with the needs of people in that specific nation, region or locality. If Labour were to embrace a programme of greater federalism for the four nations of the UK and radical devolution for regions within England, it could do a lot to puncture the insular nationalism stirred up by its political enemies and recast English identity in a more progressive guise.

This will take some campaigning. The authors’ research suggests that there is not great support for any particular form of English devolution, beyond the increasingly unworkable idea of ‘English votes for English laws’. But times are changing. The incompetence and corruption seen in the Conservative government’s handling of the Covid pandemic stand in sharp contrast to the more effective management of the crisis in Scotland and Wales. Moreover, in the face of government inaction, it has often been local authorities that have acted more swiftly – sometimes in the teeth of opposition form Whitehall – to protect public health. The desire felt in Scotland and Wales to have less government from Westminster may increasingly find its expression elsewhere.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.