Who speaks for England?

How the people of England view England, Britain and the union

This is the 21st St George’s Day since devolution left England as the only part of the United Kingdom with no national democracy. With the union at the centre of public debate once again it’s a good time to talk about England and the people who live here. As by far its largest part, what happens in England is frequently more consequential for the union than events in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Rather than weigh into the constitutional debate, I will share some thoughts on the different ways people in England see the nation, the union, Englishness and Britishness. For years, politicians and commentators alike have struggled to find a consistent language with which to talk to and about England and its place within the union. In part, this stems from confusion about how the people of England see themselves.

I’ll sketch the three main strands of thinking about nation and union. In the real world they are blended together in different measure. But they are distinct enough to shape the politics of England and of the union.

The dominant ‘Anglo-centric British unionists’ are not just unionists who live in England: they have a view of the union that is uniquely English. The ‘Political English’ are a recently influential group prioritising their view of England’s interests. The ‘New British’, another emerging identity, have a form of Britishness shared by a younger, graduate, cosmopolitan England and by many of England’s ethnic minorities.

All three are distinctly English — that’s true even for those who reject the very idea of being English. They are views of England and the union that are rooted in England, shaped in England, and much harder to find outside England. As we meet them, it should become clearer why the much vaunted ‘English nationalism’ hasn’t yet materialised.

The ‘Anglo-centric British unionists’

The largest and most hegemonic group is Anglo-centric British unionism. Its roots lie in England’s historic view of the union as, in essence, the extension of English institutions and the expression of English interests. In the assertive form of most Leave leaders and personified by Boris Johnson it can properly be described as Anglo-centric British nationalism. It also dominates the outlook of the Labour Party in England, the Whitehall civil service machine, the London-based UK media, and England’s cultural and arts establishment.

If the English have seen England at the heart of the union (and at the heart of empire) Scotland’s claim on the union insisted on respect for its distinct national culture, legal and education system. The balance between those different views of the union has crumbled as the different parts of the union have taken different political directions. The Conservatives dominate England (but lose everywhere else). The SNP has displaced Labour in Scotland. Wales has its own distinct and currently Labour led politics. The old Ulster Unionist/Tory and SDLP/Labour alignments have broken down. British politics, in the sense of every part of Britain being contested by the same parties, no longer really exists and may not return.

The effect has been to make the Anglo-centric British nationalism of English Conservatism the all-powerful government of England and of the union.

So, for example, in its handling of the NI Protocol and the Internal Market Bill, the Anglo-centric British nationalist union government gave England’s interest in Brexit priority over the interests of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland in membership of the union. It lies behind the desperate attempt to save the union with more flags and cheques with union jacks on the back.

But we shouldn’t forget that the Remain campaign in England was also run by Anglo-centric British unionists. Remain campaigned as ‘Wales Stronger in Europe’, ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’ and — only in England — ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. Attlee’s Labour was a British nationalist and unionist government in which Labour could accommodate Scottish and Welsh views of the union. From the 1970s nationalist pressures led Scottish and Welsh Labour to define their national interests against the politics of England, a process accelerated by Thatcherism and the collapse of the post-war consensus. This delivered devolution but left Labour in England with a residual Anglo-centric British unionism. Labour in England calls itself UK Labour, never names England even when talking about England, opposes any national English democratic institutions, and asserts the supremacy of the Westminster Parliament and the union government. Its leaders use the union flag alone to represent national patriotism.

Whitehall is riddled with Anglo-centric assumptions about the union, either ignoring the devolved administrations or acting as though they do not (or should not) exist . When the pandemic started, the London based UK media struggled to understand let alone explain why the devolved administrations could make their own lockdown responses. It took complaints from Welsh MPs for Johnson and Hancock to start specifying which nation’s pandemic response they were in charge of. Anglo-centric British unionist assumptions run so deep they are barely recognised let alone articulated.

All strands of Anglo-centric British unionism agree that England needs no democratic national institutions because the union itself provides for English interests. England not only has no Parliament, but no machinery to coordinate English policy and legislation. The inevitable consequence is the concentration of union power in London that makes England the most centralised nation in Europe. Anglo-centric unionism has helped to foster a largely unfocussed English regionalism that sporadically claims a fairer deal from the union government in London. By holding out the possibility of a special deal here or a bit more funding there, the unionist centre divides the localities and prevents them coming together as a coherent force for change.

Those who conflate Anglo-centric British nationalism with a genuine English nationalism should recognise that it has left England with no government, no national democracy, no fair distribution of funding and no serious devolution of power from the centre. It may deliver for some in England; it doesn’t deliver for England as a whole.

‘Political Englishness’

The ‘Political English’ are much more focussed on England as a nation. They combine an emphasis on identifying as English more than British with a tendency to hold strong views on England, the union and the EU. (They tell pollsters they are ‘English not British’ or ‘more English than British’ but most don’t define themselves against Britishness as such — it’s a matter of emphasis). The Political English are also likely to say that a locality is an important part of their identity, so that people with a strong county or regional identity are often strongly English as well. Of all England’s residents they are the least likely to identify as European.

A majority of the Political English want an English Parliament; even more want English MPs alone to make English laws in the Westminster Parliament. They want political parties to stand up for English interests within the union. They think decisions about England should primarily be made at national level, although they are also open to devolution within England.

The Political English have been sceptical of both the United Kingdom and the European Union. While the demand for Brexit was largely shaped by Anglo-centric British nationalists it was the Political English who delivered the crucial votes. Their support for UKIP forced the Conservative party to offer a referendum. When it was held 70% of the ‘more English than British’ voted to Leave (while the equally English and British split 50:50 and a majority of the more British voted Remain).

The Political English believe devolution has been unfair on England and far too generous to Scotland in particular. Only a minority support English independence, but most would be unconcerned if the union broke up. During the tortuous debates on the EU Withdrawal Treaty Parliament the Political English thought it was more important to complete Brexit than keep Scotland in the union or safeguard the NI Peace Process (although few may have believed that either would be the actual outcome).

The political English are a 21st century phenomenon. At the turn of the millennium, it mattered relatively little whether a voter was English, British or any combination of the two. But the collective impact of asymmetric devolution, globalisation, economic restructuring, austerity, the expansion of higher education and mass immigration seems to have fostered the resentful and distinctive Political Englishness that culminated in the Brexit vote and a powerful endorsement for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the ‘Get Brexit Done’ election of 2019.

While many had always been Conservative voters, large numbers also come from former Labour communities. Like the rest of England, the Political English have become steadily more liberal on migration in recent years, but they were the most disconcerted by the impact of mass immigration on their settled idea of community. The gap has widened between the liberal cosmopolitan values of England’s major cities and younger graduates and the Political English who are more likely to live in less diverse and smaller communities.

The curious absence of English nationalism

We can see that what some call English nationalism, as manifest in the Brexit vote, is the product of two rather different groups: Anglo-centric British unionism and Political Englishness. But the description doesn’t fit either. England’s unionism is British nationalist, not English. As for Political Englishness, it’s a strange sort of nationalism that has no significant political party, no programme, no public intellectuals, nor social or civic institutions. So, if Political Englishness shows the similar concerns for ideas of the national interest, of national governance, democracy, and sovereignty that are found in other political nationalisms, why hasn’t Political Englishness found expression as a genuine political nationalism with its own part(ies), programmes and leaders? Why has it played only an enabling role for an Anglo-centric British nationalism that rejects many of its English aspirations?

In part there has been an absence of political leadership. The Political English occupy a part of the political landscape that is left of centre economically but socially conservative. Until now, no political party has tried seriously to represent this combination of values.

But the bigger issue is that while the defining values of Political Englishness are deeply held they are also narrow. Political Englishness does not as yet represent a rounded view of England as a nation, society or economy. Unlike other nationalisms political Englishness represents neither a shared history nor common values around which a vision of the future can be shaped. While it could be mobilised by a Euroscepticism it shared with Anglo-centric British nationalism, it does not have the agency to mobilise itself. The power of Anglo-centric British unionism has kept political Englishness narrow and subordinate. Denied a forum in which England can re-imagine itself as a 21st century nation, the Political English are left poorly represented in the political system.

‘New Britishness’

Like political Englishness, New Britishness is a relatively recent development. Don’t be fooled by the label, or by their tendency to describe themselves as ‘more British than English’, the New British are just as English as the others I have described (though they may well not identify as such).

New Britishness has two strands. In part it is the product of British multiculturalism. In part it has also become the national identity of choice of the expanding liberal, cosmopolitan, graduate populations centred in London and other major and university cities.

While political Englishness is usually quite comfortable with British identity, New Britishness often defines itself against Englishness. For liberal cosmopolitans, the rejection of Englishness may not only be a response to a perceived ‘small c’ conservatism and less positive attitudes towards diversity, but also a deeper rejection of ideas of national belonging and patriotism themselves. For many members of ethnic minorities, hesitation to identify as English may often reflect a lingering sense that somehow Englishness is not ‘open’ to them.

At the current time the attitudes of these two groups towards ideas of England, Britain and the union are sufficiently similar to regard the New British as a single phenomenon.

But it’s not clear how long these two strands of New Britishness will stay intertwined. As Englishness become inexorably more inclusive it is becoming more attractive to ethnic minorities, particularly those born in England. At the same time, significant parts of many ethnic minority communities share a broader social conservatism, strong sense of group identity and an openness to patriotism that is much more akin to the political English.

New Britishness only really exists in England. And for all it calls itself British, it is quite unlike conceptions of Britishness found elsewhere in England or the rest of the union.

‘British multi-culturalism’ only happened in England. The Britishness represented by shared citizenship was the focus, reinforced by the assumption of Anglo-centric British unionism that British, rather than English, was the proper national identity for England. The civil society and political leaders of Scotland and Wales, and the minority communities in those nations, were able to pursue their own paths towards inclusive ideas of national identity. It is no coincidence that British values are only on the curriculum in English schools. In its own right British multiculturalism was a success story and a product of popular struggles to challenge racially defined national identity, but Englishness was excluded from the multi-cultural project. Though becoming rapidly becoming more inclusive, Englishness has lagged in finding its own multi-cultural forms. This progress is often hindered by the vehemence with which the New British insist that Englishness is and will always be a reactionary identity. (Ironically, this insistence finds a receptive audience in Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists, thereby reinforcing the idea of England as ‘the other’ and undermining the very Britishness of the New British).

The New British have very different values to other British identifiers in England, and those in Scotland and Wales. In England the New British were overwhelmingly Remain voters. The British in Scotland and Wales were more likely to vote Leave (as were many in England who were both English and British). The New British — British more than English — tend to be less patriotic than either the English or the equally English and British. They are more likely to identify also as European or hold another national identity. The liberal cosmopolitan values held by many of the new British do not sit easily with the social conservatism common amongst many Anglo-centric British nationalists.

Unlike Anglo-centric British unionism, New Britishness sometimes doesn’t rest on any clear ideas about Britain as a nation, state or union at all. Opposed to any recognition of the England within the union it has yet to produce any distinct contribution to debates about the future of the union, nor to developing a shared history or values on which the future of Britain or the union could be built. In Scotland and Wales, younger, more highly educated and liberal voters are often at the core of the nationalist project. In England the same New British voters often eschew any idea of a national politics at all.

The New British now provide the bedrock of support for Labour in England — Labour actually beat the Conservatives amongst these voters in 2019 — and much of the support of the Liberal Democrats and Greens too. Labour’s membership and activists reflect the same world view and combine with the Anglo-centric unionism of its leadership to exclude England from the national story. If the Conservatives have recently enjoyed the support of the majority of the political English, Labour has been the expression of new Britishness. Neither seems able to speak to voters across England’s tribes.

Who speaks for England?

These pen pictures are caricatures, of course. They only illustrate tendencies to think in a certain way. As a ‘more English than British’, Remain voting, Labour activist on the party’s soft left, even I don’t fit the picture I have painted of political Englishness (even though I share many of its ideas of national democracy and sovereignty). But I hope they do capture some essential truths about the different ways England sees itself, Britain and the union.

All, including England’s unionism and England’s Britishness are clearly English. At root the tension between the different views is not a contest between an idea of England and an idea of Britain, but between different ideas of England. As yet, none have yet managed to tell a compelling story about England and its future. There is no shared vision about what sort of nation and society England might be in the future, how its economy would be run, in whose interests, and which shared values would tie us together. Until there is, we will struggle to understand what England’s future relationship with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (and indeed the rest of Europe) might look like.

The challenges are clear.

Firstly, the suffocating dominance of a centralising Anglo-centric British unionism has to be challenged by the assertion of English democracy and the case for democratic English national institutions. But this can’t rest on its existing supporters amongst the political English. The case for English democracy must be recast as a civic and democratic reform for all. (If Anglo-centric British unionism isn’t challenged the current union is probably doomed anyway and England may have to confront its own future, but from the most negative possible starting point).

Second, English identity’s long but steady journey towards inclusive and civic for all those who would like to feel English has to be accelerated. It will happen anyway through the lived experience of greater diversity and the symbolism of sport amongst other things, but a much greater engagement by civic society and the state at local and national level is urgently needed.

Third, politicians in England need to talk to and about England. For too long, MPs and Ministers have obfuscated, hiding behind ‘the country’ or ‘Britain, even when they are talking only about England. By doing so they perpetuate the myth that England does not and should not exist and contribute to the marginalisation and stereotyping of Englishness.

Fourth, the emergence of a 21st century England most be supported by those who work in the voluntary sector, culture, academia, the arts and faith organisations. Too many have drunk too deep in the wells of Anglo-centric unionism and New Britishness. Too many are reluctant to explore or reflect the range of views amongst the people who live in England. The New British have a responsibility to engage with, not turn their backs on, the rest of England.

Fifth, the national debate about what our economy and society should look like after Brexit and Covid should no longer be kept separate from discussions about the future of England, how it is governed, where power should lie and in whose interests it is used. This used to be a role played by political parties, think tanks and pressure groups, but few currently show much enthusiasm for the task beyond a limited endorsement of regionalism.

Who speaks for England? At the current time, too few and not that well. Who will take up the challenge?

John Denham

St George’s Day, 2021

Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Southampton University. Former Labour MP and Minister. Director of the Southern Policy Centre