Street with England flags

The Genesis of English Nationalism

Published: 30 August 2016
Author: Michael Kenny

In the aftermath of Brexit, there has been an upsurge of interest in English nationalism. But what exactly is English nationalism, where does it come from, and what role, if any, did it play in the referendum outcome? In this extended article, Michael Kenny investigates. This article appeared originally in the September 2016 edition of Political Insight.

English nationalism is best understood as a bundle of sentiments and convictions which are closely aligned to Euroscepticism, though not in any straightforward way a cause of anti-EU feeling. A stronger sense of Englishness represents both a manifestation of, and vehicle for, a gathering seam of political disenchantment.

Perhaps the most important role played by English nationalism in the EU referendum was in relation to the terms and tenor of the campaign that led up to the vote. English nationalism primed audiences for some of the main rhetorical gambits of the ‘Leave’ campaign, and helped engender a sense of conviction and a greater commonality of outlook for groups of voters increasingly disenchanted with the political mainstream. Without the cadences, rhetorical flourishes and mental frameworks associated with a loose form of English nationalism, the referendum campaign would have felt and sounded very different.

Various polls conducted during recent years, and indeed during the months of the campaign, suggested a clear pattern of attitudinal differences among the national publics of the UK towards the EU. As Figure 1 indicates, an average of all the polls conducted in late 2015 and early 2016 suggested higher levels of opposition to the EU in England and Wales, than were located in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and this pattern was repeated in the referendum itself.

poll average

Different surveys of English opinion stretching back to 2012, reported a striking correlation between an inclination to support the UK's exit from the EU and a propensity to identify as English, rather than British, or as more English than British. This correlation is apparent from Figure 2 which offers an analysis of polling conducted by the British Election Survey in 2015.

EU attitudes

Those most inclined to support Brexit were far more likely to choose Englishness as their primary national identity, while those who rated their sense of Britishness more highly, tended to favour staying in the EU. This highlights a gradual bifurcation in national self-understanding which has been happening for some considerable time. It constitutes a notable, but under-examined, feature of the pattern of national sentiments that helped shape perceptions of the UK’s membership of the EU.

Emerging English Nationalism

According to the surveys conducted by the Future of England team, between 2012 and 2014, those who were more disposed to define themselves as English were not only likely to be more Eurosceptic, but also more inclined to express grievance about the country's position within the United Kingdom. While all surveys on complex matters of identity should be treated with due caution, there is a considerable body of evidence to support the judgement that a more political, and increasingly self-conscious, sense of English national identity has gradually come into being since the mid-2000s.

This emergent sense of English national consciousness was finally engaged by mainstream politicians during the final months of the Coalition government. MPs from both main parties reported annoyance among their constituents at the terms of the promise of additional powers made to the Scots by the three party leaders in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. And this was followed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s dramatic declaration that ‘millions of English voices…now must be heard’. The Prime Minister announced plans for a Cabinet Committee to find an answer to the West Lothian conundrum. In the tumultuous days that followed, the English Question, long seen as the Cinderella issue of British politics, was aired and debated more vigorously than it had been at any point since the constitutional debates that accompanied arguments over Irish Home Rule.

Soon after, a latent sense of collective English interest was harnessed by the Tory party during the election campaign in 2015, as it stumbled across the potent tactic of emphasising the risk of a government led by a leader widely perceived as weak, supported in some form by the Scottish National Party. Whether many votes in England actually shifted as a result of this pitch is still disputed by psephologists. But those involved in campaigning on the ground, and directing the strategies of the main parties, affirm its significance in changing the nature and momentum of the election, not least among the media.

And in the course of the EU referendum campaign, the dual focus of the ‘Leave’ campaign upon the elitist and metropolitan interests served by arguments for ‘Remain’ and deeply rooted anxieties about immigration, were mainly expressed through the language of popular sovereignty and national recognition. This rhetoric spoke particularly to English voters for some of whom, worries over migration are in part a vector for fears about the perceived indifference of the political establishment to their economic position and cultural traditions. The epithet ‘take back control’ allowed figures like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to speak simultaneously about concerns about sovereignty, belonging, and nationhood. Meanwhile, United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s oft-repeated slogan ‘I want my country back’, spoke to nativist fantasies of an England unmarked by ethno-cultural diversity and a manufacturing economy that has long disappeared.

And so, the gradual coalescence over the previous 20 years of a well of nationally focused frustration, and an inchoate desire for greater self-determination, represents an important backdrop to the referendum. These sentiments served to prepare audiences, especially those outside London, for ideas about a frustrated sovereignty and for claims about cultural tradition and overdue recognition.

English Nationhood

In order to grasp fully the appeal and resonance of these ideas, we need to cast our gaze back even further into the historical past and consider factors other than popular sentiments towards the EU. The question of when a coherent and popular sense of nationhood was forged among the English remains the subject of considerable historical debate. Some scholars have long argued that the English were the very first people to forge a recognisable nationalism; others maintain that it has been their fate never to succeed in forging a modern and egalitarian sense of nationhood.

But there is more agreement that events in the last century combined to unsettle existing patterns of national self-understanding and led ultimately to a different, more self-conscious sense of Englishness which is experienced as somewhat separate from a British patriotism focused upon state, institutions and law. The gradual abandonment of Britain’s Empire in the years after 1945, and concerns about the UK’s international position, and the deep worries about the relative backwardness of the UK’s economy and society in comparison with other European states, served to shake the hold of long-established stories about the purpose and pre-eminence of the British state. This retrenchment and national anxiety dented the Victorian-derived idea that England could only find expression in entities larger than itself. This was displaced over time by a turn inwards, towards the quest to discover who the English were, and a focus upon various potential threats to their sense of national identity. This increasingly pressing, and often fraught, search was accentuated by the rise of nationalisms in other parts of the UK, the profound impact of new forms of cultural diversity towards the century’s end, and the impact of successive waves of inward migration. Increasingly, a Britishness premised upon the governing assumption that Britain and its state were both exceptional and exemplary, gave way before a much more particularistic, territorial sense of national identification, and this in turn has accentuated some of the cultural differences between the cities and nations within it.

During the 1990s, the push towards greater political integration within the European Union and the devolution deals introduced by the first Blair government – for Wales, Scotland and London – stimulated a reactive proto-nationalism among some conservatively minded English publics. Indeed, the very visible asymmetry in representation and governance became an increasingly common source of complaint among Tory politicians and disaffected citizens in the years that followed.

As well as these important, contingent, events, a stronger and increasingly political sense of Englishness was brought into being by some of the processes associated with the changing political economy and leading social trends of the final years of the twentieth century. Broadly put, the impacts of de-industrialisation and the UK’s exposure to the international economy engendered new forms of economic insecurity and a deep sense of loss in cities and towns that had hitherto depended upon manufacturing, and were now peripheral to the networks and cities at the heart of the economic boom of the mid-late 1990s.

The stirring of an older, vernacular patriotism – in England and many other parts of Europe – was an important symptom of the discontent and disenchantment which these processes engendered. Majoritarian nationalism supplied a resonant and appealing political language at the edge of the world of politics for those who found themselves resentful and anxious at their stagnating wages and the pace and nature of the changes happening to their communities.

Other, more recent processes were important too, including the emergence of significant pockets of disenchantment with politics in some of England’s poorest communities and estates, the growing appeal of anti-establishment parties, and the development a powerful seam of cultural anxiety across all social classes. These have combined to bring issues of identity, sovereignty and belonging to the forefront, and injected dynamism into policy questions, such as immigration, that provide a direct conduit to them.

Waning Britishness

But the rising tide of political disenchantment and the increasing appeal of identity politics would not have made such headway in England without the weakening of the (Anglo-)British patriotism which has historically marginalised political expressions of Englishness. The notable attempts of politicians such as Gordon Brown to promote a civic and multicultural sense of Britishness as an antidote to the growing appeal of Scottish nationalism and radical Islam, ran directly against the grain of cultural change in these years. Indeed, the politics of national identity in England is defined around a striking polarisation between a Britishness which has become associated with the kind of liberal ‘globalism’ favoured by the political and economic elites, and an English nationalism rooted in locality, tradition and popular culture. The latter has developed in part as a rejection of the projection of the values and policies of the former – a striking local example of the conflict between globalists and nationalists identified by some as a key faultline in western democratic politics.

There is, therefore, a vital back story to the recent salience of English nationalism which needs to be told if we are to understand its role in the EU referendum campaign. Those at the helm of the Remain campaign were fatefully indifferent to the swirls of culture and identity that formed the context within which audiences received its messages. Its precautionary arguments were premised upon a very different understanding of what counts as ‘rationality’ to that produced by the shifting national mood of many of the English. The sense of purpose and prospective emancipation channelled by those lobbying for Brexit goes some way to explaining the high levels of turnout achieved for ‘Leave’ in various parts of England.

This is not to suggest that all who chose Brexit did so because of English nationalism. Many who did vote to leave the EU subscribe to an older model of parliamentary sovereignty and the associated mythology of unitary statehood, while others will have supported this option out of discontent about the undemocratic character of Brussels. But the Leave campaign was able to gain traction among English publics and achieve momentum speaking the language of English disenfranchisement, and this appears to have caught those campaigning for Remain unawares.

Englishness on the Rise

Much commentary on Brexit has highlighted the depth of the divisions between the political cultures and outlooks of those inhabiting large urban conurbations and those living elsewhere. But there are indications that an emergence sense of Englishness is now a prevalent trend across this and other demographic divides.

Equally, English nationalism does not, as many assume, come in one political form or colour. My own research highlights the great variety of ways in which Englishness is expressed, and the plurality of political stories that can be told about England and its peoples. Englishness is not a singular tradition that belongs to any one part of the political spectrum. It is better conceived as a terrain where the imagination wanders, and where dreams and aspirations are powerfully asserted and altered.

For political and social scientists, the re-assertion of a grievance-tinged sense of national consciousness among a people that has long defined its sense of nationhood in the political and institutional terms set down by the British state, represents an immense challenge to established frameworks and long-held assumptions. It may also presage an opportunity to promote a more nuanced and deeper understanding, given that the current political environment is characterised by a highly polarised response to this species of nationalism – the pejorative phrase ‘little Englander’ is ubiquitous – as well as growing concerns about the nature and depth of the political disenchantment felt by the English working class.

And in constitutional terms, how the English feel about a reconfigured UK – whether another Scottish independence referendum happens or not – is now a factor of immense importance. Will the English want their own representatives at the conversations between the UK and the devolved administrations that will become central to the wider Brexit negotiations? Will Ukip become the primary vehicle for English nationalism, turning Labour into a party representing a handful of city-regions?

None of this is as yet clear. But there is no doubt that by refocusing our analytical sights on an emerging English national consciousness, the UK’s community of political scientists can play an important role in bringing evidence and insight to bear upon a topic that is increasingly central to politics in the post-Brexit era.

Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash