Politics of English Nationhood

Book review: The Politics of English Nationhood, Michael Kenny

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7 December 2015 | 00:00–23:59

Book review by Michael Keating

Since the advent of devolution for the peripheral nations of the United Kingdom there has been a growing interest in the question of English identity. Surveys seem to show that English people are no longer confounding England and Britain and are increasingly inclined to stress the latter as a distinct identity. One version has it that this nationalism is largely based on right-wing populism, xenophobia and Eurosceptism. There is indeed evidence that English identity is more narrowly-focused than British and less attractive to ethnic minorities.

Michael Kenny argues that this is not the whole story. Englishness has always been present as a popular identity and strand of intellectual thought, within Britain and the United Kingdom. The English are not some kind of aberration, having missed the historical train of nationhood. Like other national identities, Englishness is complex and multiform and there is no teleological path leading it inexorably to a political programme of national separation (in this case that would be from the UK and Europe). It might remain within the realm of sport and culture or, if it becomes political, lead to a reconfigured United Kingdom.

Kenny recognizes the potential for right-wing populist English nationalism but stresses also the progressive tradition and sees Englishness as potentially positive, as long as it is not left to the extremists. In this he echoes calls from the English left to embrace Englishness while warning against efforts to force it. This is a sophisticated and historically rich analysis and a welcome counter-balance to some of the more simplistic writing about the English question.

The Politics of English Nationhood was awarded the WJM MacKenzie Prize for best book of 2014 by the Political Studies Association. It is available in hardcopy and as a kindle edition on Amazon.