Linda Colley on Englishness

Published: 11 October 2013

Historian Linda Colley rejects the idea that British disintegration is inevitable but says a new constitutional settlement is needed to bind the nations and people of the United Kingdom together, and to help clarify its relationship with Europe. The English, she argues, would benefit from having a parliament of their own.

Professor Colley was interviewed by Guy Lodge, co-editor of Juncture and an associate director at IPPR.

Guy Lodge: The British state has experienced periodic episodes of expansion and contraction throughout its history. How does that history help us make sense of the tumultuous times we are living through at the moment, where we face the possibility of the break-up of Britain and perhaps also Britain’s exit from the EU?

Linda Colley: A historical perspective helps provide some deeper contexts for current debates. It’s not just a completely aberrant perfect storm at the moment: there are precedents. Take, for example, the panics over the meaning of ‘Englishness’, the claims that the Scots are getting too much money from the public purse, the fear that continental Europe is taking advantage of Britain. You can look at London newspapers in the 1760s and they’re making many of these same arguments and accusations. Similarly, if you look at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, there were lots of calls then for England to be granted home rule, as well as Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

I think what we are seeing now is not just a ‘Britishness was tremendously strong and now it has collapsed’ crisis. You can see these tensions bobbing up and down at different times in our history. Even when Britain was much more powerful than it is now, you had periodic interludes of panic, questioning, and debate.

GL: But isn’t Britishness particularly vulnerable at the moment? The ‘cements’ you have identified that forged Britons have all but evaporated: empire, warfare (against ‘the other’), religion, ‘cults of liberty’ – what is left? And isn’t this why those who argue for keeping the union together are forced to concentrate on instrumental rather than emotional arguments?

LC: To be an effective state – a state nation, which I think is what the UK is – you need not just economic wellbeing but also constitutive stories. The rise of nationalism in Scotland is not just explicable in terms of internal Scottish factors, but is also in part a ramification of a decline in, and insufficient attention to, British constitutive stories, because a state nation has to work on several levels. Its leaders need to look after the component stateless nations within their brief, but also sustain some kind of overarching narrative. It seems to me that an overarching narrative at the moment is not really there, and politicians have arguably been rather remiss in this respect. Gordon Brown tried with Britishness, but I don’t think you can just reinvent the wheel; you have got to think about and develop new constitutive stories. These constitutive stories have to work alongside the more practical arguments: it’s not a zero-sum game. When you think about the case for keeping Britain together it seems to me that, while the UK is not perfect, it has nevertheless proved successful in getting the different peoples and the different parts of the union to work together. If one part gets into trouble, then – at present – the other parts will come to its aid. That seems to me to be one of the strongest prudential arguments for the UK. The EU, by contrast, hasn’t developed – perhaps it never will – the kind of governing machinery needed to make the different parts work together with the same degree of cohesion and solidarity that exists in the UK.

GL: What would the impact of a ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland be on the nations and relationships between people on these islands?

LC: I think it would come as a very great shock. Ever since the union of crowns in 1603 – some hundred years before the Act/Treaty of Union of 1706/07– there has been a sense that this large island of Great Britain is some kind of political unit. A ‘Yes’ vote would, of course, be a major divergence from that. On a map you would see the top bit blue, the bottom bit pink, or whatever cartographic colours are chosen. So much of the current debate about the referendum is dominated by the immediate economic implications, but this leaves out what could be the more profound effects on the future of a UK without Scotland. In particular, if Scotland secedes, what effect will this have on the regional dynamics in England itself?

Part of the reason for growing support of independence and for growing worry in the so-called ‘Celtic fringe’ has been the growing concentration of population in England.. This is much more the case than in the 19th century: London now holds as many people as Wales and Scotland together. Great Britain is a bottom-heavy island, and this affects relations within England as well as between the UK nations. One of the repercussions of a UK without Scotland would be what might happen in the north of England. Historically, parts of the north once belonged to Scotland, and often acted in tandem with groupings in Scotland. If Scotland gets sheared off, then the south of England becomes even more powerful. You would be more likely, at least in the short term, to get Conservative administrations in power in London. Given that the English north-east and large parts of the north-west are Conservative no-go areas, you might find fragmentation starting to work through England, prompting people in the north to say: ‘Well, you know as long as we had Scotland we were guaranteed regular periods of Labour government, but what’s going to happen now?’ And you could get the same feeling in Wales, too. Alternatively, if the north of England became a frontier region again, another possibility might be that this would do it good, because London would have to give it more attention.

GL: You have written that ‘the idea that Englishness should somehow stand in need of refurbishment is by many criteria extremely odd’. Can you say more?

LC: What I meant by that was that, at one level, it can seem strange that you’ve had these periodic panics about Englishness when superficially the English have got it made. England is the biggest part of the UK. It has always been the richest part of these islands. So why do elements within it occasionally say, ‘Oh God, who are we?’ What does it mean? It doesn’t seem rational. The fact that you do, at different periods in history, have panics about Englishness is a useful reminder that it isn’t just about prosperity and wealth, and that people do need something more to give expression to their identity. In recent years it seems all that British governments can do is offer ‘bread and circuses’. They give bread, in the sense of worrying about welfare and the economy, and they have circuses like the Olympics and the Millennium Dome. But peoples need more than bread and circuses. Prosperity is not on its own sufficient.

GL: Even if there is a ‘No’ vote in Scotland, it is often said that the nations will continue to drift apart, heading towards ever-looser union. Do you think disintegration is inevitable?

LC: No I don’t. You can invent different futures and they would all be feasible. The long view is quite helpful here. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a huge amount of discussion – partly provoked by events in Ireland – about Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland each having their own assemblies, and how there should also be (in the language of the time) an ‘imperial parliament’ that would deal with the British empire but also other areas of common concern in the UK. I don’t see why you couldn’t have something like that now. You would need a new English parliament – which should be based outside of London in my view – to complement the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Westminster parliament would be left to focus on the macro-economy, defence and foreign policy issues and overall constitutional issues. Such an arrangement could counter disintegrative pressures.

Also important here is the extent to which there will be calls to break the grip of London on political life outside the capital. For the bulk of its history, even though the state in Britain has been strong, it has not been particularly centralising. London was powerful, but it was only powerful in certain ways and left the localities to substantially run themselves. That changed in the 20th century, mainly on account of the two great wars (in which the UK was involved for longer than almost any other power). As a result of the wars there was a far greater concentration of power in London, and of course subsequent governments haven’t wanted to give that power up. So perhaps what we’re seeing today is, in part, regions and countries outside of London saying ‘enough is enough, we want some of that power back’.

Linda Colley is the Shelby MC Davis 1958 professor of history at Princeton University.  She is currently working on a project about empire and constitution-making after 1776, and on a new book and accompanying BBC Radio 4 series, Acts of Union, Acts of Disunion, which will be published and broadcast in early 2014.

This is an edited extract from the full-length interview which appears in issue 20(2) of Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal. IPPR is hosting a festival of Englishness 'England, My England' on Saturday 19 October  involving a wide range of leading names from the fields of politics, journalism, sport and the arts.


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