England on the verge of Brexit – how do we rebuild a nation?

It’s time to abandon old presumptions about unionism, identity and our current constitution, to address the challenges posed by Brexit. An edited version of a speech by John Denham.

John Denham
26 March 2019, 1.42pm
The White Cliffs of Dover
Gareth Fuller/PA Images

Even if we don’t know what ‘’Brexit means Brexit’ actually means, we need to talk about England. Brexit was made here. England outside London voted heavily Leave and English identifiers everywhere (including London) were the most likely to vote Leave. Many liberal and non-English commentators blame ‘English nationalism’ for Brexit, but few of them bother to engage with the reality of today’s England.

Brexit held up a mirror to a divided nation, and the nation broke. The deep divisions it reflected have been growing for years. We are not one, single, nation, united by broadly similar lives and a shared view of the world. We experience the world differently, see the world differently, believe in different things, hold different values, and tend to live in different places.

According to Hope not Hate, 68% say no political party speaks for them, 55% think the political system is broken, and 76% think politicians put the interests of big business before them. Feeling marginalised, not having a voice, sensing your identity is under threat: all these are pregnant with disruptive political potential. Unresolved, our divisions will disrupt politics for the foreseeable future and on issues unrelated to the European Union.

Yet our politicians won’t talk about England. England and the English are ever present in our culture and politics. Yet England – as England – is barely mentioned in our national political debate. (Labour, for example, talks of ‘Rebuilding Britain’ in England, but ‘Rebuilding Scotland’ in Scotland.) If English identity is discussed, it is to be disparaged and abused as nationalist, imperialist or racist.

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England is divided by its identities; it has no national sovereignty or democracy. Power is centralised, not dispersed. There is no shared idea of the common good, and the UK government – the government of England - barely acknowledges England at all. How has this come about?

The ‘presumption of unionism’

England and the union are still on a journey from a Britain at the heart of Empire to the haphazard construction of a post-imperial state. A real national British politics and state (as opposed to an imperial British politics) only really took full shape after the second world war, by which time the imperial state had already had to concede the partition of Ireland in the 1920s. And that post-war post-imperial unitary state was then challenged by the successful demands for Welsh and Scottish autonomy.

With each change, the central unitary state has had to adjust to changing circumstances and its more limited reach. But it has always hung onto as much of its old way of thinking as possible.

The legacy, for England, is what we should call the ‘presumption of unionism’.

The ‘presumption (OED: ‘the act of believing something to be true without having any proof’) of unionism’ is the hangover from the unitary imperial state that insists that the way our constitution is currently ordered is the only one possible.

The ‘presumption of union’ has five clear manifestations: That England must be governed by the UK government. That the UK should govern England from London. That the national identity of England should be British. That this state of affairs is so perfect (as an 18th century Whig might defend the settlement of 1689) that to question the constitution, governance and identity of England is a distraction from ‘the things that people really care about’. And that the maintenance of the union depends on England being denied its nationhood.

The presumption of unionism is deeply embedded in all our political parties and across the establishment from left to right. Even people who appreciate the cultural importance of Englishness often shy away from the suggestion that England might manage its own domestic affairs as Scotland or Wales do. It’s why the entire EU referendum was conducted on both sides – in England, not in in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland - in the language and imagery of Britain.

Of course, many people outside and inside England challenge the idea that England is excluded from politics. England is more than 80% of the union, the House of Commons is numerically dominated by English MPs, the most powerful institutions are concentrated in London. To what extent, they ask, is this not an English system run by England in the interests of the English?

In the English interest?

Those who emphasise their English identity don’t see it that way. They are deeply dissatisfied with the way England is governed and the union run.

English voters have multiple identities, of which English and British are the most widely held.

They are usually intermingled but have different meanings. The extent to which we think we are English or British often reflects different views of the world, and there are more who emphasise their English identity than British. It is English identifiers who feel most strongly that Scotland gets more than its fair share of resources. Most of England’s voters want English Laws to be made only by English MPs, but the demand is strongest amongst English identifiers. And while most in England value the union, English identifiers are prepared to see Scotland leave to protect England’s interests. About 40% of voters don’t identify any party as standing up for England.

As far back as 2013, 26% of English voters thought the EU had most influence on how the nation was run (the comparable figures for Wales and Scotland were just 6% and 4%), and it was these English identifiers who were most likely to vote Leave. Half of all England’s voters are now prepared to see the Northern Irish peace process jeopardised, or see Scotland leave the union, in order to achieve Brexit.

As Ailsa Henderson of the Future of England Survey puts it, “the more English one feels, the more likely one is to express dissatisfaction with each of England’s unions, one external, the other internal”.

It hardly feels like the UK is run ‘by the English for the English’. The people who most emphasise their English identity are not the people who are in power in England. They live in the wrong places, they’ve had the wrong education, they are, generally, the wrong class, and they hold socially conservative rather than liberal metropolitan values. These are not the people we usually find in powerful positions in corporate business, politics, the media or academia. It is Britishness – an outlook widely shared amongst the political class – rather than Englishness, that is too often the badge of power.

There is no evidence, either of support from English leave voters for the ‘greater British’ unionism conjured up by Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, nor the proto-imperialism imagined by those who blame ‘English nationalism’ for Brexit. [CM1] There’s no political nationalism of any significance, and these English Leave voters would be more likely to turn their back on the union than to defend it (let alone demand a new empire) to get England a fair deal.

Brexit – however disruptive – was a demand to be heard, and that’s why it should light the fuse for England’s democratic moment. This large part of England’s population sense that England has its own interests, distinct from those of the union. England’s role in Brexit was to grasp the chance to express suppressed demands for identity and sovereignty. The referendum gave these English voters a voice and they took it. It was the England that wants its own parliament, does not feel well represented and wants fair funding was most attracted by ‘take back control’.

Those who blame the English and English nationalism for Brexit are often the same people who have long denied England any sense of nationhood. That nationhood is long overdue. Our future relationship with the EU has major consequences – it’s certainly not a trivial issue – but our nation will not be defined by whether or we are a member of the EU.

A strong nation is defined by its shared histories, its shared stories, its shared symbols, its shared values and its sense of common purpose; it has a shared sense of national identity, its own sovereignty and democracy. It has institutions that make its laws and has the ability to disperse power to enable its members to shape the nation. England has none of these things.

And, although there is nothing inherently progressive about a nation, the strongest nations are those where there is a shared belief in working together for the common good. Such a strong nation would be far more confident in its relationships with other states and international institutions.

An England with the democratic rights, the national parliament, and powers that are taken granted in almost every other democratic nation state, would give a voice to people who currently feel excluded from the national conversation.

Will Brexit break the back of the constitutional camel?

I’ve argued here before that the Brexit process gives English nationhood more urgency. The union is unstable enough, but by removing the framework of the EU that facilitated all our recent constitutional changes, the tensions within the union become ever greater. It’s not just that the Irish border issue threatens the peace process – but a new struggle has begun between the UK government and all the devolved nations for power and authority. It’s a struggle in which England needs a voice but is silenced.

England needs its own nationhood, and, if the union is to survive, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland need to constrain England’s pretensions to speak for the union as a whole. If England had nationhood there would no doubt about who spoke for England in discussions within the UK. And with a re-founded union, it would be UK government, not England, that spoke for the whole of the union.

The presumption of unionism was that the union depends on denying England its nationhood. Today’s reality is the opposite: the denial of England’s nationhood that is the central, destabilising threat to the union.

National identities

But making England sovereign and democratic is not straightforward. The exclusion of the English must end, but a sovereign England must be a nation for all its people –those who don’t emphasise Englishness as well as for those who do. In very practical terms, a parliament for England cannot rely only on the support it already has from English identifiers. It needs to make a civic and democratic case to British identifiers.

As England emerges from the shadow of the post-imperial unitary state, and we challenge the ‘presumption of unionism’, we need a story of what this nation is going to be. This cannot be about one story or one identity triumphing at the expense of the others. It is unlikely that either will become the dominant identity in England, and both have distinct problems.

Neither Englishness nor Britishness as we currently know them can play that role. Their different meanings have become signifiers of our polarised cultural divide. They mark our inability to talk to each other on the issues like immigration, fairness, welfare, crime and diversity.

Englishness is strong, but it is still contested between a minority who insist it is a white ethnic identity and the majority who see it as diverse. Britishness has no consistent story of its own. The British in Scotland and Wales are the ones who don’t like the EU. The British in England are the ones who do. In no part of the UK is British clearly the identity of the majority and. To quote Ailsa Henderson again: “The UK is not now, nor has it been for a long time, a union of shared identities.”

We will have to tell a new story drawing on the history of the world’s oldest nation states and on the relationships forged within in the union; a story of those who benefitted from empire and those who suffered from it and which enables millions of recent migrants to share in England’s national story. It will be about shared struggles and shared sacrifices and include all the things that make us what we are today.

The need for nation building

But we should not underestimate the scale of this task.

We need to change the language of political conversation so that when we mean England, we say England; we talk about the English not just the British. But England needs new national story that brings together the stories of Englishness and of Britishness. We have to search for the common ground on issues that divide us

We need to create new institutions or re-shape the existing ones: a parliament in which laws are made and the nation shaped; irreversible devolution within England. England’s nationhood can unlock many of the problems facing the union, but the union will need to be re-founded.

That’s quite a programme of change. It is, surely, no less than and concerted and conscious drive for nation building.

No one who has watched the House of Commons for the past couple of years will believe political leaders and parties are up to the challenge. Our political leaders need to engage with the process, but not believe they can run it or resolve it.

We need a popular and participative citizen-led process of change, with a citizens’ constitutional assembly to help determine where power should lie in England if we want a society that is economically and socially inclusive. Representative groups of people from across England, can resolve if they want a parliament for England and what form it could take. We will find out how power should be devolved within England and whether the people of England imagine that they live in the standard English regions so beloved by London’s bureaucrats and policy wonks (and too many Scottish politicians) or whether we think we live in places we can name, with boundaries we understand, and with people with whom we share a common interest.

This popular constitutional convention will be just one part of telling a shared national story for England.

It will need many people who are committed to making the process work. To bring people together, in every part of England, to share their stories about who we are, how we came to be here and what we share in common. It will need to work in civic society, at the grass roots, but it also needs the engagement and endorsement of local councils and central government. We’ll need the critical contribution of writers, dramatists, film makers, artists, and academics; of faith groups, of England’s richness of voluntary organisations. Every library, gallery, museum, school and university should be a point of exploration of what England means to each of us.

The idea of building England as a nation is not new. Alfred started it, the Normans came round to it, we did it again when we broke from Rome. From the civil war, to the Bill of Rights and in the gradual transition from a nation of the powerful to one that includes the commons, England has reinvented herself many times in response to the historic moment of the day.

Brexit should be one of those moments.

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