English nationalism and its role in the referendum

On the coalition of voters leaning towards Leave: who they are, and what next.

Ben Margulies
20 June 2016
Clacton pier, Pkuczynski, some rights reserved.

The European Union referendum has been an affair of sharp distinctions and contradictions. Both sides hotly contest the Union’s benefits and obstacles to British economic growth, and both sides argue over the role of the EU in immigration and the benefits thereof. Equally prominent are questions of accountability and democracy: In every part of the Leave camp, the cry is “Take back control!”

There is another question hovering around the arena where the two sides contest nationality and representation, one of the few parts of the whole campaign which does not stand out in sharp relief. This is the question of England – not the United Kingdom, but its largest constituent country. Since the Scottish referendum, commentators and politicians have periodically referenced the existence of a specifically English identity, and stressed that those holding this identity feel unrepresented, disrespected and angry.

The question of English identity predates the referendum. Numerous authors, such as Alvin Jackson and Linda Colley, have noted the decline of the institutions – army, Protestantism, Empire, monarchy, nationalized industries – that defined a specifically pan-British identity. (Colley also noted the importance of having a common, usually Continental, enemy.) In the late 20th century, Scottish and Welsh nationalism (re) emerged to fill the vacuum left by the recession of Britain.

By the current decade, the question of English identity had become more current, especially as Scottish and Welsh identities developed their own institutional expression with Blair’s creation of the devolved parliaments. Writing in 2014, Colley observed that “Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom is most rooted in England,” asking “Can it be entirely a coincidence that the only national grouping in the UK that lacks its own parliament or assembly – namely, the English – is also, apparently, the one that is most likely to express alienation from the European Union?” (p. 135). In his work on openDemocracy, Anthony Barnett notes the close tie between an identification with England and calls for Brexit, noting that 57 percent of voters who identify themselves as “English” supported leaving the EU at the beginning of 2016, compared to only 35 percent of those who identify as British. A recent Political Quarterly article concluded that “The more strongly or exclusively English their sense of national identity, the more likely respondents were to think EU membership a bad thing and to want to leave the EU.” The authors added that, though they lacked the data to fully explain why, “‘Europe’ appears to have developed as Englishness's ‘other’ in a way that does not currently seem to be the case for Scottishness, Welshness or, in England at least, Britishness.”

Colley and Barnett both suggest that English voters need some form of self-government to assert their identity and “take back control.” Though this may be true, I am sceptical that this “English identity” is a stand-alone phenomenon. It seems more that “Englishness” and Euroscepticism are associated because both represent the problems and grievances of the  “modernization losers”, the working and lower-middle class groups that lost out to neoliberal globalization, and that of social conservatives and communitarians who lost out the social liberalism and increasing diversity that emerged in Europe (and the rest of the industrialized world) after World War II. As Suzy Stride, Labour’s 2015 parliamentary candidate in the Essex seat of Harlow, noted in the pamphlet Labour’s Identity Crisis:

It seemed that Englishness did play an important role in Harlow, as a vehicle for nostalgia, dissatisfaction with a sense of decline in living standards and local area, and perceived threats to cultural identity around shared institutions, language, etc. Those self- defining as English tended to be white and working class, but Labour had little that resonated with these people

Robert Ford, an academic who specializes in the study of UKIP, notes that it did best in 2015 among precisely these sorts of “very white, economically struggling, declining towns and rural areas,” and among voters whose identification with England was stronger. Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck finds tight associations between English identity, UKIP voting and low levels of education. Or to cite The Guardian’s John Harris, “the foundation of the Brexit coalition is what used to be called the proletariat, large swaths of which are as united as in any lefty fantasy.” So is the foundation of the new “England.”

So what does that mean for the question of “England”? Are those who identify as English really upset because their “English” identity goes unrepresented, or because their class identities and segments of the class structure are ignored? Is their choice of “English” over “British” just another way of saying that they are of “the people” and not “the elite,” in the way that populists frame the world? Could an English nationalist party, focusing on a specifically English devolution, emerge from such a configuration of social and economic forces, or is the English question merely one, perhaps secondary aspect of the collection of identities, claims and divisions emerging from neoliberalism and the referendum campaign?

In Ford’s presentation, he divides English voters into three camps. The “English,” “modernization loser” camp he calls “Clacton.” The other two are “Camden,” which includes the urban, multicultural, progressive voters that prefer Labour – the left wing of the middle class, essentially – and “Crawley,” the suburban middle class that preferred Cameron’s Tories. In a sense, these are the two groups that are mostly “modernization winners,” divided between the traditional parties.

The Leave campaign is in effect an alliance between “Clacton” and part of “Crawley.” It is led in large part by Conservative politicians who feel that the EU is insufficiently neoliberal, hampering Britain’s competitiveness in the free market. David Charter’s mildly Eurosceptic book, Au Revoir, Europe, is a good example of their worldview – it makes extensive comment on the costliness of EU regulations and the wasteful of EU spending (a few pages are devoted to complaints over the €6 million or so the EU spends on official prizes), but largely ignores questions of immigration and cultural identity.

This division in the middle-class, “modernization winner” right is peculiar to Britain, as the European Union is often seen (probably correctly) as friendly to the Thatcherite model of free-market capitalism. Lee Jones explains why Britain’s neoliberals clash with their European counterparts:

By the time Britain joined the EU, Thatcher had already violently imposed a neoliberal revolution, so did not necessarily need the EU to bypass domestic opposition – though it certainly consolidated her gains and benefited British finance capital. Indeed, conversely, Britain had to accept some aspects of ‘social Europe’ – minor concessions to labour required to legitimise the project on the continent, where the left had not yet been utterly crushed. This peculiar trajectory is why the British right has always railed against EU policies as alien, lefty impositions, negotiating endless opt-outs and rebates, while the post-Thatcher, eviscerated left has tended to see the EU as a curb on right-wing extremism. On the continent, the EU’s essentially neoliberal character has always been more transparently obvious.

Mark Vail argues that Thatcher and her children also opposed the EU because their domestic neoliberal project was deliberately majoritarian; though she and Eurocrats had similar goals, Thatcher was both more extreme and devoted to enacting her policies without compromise.

“Crawley” and “Clacton” lack a common socioeconomic interest or worldview. The Conservatives want to make the UK and England more neoliberal – to repeal the EU’s pro-labour regulations such as the working time directive, evade the trade barriers they claim the EU has erected or failed to collapse, and ultimately expose the country to even more of the globalized forces that have assailed “Clacton” (both figuratively and literally). The UKIP supporters are much more concerned about restoring their communities, both economically (which would require protectionism) and socially (which means, above all, restricting immigration).

Right now, common hostility to the European Union unites these two groups (if somewhat uneasily – look at the clashes between the Brexit campaign groups). Were Brexit to succeed, their coalition would face challenges; there are ways to combine neoliberalism and populism, but were that a fool-proof strategy, we’d have neither UKIP nor Donald Trump.

This is where English nationalism might be able to provide a bridge. It is already well known that Scotland is likely is to vote for remain, as Barnett points out with several graphs. What happens should England vote to Leave, but the Celtic nations succeed in providing a majority for Remain? One possibility is that the two factions in the Leave camp might use English nationalism to bind together their coalition. The Leave camp already wants to “take back control,” and were the referendum to produce a different outcome at the UK and English levels, that desire for control would take a specifically national locus. Indeed, this English nationalist populism might prove to be a more effective common ground than neoliberalism - it could rely on a more concrete and positive claim of identity and national construction, rather than simply a negative reaction to the European Union. Nor are the two agendas mutually exclusive. Massetti and Schakel point out that nationalist parties usually reframe class conflict as regional or national conflict – if they hail from a poorer region, they turn left, and from a richer, they more often turn right. A neoliberal resistance to redistributing money could serve English nationalism as well as it did Thatcher.

And the denial of an English desire for Brexit would be equally obnoxious to both Eurosceptic Tories and UKIP supporters; they would suffer equal damage to their identity and status, and gain equally from English self-assertion, at least abstractly (obviously, the “Crawley” side of the coalition expects to run the new English institutions, however they are created). On the other hand, the fact that English nationalism is mostly a lower-class phenomenon may give the working and lower-middle classes a stronger role in the new coalition.

We don’t know what will happen on the 23rd. The polls have swung wildly towards Leave in the last few weeks, but a similar shift marked the last stages of the 2014 Scottish referendum. But a split decision could see the emergence of a full-fledged English nationalism, and a striking reshaping of the English right. It could also speed the end of a much older experiment in multinational governance – the United Kingdom.

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