Euroscepticism: A very English disease?

With the Eurozone crises threatening to blow the Coalition Government out of the water, Gareth Young examines the implications for English nationalism and the Union dynamic between England and Scotland.
Gareth Young
9 December 2011

Writing in Nations and Nationalism, Ben Wellings outlined the various academic theories as to why the lion of English nationalism has not yet roared:

Explanations for this seeming quiescence are varied. They range from research demonstrating that there is an active hostility to English identity among the young (Fenton 2007); to the notion that England is imagined as a void or absence (Abell et al. 2007); or that English nationalism exists but dare not speak its name (McCrone 2006); or that it exists but is politically weak (Bryant 2008) and even to the notion that England is actually dead (Scruton 2001). Each of these explanations has merit – some more than others – yet many of these studies focus on what we might call English identity as opposed to English nationalism. Kumar alone seeks to address the content of English nationalism, only to conclude that there never was anything resembling English nationalism until recently, thereby inhibiting the development of an English national consciousness (Kumar 2003).

Wellings offers his own more plausible theory, one that I happen to have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support. It is Wellings' view that "with one or two minor exceptions such as the Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP), the ideology of contemporary English nationalism is not explicitly borne by an understanding of politics, but is instead carried implicitly in an understanding of the past." In my 'career' as a campaigner for an English parliament I have written to hundreds of politicians for support, and though many (perhaps most) have sympathy with the CEP's argument their sympathy is trumped by their support for the continuity of tradition of the Westminster parliament. In extreme cases, they will insist that England has a parliament, almost as if the Acts of Union never happened. The majority of politicians, however, agree that England lacks a parliament but express the view that such a thing would destabilise the Union (apparently oblivious to the fact that the Union without an English parliament is destabilised); and a significant minority of those politicians (UKIP and the Eurosceptic Conservatives - whom one might expect to be English nationalists) respond to any correspondence on the subject of an English parliament with the apparently sincere belief that supporters of an English parliament are playing into the hands of the Euro-federalists, whose plan it is to see Britain broken up and integrated, piecemeal, into the EU, even though England is too large to fit the Europe of the Regions model.

It is Wellings' argument that English nationalism is fundamentally shaped by opposition to EU integration. Those who might otherwise be English nationalists are forced into an absurd Anglo-British nationalism in defence of Westminster sovereignty, which prevents any appeal to popular sovereignty or anything else which might further challenge or undermine parliamentary sovereignty. Wellings references UKIP and the BNP but he might reasonably be discussing Conservative members when he writes: "the structural nature of the UK’s integration into the EU forced English populists...[...] speak the language of Britishness. It is thus the politics of sovereignty surrounding debates about European integration that help to explain the continuing conflation of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ among groups that we might otherwise expect to articulate contemporary English nationalism." Eurosceptics, argues Wellings, "could do no other" than continue the "conflation of England and Britain through the defence of parliamentary sovereignty, its history and traditions." Eurosceptics in England, he continues, have to "defend the UK’s sovereignty against Europe while mounting a rearguard campaign against Scottish and Welsh secessionists – which ultimately meant a defence of parliamentary sovereignty."

Wellings' contention that English nationalism and Eurosceptism are linked was lent weight by this recent YouGov poll which found that those who preferentially self-identified as English where more hostile to our membership of the European Union than those who identified themselves as British. "What distinguishes people who call themselves “English”, wrote Peter Kellner in Prospect Magazine, "is a passion for keeping other countries at arm’s length. Whisper it softly, but is Englishness these days a source not just of pride but also insecurity?"

Gerry Hassan, writing in the Scotsman, has some sympathy with Wellings and Kellner:

Westminster politicians of a Eurosceptic persuasion tend to think they speak for British interests when they rail against Brussels, Euro-federalism or some supposed German-French plot. In actual fact, they speak without knowing it for a very partial, narrow English interpretation of Britain and Europe. They stand against sharing sovereignty in a European union, invoke parliamentary sovereignty and British rights and jobs, without recognising that they already share sovereignty in a political union: the United Kingdom. And that their version of undiluted political power in Westminster is now obsolete and under attack from the way the world operates and how power is held in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

As seductive as Hassan's argument may seem to the 'Independence in Europe' faction of the SNP it should be noted that the Scots are more Eurosceptic than the English according to a recent ComRes poll (Guardian article here | raw data here) which found that 41% of Scots (the plurality, and above the figure for England) would vote for withdrawal from the EU. As Alan Cochrane correctly points out in response to Norman Davies, "Euroscepticism doesn't stop at the Border".

There are well-documented reasons why the English might feel insecure, chief amonst them the failure of the UK government to allow us a vote on an English parliament and EU membership. For a nation whose sovereignty is invested entirely in Parliament, challenges to the sovereignty of that institution, as well as its inability to speak for England and the low regard in which it is held, are bound to have consequences. Even so, YouGov finds English identity to be in rude health. 63% identify as English and just 19% as British, so the insecurity, perhaps, ought to be British. Maybe, just maybe, the English have enough confidence in themselves to not need the European umbrella, just as an increasing number of Scots feel the cultural and political confidence to strike out alone.

Hassan believes that a referendum on the EU would have "great consequences" for the Union between England and Scotland as Tory Eurosceptics "could, in defending an out-of-date, archaic union, lead to the end of the union they are so passionate to defend". Such a scenario is certainly plausible but the alternative is that Euroscepticism could act as a unifying force, a uniting common purpose whose absence (with the demise of Protestantism, economic protectionism, war and Empire) Linda Colley has highlighted as the cause of the decline in British identity. Eurosceptism could reinvigorate the Scottish Conservatives and also lead to a Tory revival in the North of England, which ComRes found to be the most Eurosceptic part of Britain. It is not inconceivable that the question of Europe could become as divisive an issue for Scottish politics as it has been at Westminster - splitting the Scottish nationalist vote - while narrowing the party-political North-South divide in England.

Where I agree with Hassan unambiguously is in the fact that the question of Europe will have great consequences for the Union. And I agree with Wellings that Eurosceptism, in particular the Eurosceptic defence of Parliamentary sovereignty, has prevented the articulation of a contemporary English nationalism. Recently, however, Eurosceptics have appeared more relaxed about sharing sovereignty within the UK's borders. UKIP have come out in favour of an English parliament and the Conservatives have played with the idea of Independence-Lite for Scotland and even a federal Conservative Party. All is not as it was. This new age of devolution-acceptance could be enhanced if Cameron upholds the spirit of his ‘referendum lock’ on any treaty handing over further powers from Britain to the EU; we may then find that Eurosceptic MPs become relaxed enough about external threats to Westminster sovereignty to unleash their inner English nationalist and consider a democratic populist response to the English Question.

In the absence of an answer to the West Lothian Question those same MPs might ask why the ‘referendum lock’ on any treaty handing over further powers from Westminster to the EU should not be extended to cover any further transfer of power from Westminster to the devolved administrations. After all, as Frank Field has pointed out, it is not only the transfer of power to Brussels that 'damages English voters'.



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