Review: The politics of English nationhood

Michael Kenny's new book, The Politics of English Nationhood, is a vital read and charts much new ground, but its overriding analysis is constrained by its focus on identity and belonging at the expense of democracy.

Niki Seth-Smith
12 June 2014

The Politics of English Nationhood, Michael Kenny, Oxford University Press, £25

Ever since Michael Kenny’s book The Politics of English Nationhood was launched in March I’ve scoured the mainstream media for reactions and reviews. No luck. A book that should be a key reference in explaining UKIP’s surge in support has barely been mentioned. Only some commentators have been sufficiently awake to acknowledge that Farage is peddling a particularly mangled brand of English nationalism (like his dog whistle racism, most audible to those already attuned). Kenny’s book should be the pail of cold water that is the last resort once the sleeper has ignored all alarms. It heroically attempts to comprehensively gather all the relevant data, analysis and argument around the emergence of a politics of Englishness, a trend that only began to be noted in policy circles in the last few years. The book places too much emphasis on identity and belonging at the expense of confronting the core issues of democracy and sovereignty. It stops short of envisioning the impact of a politics of Englishness on the Union in the long-term. However, given the poverty of the intellectual landscape around this subject, it breaks a lot of new ground and should be read by anyone concerned about the future of these islands and its peoples.

Kenny is an associate fellow of the centre-left think tank IPPR, which has led the way in research on the emergence of a politics of Englishness. In their 2012 Future of England survey, they found that twice as many people in England now prioritise English identity (35 per cent) as British (17 per cent), while only slightly less (34 per cent) think that England should become an independent country. This supports their 2011 survey, which concluded that we are seeing “a transformation which is bringing England and Englishness to the fore as a political community and political identity.” What Kenny’s book does is move beyond the 2D of the polling graph, to give us a rich and detailed picture of the multiple factors contributing to this trend.

A common assumption is that the current trend is the inevitable result of devolution. Resentment from the 1990s onwards over the West Lothian Question, where Scottish MPs can vote on English-only matters but not the other way round, seems to point to this. As does the high proportion of people who believe that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, which has doubled over the last decade to over half the population. Kenny says this narrative is too simplistic. While there has been simmering dissent against the asymmetry of devolution over the last seventeen years, this alone cannot count for an overall strengthening of an English identity as distinct from British, or the recent turn towards a more explicitly political articulation.

Kenny’s argument, frustrating as it may seem, is that there is no overwhelming cause for the strengthening of Englishness as a political and cultural identity. Broadly, we can frame it as a reaction to globalization and rapid rates of economic and geo-political change. The rise of Englishness is part of what Kenny describes as “a return across Europe to forms of belonging associated with historic forms of national and regional identity.” Identification with Great Britain has been fading since the 1980s, yet people in England, as elsewhere in the turbulent world, are drawn to the sense of belonging offered by a national identity. A strong indication that this is a more general and fluid movement is its playing out in the cultural field, in many ways before a proper recognition in political circles. The mainstream embrace of nu-folk with its contemporary English aesthetic, the surprise hits of Jez Butterworth’s play ‘Jerusalem’ and PJ Harvey’s award-winning album ‘Let England Shake’ – these are marks in the sand of a rising tide that is extraordinarily diffuse in character.

This is a much-needed antidote to the idea that English nationhood is somehow still the province of constitutional wonks or far-right hooligans. Kenny is also right to point out that while the idea of the English nation has come to be far more “powerful” and resonant”, properly nationalist sentiments are only held by the minority. What the book underplays is the role of democracy and sovereignty. It discusses how Englishness has been used as a “vehicle” for UKIP, for the “expression of discontent on a disparate range of issues, such as welfare, Europe and immigration”, providing a “rich seed-bed for the declinist, anti-political outlook”. He recognises that Englishness remains open to political appropriation and that while the other mainstream parties are reluctant to make this move it “remains entirely possible” that UKIP will “identify wholeheartedly with English nationalism” in the medium or long term. Yet the book does not fully engage with the far-reaching implications of the attempt to capture this ground by a party of ethnic nationalism, which offers the promise of national sovereignty and a return to the imagined ‘good old days’ of the Anglo-British project. That UKIP is founded on a false commitment to more democracy and power to the people, through ending London dominance and an exit from the EU, has huge bearing on the nature of the emerging politics of Englishness to which Farage is attempting to appeal.

As the book’s research demonstrates, the emerging politics of Englishness is not represented by the vision of national sovereignty offered by UKIP. It is, however, expressing a demand for more democracy. In 2009 just after the financial crisis, for the first time since polling began, more than half of the population in England described themselves as unhappy with the constitutional status quo. A broad base of citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the position of England within the Union and demanding more recognition and a fairer settlement. Importantly, Kenny finds that younger people are “more inclined to be supportive of pro-English reforms than their elders,” although he is quick to complicate this picture. Nevertheless, support from under 35s shows this is not a trend founded on the Ukipper nostalgic reverence for Queen and Country. The last year has seen a pile of books published on the English ‘character’ and ‘manners’, the best of which poke holes in the Englishness of warm beer, waistcoasts, cricket and the Proms. Such an imagined community has little real hold any longer on the psyche of contemporary, multicultural England.

In this context, it is impossible to ignore the very real possibility of Scottish independence and the impact of this on the imagined community of the Union. Yet Kenny does not properly confront the Scottish question, perhaps because at the time of writing independence was not judged to be likely. A proper consideration might have shown parallels with the English situation, as well as the extent to which a cultural as well as constitutional, political and economic drift separating the largest nation from the rest of the UK might prompt people in England to define themselves as distinct from a weakening Great British project. It would also illuminate what Kenny has identified as a “limited and partisan” debate on Englishness within academic and policy circles. The lead up to the Scottish referendum has shown how disconnected from these questions the Westminster establishment really is, as well as its instinctive opposition to letting go of power or supporting the emergence of a political identity other than that which binds us to the Union.

What kind of Englishness will emerge to fill the void? How do we stop the politics of Englishness from being defined by the populist nationalism of UKIP? Kenny rightly notes that an orthodox liberal version of Englishness has little future. He suggests that a civic re-imagining of Anglo-nationhood is most likely through a bringing together of liberal and conservative ideas and themes. It’s hard to argue that our greatest hope in re-imagining a contemporary, multicultural Englishness lies in bringing together a range of political and civic voices from across the political spectrum. As Kenny suggests, politicians and policy makers must wake up to this as a far greater and more encompassing issue than they have wished to confront to date.

But what is the book arguing for? The language employed of creating a ‘brand’, ‘convincing’ disenchanted citizens of the legitimacy of our institutions and associations and renewing ‘solidarity’ through establishing a ‘shared identity space’ rests his approach firmly on the terrain of identity and belonging at the expense of addressing questions of democracy and sovereignty. Kenny is best placed to influence Labour, but the Blue Labour project, which began to articulate an English politics of the left, has been superseded by One Nation, whose primary aim in regards to the Union is to keep it together, with Scotland on board. Ed Miliband cannot be expected to popularize the kind of English identity of the left formulated by Jon Cruddas, John Rutherford and others, drawing on strains of radicalism and patriotism, when this sits awkwardly with a primary aim to protect the settlement of the Great British project. Such an idea seems to suggest that we can forge an identity for England distinct from the form of its democracy.

It’s no wonder that Kenny rejects Nairn's analysis, which argues that England must become a modern democratic nation and develop a proper national consciousness. The book critiques Nairn’s distinction as artificial between an “ideal-typical form of modern nationalism on the one hand, and the ‘cryptic’ and pathological simulacrum that had taken root in England.” According to Kenny, Nairn’s conception of a “‘normal’ mode of nationalism” is narrow and proscriptive, and does not necessarily apply to England. Perhaps the English are “contented and willing” to express their nationality through structures that blur the boundaries between England and Britain? Perhaps, as J.G.A. Pocock has argued, the English have “good reasons to remain members of a political association that would preserve their established inter-relations with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish?” Kenny implies that it is elitist to dismiss these possibilities when they come from the people in England themselves. Yet this seems a peculiar position to take, when elsewhere the book points to increasing support for an English parliament, resentment at imbalanced relations between Scotland and England, and a general dissatisfaction with the constitutional status quo and the political establishment. Of course we should resist enforcing a sweeping, top-down theory onto the English people and respect the uniqueness of England. Yet Nairn provided an analysis that in many ways is being borne out on the ground.

The Politics of English Nationhood is an essential read as it provides a detailed and thorough map of one of the most important and overlooked trends in British politics today. Those concerned about the future of England can only hope that Kenny’s call to recognize the depth and breadth of this trend across society is heard by the political mainstream. Perhaps it is only reasonable that Kenny has focused on ‘how things are’, rather than committing himself to more fully explore the profound implications. The prospects of an openly English nationalist UKIP, Scottish independence, or Britain’s exit from the EU, are hard to confront in a book based in hard research. Yet by approaching the subject through the lens of identity, solidarity and belonging, Kenny appears to have missed the big picture. He’s right that England doesn’t have to take Scotland as a model of the kind of modern democratic state it might be. But England cannot build a new ‘shared identity space’ without democratic expression. The “struggle over the political soul of England” is first and foremost a struggle over democracy.


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