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Cable’s confusion – on Brexit imperial “nostalgia” and what it means to be English

The Scots have as much reason for imperial nostalgia as the English, so why did one vote Remain and the other vote Leave, asks John Denham?

Image: Map showing British Empire in pink, 1922. Flickr/Eric Fischer/Ontario School Public Geography.

Vince Cable’s swipe at Leave voters ‘nostalgic for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink’ sounds like the latest proof that most Remainers would rather abuse their opponents than engage with them. But, let’s assume for a moment that Vince was on to something. What if Leavers did yearn for an older if irrecoverable, idea of greatness? Why should that be, and why in England in particular?

It wasn’t Britain that voted Leave. It was England, and above all it was England outside London, that chose to take the UK out of the EU. Within England, it is those who felt most English who gave Leave their strongest support. If it was simple nostalgia for the British empire, then the British would have been Leavers too. But residents of England who identified as British rather than English were strongly in favour of Remain.

For all its historic resentment of its larger southern neighbour, Scotland was as invested in the British Empire as any part of England. From the financial elites to the active colonialists and administrators to the working classes in the shipyards and the protected textile industries, Scots appear to have as much reason to be nostalgic for Empire as most in England. Yet Scotland voted strongly for Remain, as did Northern Ireland. True, Wales voted narrowly for Leave, but much less than England outside London. London, significantly, also voted Remain.

The political scientists have given us a wealth of regression analysis linking the Brexit vote to age, education, long-term economic decline, social values and attitudes towards immigration. Valuable though those insights are, the different paths of the different parts of the United Kingdom suggest that something else was going on as well. It is striking that the more pro-Remain parts of the UK have all enjoyed civic processes, political debates, and political institutions that have enabled or forced them to reimagine their identities in a post-imperial world.

In 1945 the Attlee government inherited a state that had just won a world war. Its capacity to deliver reforms, including the NHS and the post-war welfare state, seemed to confirm its value and power. It decisively strengthened Labour’s centralist traditions, at the expense of the English radical democratic traditions of local action, voluntary association, cooperation, local self-government, and popular consent for the law. The unitary state was unchallenged as the model of government. Or rather, it was unquestioned in England.

In other parts of Britain, the story was very different. As the empire diminished, other nations wanted to redefine their relationship with the union state. Nationalism rose in Scotland and Wales in broadly progressive forms; violently and tragically in Northern Ireland. Ultimately these pressures led to new governance arrangements, through the creation of elected parliaments and assemblies and devolved administrations. Only in England did the unitary state inherited from Empire remain unchallenged. England is the only part of the UK permanently ruled by the UK government. And England is the only part of the UK not to have enjoyed a real debate about its own identity.

Scotland has enjoyed a long process of national self-examination, leading to devolution and the continuing independence debate. That process also allowed Scotland to consider its relationship with Europe, producing a heavy Remain majority in a nation that sees itself as a modern European democracy. As Anthony Barnett has argued in The Lure of Greatness, Scotland, too, had already had two chances to ‘take back control’, both in sacking Labour and in taking the union decision into its own hands.

Northern Ireland has had to confront its history through a very different process. Today it is still nowhere near to ‘normal politics’, but it is striking how the Remain majority did not neatly reflect the normally entrenched sectarian divide, nor the Leave support of Northern Ireland’s largest party. At least in relation to the EU, a majority of the people of Northern Ireland saw their future within that union.

Wales was of course originally far less certain about devolution than Scotland, with the Assembly only narrowly approved. But creation of the Assembly was followed by a strengthening of identity to the extent that devolution would be irreversible today. On Brexit, Wales voted Leave, but had it had no experience of self-government, it may well have followed England more strongly.

London, of course, is the one part of England that not only enjoys statutory powers but has its own elected leadership, and its own political institutions that have enabled London’s identity to encouraged shaped and developed.

That England provided the lion’s share of the Brexit vote was not a pathological failing of the English people, but an outcome of England being denied any political identity, institutions and national debate of its own. Instead, England split, between the metropolitan cities with one view of the future, and the towns, villages and coastal areas with another. It split culturally, regionally, by age and education, because there has never been an attempt to articulate what the English share in common. In the absence of that national debate, without any English political institutions, and without voice and agency, it’s no surprise that the English more than anyone else voted for sovereignty and control.

The debate that England needs is complex. While those who are happiest with the direction of travel seem inclined to call themselves ‘British’, and ‘English’ may be a badge of the dissatisfied and voiceless, many English residents are both English and British. English, more than any other UK national identity, has often been seen through the prism of British identity and achievement. It’s not open to us to define ourselves ‘against the English’ as others may do. But without that debate and the fora to hold it in, England is unlikely to develop a new view of itself, of Britain and of what success looks like in the 21st century.

About the author

John Denham is the Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester. He is a former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister and Director of the English Labour Network.


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