From English Votes for English Laws to the rise of Ukip, Englishness is a growing feature of British politics. Michael Kenny examines the rise of English national identity as a political force.

The General Election of May 2015 may come to be seen as the moment when the ‘English question’ stormed the main stage of British politics. Numerous commentators have identified the effect of nationalism in both Scotland and England as one of the factors determining the outcome, and many have emphasised the Conservatives' orchestration of English fears of the Scottish National Party as a vital ingredient in their victory.

But the emergence of a more salient sense of English national identity, and its potential political implications, are more complex issues to interpret than conventional wisdom tends to suggest. Most academic observers concur that something of fundamental importance has happened to the way in which the English identify in national terms, though whether this means the arrival of a mass English nationalism or a long established habit of grumbling about the deal which the Scots, in particular, receive from the union remains a matter of dispute. Some analysis locates the origins of this shift in relation to historical factors such as the loss of Empire, the rise of the European question, the impact of globalisation or the devolution settlements introduced in Scotland and Wales by the first Blair government. But each of these factors has been in play for some time. What is much less clear is why exactly the question of the collective identity and preferences of the English has moved into the arena of high politics in recent years.

In order to throw some light upon this issue, I begin by charting several dramatic moments that throw the politicisation of Englishness into relief, and offer suggestions about their wider significance.

Scotland's Referendum

The English Question, which has for so long been the focus of a select group of constitutional experts, campaigners and academics, arrived with a bang in the final weeks of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. With the announcement of support from all the UK party leaders for the rapid delivery of significant further powers for the Scots – in the form of the ‘vow’ orchestrated by Gordon Brown – a significant political backlash got underway. MPs at Westminster expressed concern at the prospect of enhanced Scottish spending powers being paid for by English taxpayers, and senior political figures based in London, including Mayor Boris Johnson, responded by demanding that the UK's largest city-state be accorded additional powers too. This chorus of discontent supplied the backdrop, south of the border, to the final stage of the campaign. It also helped ferment a Conservative plan to respond to the resolution of the Scottish Question, if there was indeed a majority against independence, by tabling the English one.

Responding to the Scottish referendum result in the early hours of 19 September, David Cameron spoke of “millions of English voices now waiting to be heard.” The Prime Minister suggested that the answer was to hand. It consisted of a set of procedural reforms in the House of Commons, designed to answer the so-called ‘West Lothian question’ – the conundrum whereby MPs from devolved territories can vote on matters affecting England only, but MPs from the latter cannot reciprocate. MPs at Westminster cannot, for instance, vote on education policy in Scotland.

Despite being widely anticipated, Cameron's announcement caught Labour cold. At a rapidly assembled meeting of the Shadow Cabinet, agreement could not be reached on how best to respond to the question of English devolution, and the party fell back upon the tactical rule of calling for a constitutional convention, without specifying how this would work or when exactly it would be convened. One consequence of this stance was that the noises about the radical decentralisation of powers to city-regions and combined authorities that had emanated from some senior figures in 2012 and 2013, all but disappeared. This silence helped Chancellor George Osborne position the Conservatives as the political force with the most dynamic and radical agenda in this area too, with his audacious plans for the devolution of a range of new powers to Greater Manchester.

Image from #Rochester

Two months after the Scottish Referendum result, the English Question took a much less expected turn, in the shape of the resignation of Labour's Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, and the intense debate about the representation and implications of Englishness which accompanied it. Having arrived in the constituency of Rochester on November 20 to canvass for her party in the by-election caused by Mark Reckless' defection to the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), Thornberry posted on Twitter a photograph of a house bedecked with three Saint George's flags, and a large white van parked outside. The tweet proved explosive. Within hours the picture was all over the political blogosphere, generating a tidal wave of commentary and denunciation. MP Lucy Powell, one of Ed Miliband's close advisors, criticised this' “very disrespectful and rude picture”.

In response to the accusation that she was mocking the tableau she had pictured, Thornberry refused initially to apologise, but, following a statement indicating the scale of her leader's displeasure, was compelled to do so. The episode helped the party inflict an extraordinary act of self-harm, drawing considerable media attention to Labour's difficulties at a time when the Conservatives had just lost a by-election to Ukip.

The power of this episode stemmed from what it seemed to lay bare about Labour's fraught relationship with the cultural inclinations of working-class citizens. The fear that the party was becoming inexorably alienated from parts of its own vote, outside London, and that this chasm might well be linked to the metropolitan bias of which Thornberry was accused, underpinned the panicky response of the party leadership. Its opponents were swift to make the most of these difficulties. Ukip leader Nigel Farage – a later convert to English nationalism than some of his colleagues – declared that ‘The Labour Party hate the concept of Englishness. … New Labour can't even stand the concept of patriotism. They think the flag somehow is unpleasant, backward-looking and nasty'.

Miliband's reaction to this crisis was widely seen as an expression of weakness rather than surety. Colleagues spoke of their dismay at the fate meted out to a popular and effective MP for a single, transgressive tweet. The wider lessons of the Thornberry episode were that the mutual alienation between Labour and some working-class voters was now one of the major themes in British politics. It threw into relief the chasm between the values of the party's representatives and a street-level culture that expressed belonging, solidarity and pride through the cultural vernacular of the nation.

In the SNP's Pocket

Both of these episodes testified to the emergence of a more intense political competition over the interests and identity of the English. This was most apparent on two main sites. One concerned perceptions of how the English judged the enhanced devolution deal being given to the Scots, as well as the disparity in levels of spending between Scotland and England. The other involved growing disenchantment among segments of the working class with Labour in particular, and the mainstream parties more generally.

In the final weeks of the campaign leading up to May's General Election, both of these issues were in play. A key question was how many left-, as well as right-leaning, votes Ukip would garner in different parts of England. And, in a context where the SNP was polling unexpectedly strongly, the implications of a future Labour administration, sustained in some form or other by MPs from the SNP, became one of the themes of the campaign. After a shaky start, the Conservatives decided to focus continually upon the prospect of a Labour government propped up by Scottish nationalists. Labour was forced into a highly defensive posture, seeking to deny repeatedly that it would enter into any kind of arrangement with the SNP. The latter's leader, Nicola Sturgeon, insisted, equally loudly and more convincingly, that Labour would have no choice but to do exactly this.

The eventual, unexpected result of the election raises an important psephological question about whether this tactical emphasis helped shift key groups of voters in England away from Labour, and indeed UKIP, to the Tories. Behind this query is the much broader issue of whether there now exists a stronger sense of shared territorial interest, and a politicised sense of national identity, among the English. Between the first of these three iconic episodes, in September 2014, and the most recent, the English Question has muscled its way towards the front of British politics, intersecting in complex and unpredictable ways with other issues where questions of sovereignty and territory are central, notably the European Referendum.

Englishness Rising?

But if we take a step or two back from these developments and seek a wider and longer perspective, it becomes more apparent that these moves have been accompanied, and to some extent prepared, by a reconfiguration of the national self-understanding of the peoples of England over a longer period. Questions about when this shift got underway, and what were its underlying causes, are the focus for a burgeoning academic literature across the social sciences.

Political analysts have only recently begun to pick up signs of a wider shift in patterns of national identification. But social scientists more generally have explored the growing resonance of claims upon an English form of belonging over a longer period, stretching back to the 1990s. Some have linked this shift to a much wider set of causal factors than political science has tended to consider, pointing to factors such as responses to migration and the implications of an emerging post-industrial economy. This research offers considerable insight into the ways in which an English ‘imaginary’ has connected with other parallel trends during the last two decades – a growing attachment to particular kinds of place and locality, and a rising disenchantment with politics and state.

There has been a notable tendency to depict the English as a beleaguered, indigenous tribe (often depicted as synonymous with the ‘white working class’) abandoned by an indifferent state, political parties and liberal public authorities. And there is some overlap here with the discourse of the ‘left behind’ which has been integral to the appeal of Ukip.

But there are other, politically resonant ways in which Englishness is claimed and understood. There persist more moderate, conservative conceptions of the need to preserve and defend English traditions, and a growing belief that Englishness needs greater recognition, and some form of institutional expression. In this vein, England is often depicted as a haven for such values as pragmatism, tolerance and the whiggish merits of incremental change. Elsewhere, a more self-consciously modernist and multi-cultural sensibility is presented as the abiding ethos of contemporary England, and the extraordinary cultural diversity and creativity associated with its peoples given particular accent. These broadly constituted perspectives enable different sections of the population to advance potent claims for representation and recognition in a context where the language and traditions associated with mainstream party politics have weakened.

Such a burgeoning national sentiment has not, as yet, sustained the kinds of coherent political demand that are often associated with nationalism. Evidence suggests that most people remain convinced that their own national sovereignty is still expressed, rather than contained, by the UK state, although a growing number of people are, according to some surveys, shifting towards the latter view. Eurosceptic sentiments are stronger in England than elsewhere in the UK, and this may well be linked to the renewal of a nationalist mind-set. But English attitudes are not as markedly different to those of its neighbours as is often claimed.

Consideration of the depth and importance of these currents of popular sentiment undermines the assumption that it is the decisions taken by the political parties alone that determine how and when a national identity becomes politicised. Rather than seeing politicians and parties as architects and nation-builders, it makes more sense to see them as respondents to and interpreters of cultural shifts of which they have a fairly dim grasp. The Conservatives have sensed a change in the ways in which many of the English have come to feel about nation, state and government, and may well have reaped an electoral dividend for this reason. Ed Miliband, by contrast, made a solitary speech in the whole of the last parliament addressing the question of national identity. Sticking to the tepid ‘one nation’ mantra left Labour fatally detached from these dynamics – in both England and Scotland.

The English Question in the Current Parliament

The recent announcement of proposals for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) in the House of Commons represents an important moment in the life of the current Parliament. Politically, it has given the SNP its first major opportunity since the election to campaign against a perceived injustice. More generally, reform in this area will be complex to implement, will require considerable party management, and may well be difficult to legitimate. Above all, while it will raise all sorts of practical difficulties within Westminster, addressing West Lothian is unlikely to serve as a sufficient answer to the English Question.

There is, indeed, reason to think that EVEL may be only the start of a wider process of reform. The independent McKay Commission in its final report, published early in 2013, asked whether, in addition to legislative reform, there might be a case for changes to the structure and organisation of the executive in order to distinguish more clearly an emerging, English tier of government. And, in a context where demands for a more federal UK model are gathering force, especially among Conservatives, such arguments may gain traction.

At the core of these emergent issues are profound questions which political actors and scientists are increasingly summoned to consider. Is there a tangible sense of collective English interest that needs recognising and institutionalising in the UK's systems of politics and government? Can such changes be introduced in separation from the awarding of new powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the establishment of more powerful city-regions in England? And, most fundamentally of all, do we need new ways of thinking about state and constitution in a pluri-national state, where the English are starting to evolve a new sense of who they are?

Selected Reading:

  • Richard Wyn-Jones et al., England and its Two Unions (IPPR2013).
  • Michael SkeyNational Belonging and Everyday Life (Palgrave, 2011).
  • Robert Ford and Matthew GoodwinRevolt on the Right (Routledge2013).