English Nationalism and Brexit

Brian Girvin's picture

H-Nationalism is pleased to publish here the second post of its 'Brexit, Nationalism and the Future of Europe' monthly series, which discusses the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union and its impact on nationalism and the future of Europe in a multidisciplinary perspective. Please feel welcome to add to the discussion by posting a reply. Today's contribution, by Professor Ben Wellings of Monash University, focuses on 'English Nationalism and Brexit'. 



Much of the causal analysis of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 stressed material grievances and political disenchantment of those ‘left behind’ by the benefits of globalisation.  Approaching this phenomenon through the politics of nationalism in the UK – in this case England – we can take the debate beyond the ‘left behind’ explanation and offer a fuller account of the reasons why England voted the way it did and how this took the rest of the UK out of the EU.


English Nationalism

Examining Brexit in light of contemporary English nationalism requires an understanding of English nationalism itself.  Since devolution in the late 1990s politicians, commentators and academics questioned the very existence of ‘English nationalism’.  Englishness was perceived as an ‘absence’.[1]  But this was an a-historical understanding of English nationalism that rested on a narrow understanding of nationalism as principally a secessionist phenomenon.  In this conceptualisation, England was expected to look and behave like Scotland.  But English nationalism was never historically about secessionism or even unification.  In its formative years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘English nationalists’ concerned themselves with legitimising the operation of British sovereignty, within the United Kingdom and throughout the Empire.  This contributed to its blurred boundaries, making Englishness and Britishness harder to distinguish than for other nationalities in the UK and throughout the Empire.[2]


This outward focus is important.  Trying to understand English nationalism by looking only at the UK will provide only a partial picture of English nationhood.  Like Krishan Kumar we must look at English nationalism ‘from the outside in’ to gain a full understanding of the dynamics that animate dominant expressions of English identity and inform the world-view of those that explicitly or implicitly adhere to such identities.[3]  Far from being ‘parochial’, English nationalism has long been one of the most ‘global’ nationalisms on the planet.


Politicised English Identity

There are, of course, many different English identities that have been articulated over time: Thomas Paine’s England was quite different to that of Enoch Powell’s.[4]  But nationalism is a homogenising ideology and if homogeneity is unobtainable then there are certainly dominant versions of any given national identity that emerge in the contestation of ideas and symbols that constitute both ‘hot’, ‘banal’ and ‘everyday’ nationalisms.[5]  The dominant version of English nationalism is what Andrew Gamble has called ‘Anglo-British’; one that fosters the integration of the United Kingdom using the language of Britishness but which is delivered in a very English register.[6]  In this way Britishness does not subsume Englishness, but is instead merged with it.


But like other nationalisms, even this historically merged identity had moments where Englishness was conscious and explicit.  The decade in the lead up to the Brexit referendum was one of those historic moments.  Evidence of politicisation of English identity emerged in second decade of 21st century from the Future of England Survey (FoES) conducted – significantly – by researchers outside of England.  Brexit mobilised English identity and in this sense ‘Brexit was made in England’[7].


English Nationalism and Euroscepticism

But even before this politicisation, English nationalism was far from ‘absent’ in the way that was commonly characterised in the years after devolution.  Instead it was expressing itself in the way that its historical conditioning suggested it should: as a defence of British sovereignty.  It is at this point that we should avoid what Arthur Aughey has called ‘Singapore syndrome’ and ensure that all our intellectual firepower is not facing in the wrong direction.[8]  This should be linked to Kumar’s notion of researching England ‘from the outside in’ (see above).  English nationalism was not to be found solely within the context of the politics of devolution and nationalism within the UK, but a wider lens was required to discern this particular phenomenon.


Since the 1990s – in fact even before devolution – Euroscepticism emerged as a distinctive element of English politics.[9]  Yet neither politicians nor academics recognised England as a unit of analysis and framed their understandings of ‘British’ politics accordingly.  But as the Future of England Surveys from 2011-16 showed, as the present decade wore on Euroscepticism became an increasingly English concern, one that helped define England as a distinct political community.[10]  Leaving the European Union made more sense when framed by the traditions of English nationalism than by those of Scotland or Nationalist Ulster.


England after Brexit

The vote to leave the EU in June 2016 was the result of a contingent alliance between sections of the electorate and an elite political project on the right of politics.  This elite project saw globalisation and the free market – along with renewed relationship with ‘traditional allies’ in the Anglosphere – as a viable and preferable alternative to membership of the EU.  What emerged as ‘Global Britain’ was perfectly aligned with the Anglo-British tradition of English nationalism, which portrayed England as a global rather than regional or parochial nation.


This return of Britain subsumed the ‘England’ that had emerged in the decade before 2016.  England faded from political salience as ‘Global Britain’ took over once again.  In this situation, memory of Empire stood in as globalisation avant le lettre, allowing Brexiteers to portray Britain’s EU membership as a regional interregnum in its otherwise global history.  Scotland and Northern Ireland remained distinct as might have been anticipated, but England was further occluded by the new cleavages in politics revealed at 2017 election.  Brexit became a source of further political division in England after 2016.  Political divisions never stopped nationalists proclaiming unity, but England’s unity was cloaked in British rhetoric as the UK left the EU.



The vote to leave the EU cannot be explained by material grievances alone.  The vote to leave the EU had to fit with revived understandings of English nationalism as a global – and not parochial – identity in which memories of Empire and contemporary understandings of globalisation aligned.  The English electorate played a crucial role in the vote to leave the EU.  However, England’s historic moment has passed and it is once again being subsumed by the British rhetoric associated with the elite project of ‘Global Britain’.






[1] AUGHEY, A. (2010) Anxiety and Injustice: the anatomy of contemporary English nationalism. Nations and Nationalism 16 (3): 506.

[2] WELLINGS, B. (2002) Empire-nation: national and imperial discourses in English nationalism. Nations and Nationalism 8(1): 95-109.

[3] KUMAR, K. (2003) The Making of English National Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 17.

[4] MARQUAND, D. 2017. ‘Britain’s problem is not with Europe, but with England’, Guardian, 19 December 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/19/britain-problem-not-europe-england-brexit-englishness, accessed 8 January 2018.

[5] SUMARTOJO, S. (2017) Making sense of everyday nationhood: traces in the experiential world. In: SKEY, M. and ANTONSICH, M. (eds.) Everyday Nationhood: Theorising Culture, Identity and Belonging after Banal Nationalism. London: Palgrave, pp. 197-214.

[6] GAMBLE, A. (2016) The Conservatives and the Union: the “New English Toryism” and the origins of Anglo-Britishness. Political Studies Review 16(3): 359.

[7] HENDERSON, A. JEFFEREY, C. SCULLY, R. WINCOTT, D. and WYN JONES, R. (2017). How Brexit Was Made in England. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19(4): 631.

[8] AUGHEY, A. (2013) Review: English Nationalism and Euroscepticism. Scottish Affairs 83 (1): 115.

[9] WELLINGS, B. (2012) English nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace. Oxford: Peter Lang.

[10] WYN JONES, R., LODGE, G., JEFFERY, C., GOTTFRIED, G., SCULLY, R., HENDERSON, A. and WINCOTT, D. (2013) England and Its Two Unions. A Nation and its Discontents. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.


Dear All, 

Thank you to Dr. Wellings for this excellent post and to Dr. Girvin for putting this important series together. As I read Dr. Wellings's post I found myself wondering about the relationship between the "material grievances" thesis and the "global England" thesis put forward here.  I was curious to know whether the appeal of the idea of England as a global power did not rest in part in its ability to speak to the anxieties of those who felt economically left behind. 

Kind Regards, 

David Prior
Advisory Board Member, H-Nationalism
Assistant Professor of History, UNM

Dear David

Thanks for your comments and question. One of the values of examining Brexit through the lens of nationalism is that it attunes us to the cross-sectional 'alliances' that make something appear 'national'. These alliances can be seen as crossing cleavages of class, party, gender, ethnicity, or even nationality in multi-national states. These alliances become especially clear and important in a device such as a referendum which only needs a simple majority to pass.

During the Brexit referendum, what I have been calling 'posh populism' (anti-elite rhetoric made by members of the elite themselves such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage) made an appeal across class and party lines. This aligned an elite project - exit from the EU and alignment with the Anglosphere - with growing popular discontent with the status quo, party de-alignment and political resentment.

This 'posh populism' helped create the contingent political alliance between elites and electorate to carry the vote in favour of leaving the EU. It also helps explain why the 'Englishness' of the vote was masked by the 'British' rhetoric of the campaign - at least in England. Although Euroscepticism was a major driver of recently politicised English identity, the privileged position of those campaigning in the media spotlight (a relatively narrow group) meant that English political ideas were mobilised in defence of a new place for Britain in the international order, blurring the boundaries of political Englishness. This tendency was strengthened after the vote by the UK Government's 'Global Britain' rhetoric and its attempt to impose an English interpretation of Parliamentary Sovereignty on the rest of the UK as it left the EU.

Viewing Brexit as a 'moment' in the history of English nationalism, allows us to open up new avenues of interpretation of this profound political event.

Many thanks to Ben Wellings for his original post and this reply. 
His theme is an important one and it is also controversial. Understanding sub-state nationalisms is important but for the most part the focus has been on secessionist or regionalist movments. What Professor Wellings does here and in his book is to pay attention to a dominant but sub-state nationalism and to explain how English nationalism appears politically in the way it does. 
A number of questions come to mind. 
The first is about Brexit (or more accurately UKexit). It is significant that those promoting the leave campaign came from two distinct groups. Intellectually and ideologically we have a group promoting globalisation and arguing that the UK will do better outside than inside the EU. This group including Johnson and Gove among others are part of the political elite and mainly are on the right of the political spectrum. 
The broad vision is one that involves more globalisation rather than less; more openess to external threat and challenges than less; and possibly (though this can be debated) less real sovereignty rather than more. 
At a mass level, the leave vote is anti-globalisation, anti-liberal and very uneasy about the changes that have taken place in the UK and elsewhere since the 1970s (often related to Feminism and gender), but especially worried about immigration. It is difficult to see how these two groups can maintain the alliance that was forged during the referendum campaign. 
The paradox is that the mass of leave voters look backward to an idealised Britain, while the elite look forward to an idealised global system where Britain will be a key player. it is difficult to see how these tensions can be resolved. 
This might not matter much, but disappointment with the outcome for the mass of leave supporters can have serious consequences for political legitimacy if not stability. In particular, the Conservative party may find it difficult to appeal to leave voters if they pursue the globalisation/free trade pollcies currently being promoted. 
Those who say their identity is English exclusively or consider themselves more English than British are the strongest supporters of Brexit but they are also the strongest supporters of protectionism, controls on immigration and state intervention to redress the instability of markets and economic change. I wonder what this entails politically now and in the short term future.
A related question is how nationalism is used in a conservative sense. By conservative I do not mean the party (although it might). Nationalism has been mobilised by both elites and masses in the past to counter the deleterious impact of economic change. This occurred in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. It is not necessarily left or right, though in recent years it is the right that has appealed to nationalism to constrain global forces (le Pen, Trump, Farage etec). 
This conservative nationalism (not secessionist) appears in many stable societies and I wonder do we need to be more attentive to it to understand the appeal of nationalism. The literature on nationalism has paid far less attention to this conservative nationalism than to radical or secessionsit nationalism. Yet what the Spanish government, Donald Trump, the Brexit supporters share is a belief that the nation (state) is challenged and a political response is required to ameliorate matters. They all seems to believe that the state can be used to promote the national interest and to return power to the people. This is not necessarily populist though it can be. In the case of Spain and the UK it is about defending existing institutions (there is little support in Spain for exit) - the key point that Brexit confirms is that nationalism remains central to political engagement even in the most stable liberal democracy. 
In the light of this, where does English nationalsm fit in discussions on nationalism? I may be missing something but the significance of English nationalism (and other dominant nationalisms in stable states) has not been incorporated into the mainstream studies of nationalism. 
A final question: I wonder if Professor Wellings could expand on his final statement that 'England's historic moment has passed' and what that might entail.

I would certainly agree that conservative nationalism - as described by Brian Girvin - requires more attention and study, in particular since its political impact appears to be greatly increased.

In this respect, it would be interesting (and illuminating, at least for me) to find out what is the idealized Britain to which the mass of leave voters allegedly look back to. Have there been any studies or surveys on this topic? How do we know that this group of people shares a common image or narrative of the past? Where did they get it from?

Finally, the question that Brian Girvin raises at the end: how does this image (if any) relate to the self-identification as English? What is English, if anything, in this image? Or is it perhaps - and quite improbably - related to an Anglo-Saxon past?

Thank you Brian and Sasa for your comments and questions.

With regard to Sasa's questions, there has been some sociological research into about the idealised 'Britain' or England held by voters (or at least those surveyed, presuming they vote) by Robin Mann and Steve Fenton in 'Nation, Class and Resentment' (Palgrave, 2017). They found that the idealised past was one of an industrial England where communities were sustained by stable employment in heavy industries.

This contrasts (or maybe even compliments) the emphasis placed on the British Empire in elite discourse. Yet even on this topic survey research by YouGov found in 2014 that the Empire was source of pride for a majority of 'Britons' (not differentiated by nationality in this survey): https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire/

Echoes of this imperial preference (if you'll pardon the pun) were found in a YouGov poll just after the Brexit vote that showed that leave voters wanted to do trade deals with Anglosphere countries before non-Anglophone ones: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/09/17/which-countries-should-uk-prioritis...

This built on a poll the previous year (2015) that showed that most 'Britons' favoured free movement of labour between the 'old' Commonwealth countries over that between EU member-states: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/11/19/majority-support-commonwealth-freed...

In sum, there is probably no one single narrative, but nationalism is a hegemonic project and some of these identities eventually frame and shape policy. The images of England are contingent. They rarely relate to the Anglo-Saxon past, although Magna Carta features prominently in narratives that stress England's part in the spread of representative democracy after 1215. It's newest manifestation is 'the Anglosphere', a renewal on the right of politics of what used to be called 'Greater Britain' and then the 'English-speaking peoples', that has the effect of blurring (once again) the boundaries of Englishness, Britishness and other identities, especially in the former Dominions.

This leads me to Brian's question about the 'moment' of Englishness passing. You are right to add some caution here, Brian. What I was thinking was that after the 2016 vote, the idea of 'taking back control' has also applied to the attempted reassertion of English (i.e. Westminster) sovereignty throughout the United Kingdom. Brext has involved a three-level game: getting the UK out of the EU, whilst keeping it united and searching for renewed relationships with traditional allies to lessen the dis-rupture of exit. This English nationalism is deployed in the rhetoric of 'Global Britain'. In other words, those politicians who courted popular English discontent in 2016 now seek to use it to reassert 'Britain' domestically and globally, thereby sub-suming England as a political community.

It is of course probably too early to tell, so maybe I should reserve judgement.

Researchers at the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff (Jeffery, Henderson, Wincott, Scully and Wyn Jones) have been trying to focus attention onto the importance of majority nationalisms. Krishan Kumar, Arthur Aughey and Michael Kenny have all written excellent accounts of English national identity, Englishness and English nationhood respectively.

Interesting piece. Ben, while you are right that we need to look beyond material grievances and to the role of English nationalism and memory of empire in shaping Brexit, I feel that your analysis opens a number of other questions.

For instance, what does the role of English nationalism in shaping Brexit say about other nations and nationalisms within Britain? You mention Scotland in your article, but let's also look at Wales. Much of Wales - a net beneficiary of EU structural funds - voted significantly to leave the European Union. Furthermore, UKIP, an ostensibly English nationalist party, managed to gather support in Wales in this period - even gaining seats in National Assembly for Wales. Given that openly English nationalist concerns gained substantial support within devolved Wales, what might this say about the nature of Welsh identity post devolution, and post Brexit? How does this fit into the themes of Englishness and imperialist memory that you write of? I don't feel that a 'cloaking in British rhetoric' really gets to the heart of the dynamics of national identities in post-Brexit Britain.

In this light, I think it is difficult to disentagle nationalism from material grievances. The geography of the leave vote in England and Wales is the geography of post-industrial England and Wales. These are places that have been devastated both socially and economically by deindustrialisation in the 1980s, and subsequent neoliberal policies implemented by both Westminster and devolved governments. Even within Wales we a similar split to England regions: for instance, the relatively wealthy city of Cardiff voted to remain, while its impoverished deindustrialised hinterland voted to leave. This pattern repeats itself across both English regions and when England is considered as a whole. We also see similar narratives emerging between Wales and English regions, too: a distrust of EU 'elites', of local infrastructure projects funded by the EU, of politicians in both central and devolved government, and of cosmpolitan and intellectual cultures associated not only with London but regional urban centres.

Many thanks to Ben for his response to questions and the ongoing discussion. I am adding some additional information on the attitudes of leave voters and those who identify with English identity (rather than British).

A YouGov survey in February 2017 reported that 53% of leave voters wanted the return of the death penalty. 48% of leave voters also wanted a return to pounds and ounces (rather than metric). 52% wanted a return to dark blue passports (rather than the current machine readable burgundy one). 42% wanted a return to corporal punishment in schools.

Having said this, leave voters were as likely to oppose a return to pre-decimal currency as remain voters.

Other polling shows that those who specifically identify as English not British or more English than British were more likely to support the leave campaign. 71% of this group voted to leave, whereas only 38.6% of those who consider themselves to be British not English or More British than English voted to leave (my calculations from Lord Ashcroft Poll, 21-23 June 2016). http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/How-the-UK-voted...

Those who consider themselves to be English not British or more English than British were also more likely to consider that the impact of immigration, feminism, multiculturalism, social liberalism, the internet, the green movement and globalisation has been more negative than positive (often by a significant amount).

In respect of these attitudes and the general leave voters, the recent study by David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London: Hurst, 2017) is worth engaging with.
While I am not entirely convinced by the juxtaposition he makes between those from somewhere and those from nowhere, his discussion focuses on the so called left behinds (the somewheres) who I believe are those who express a conservative nationalism. This is very similar to the position adopted by Prime Minister May in her 2016 Conservative party conference speech, when she effectively dismissed remain voters as not being entirely reliable or patriotic enough.

The more substantial point that Goodhart makes is that those he identifies as ‘somewheres’ remain embedded in local communities. Most he argues live very close to where they were born and have a strong sense of national identity. He claims that most are not racist but have a rough tolerance for the changes that have occurred over the past 40-50 years in Britain. I remain unconvinced about the latter claim, though perhaps xenophobic is a better term than racist for their views. The key point is that they are conservative with a small ‘c’, remaining uneasy about the consequences of change for them, their families and communities. Nationalism for them is a means to protect what they have or to recover what has been lost. In a sense it is nostalgic but in another sense it is an attempt to control or constrain forces that can appear overwhelming to them.

It is important to distinguish this section of leave supporters from those in the Conservative Party who are neo-liberal modernisers and active promoters of global free trade without restrictions. Indeed, the policy objectives of the Conservative globalisers are at odds with the protectionist conservatism of the ‘somewheres’.

A further question for Ben: does he have a view on the future of Britishness as a source of identity for people living in England? If the divisions over Brexit reflect in part at least different identities, does Britishness have a role to play in the future? Or alternatively, has Britishness outlived its usefulness as a source of unity at the state level? If so, will the future be based on the different identities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland without the cohesion of an overarching state identity? If this is the case, can the UK remain a distinct state?

Thank you to Simon and Brian for your thoughts and questions.

Both of you have highlighted the place of the 'left behind' in explaining the vote to leave the EU in England (and also Wales in Simon's case). This is clearly important, but I wonder if there is a risk in overstating its explanatory value. Looking at a map of support for leave in England, does not immediately suggest that this was a vote carried solely by the less well-off. I think more attention should be devoted to explaining the leave vote in the English shires, which must account for more than the 1.9 million differential in leave and remain votes in England, just as much as those from lower socio-economic groups. Furthermore, support for remain in less well off parts of Scotland and Welsh-speaking parts of Wales suggests that socio-economic status can't be the sole or main explanation for leave across the UK - and hence we should be wary of over-ascribing this to England.

Another way of thinking about this might be to suggest that being from 'somewhere' means different things in different nations of the UK: or rather that dominant articulations of nationhood accommodate or reject European integration and/or globalisation (often conflated in analyses of Brexit) to differing degrees.

But I think Brian's point about nationalism as a coping mechanism is really important. It's not just that leave voters have more 'authoritarian' personalities than remainers (which would imply that Scots, Londoners and Catholic Irish people are somehow inherently less 'authoritarian' than English people from the shires) or that they are stuck in the past. What appears at first sight as 'nostalgia' is in fact a way of coping with unwanted change. It puts me in mind of Tom Nairn's suggestion that nationalism involves 'a certain sort of regression' - drawing on mythic elements of the past - in order to achieve certain political goals such as independence.

I agree that Wales might be the fly in the theoretical ointment in what I am trying to say, but I was interested to read Robin Mann and Steve Fenton's recently published book (2017) on resentment and national identity in Britain. In this they not only emphasised the part played by material grievances and class divisions, but also showed not just the Britishness of Welsh identity, but its 'Englishness' too.

As for Brian's question about the future of Britishness I think it will carry on being a vehicle for a more cosmopolitan identity than Englishness. Yet there are risks in this division of ideational labour that I think have already borne political fruit. It might be worth cultivating a left-liberal Englishness and re-articulating cosmopolitanism in the rhetoric of English nationhood, rather than leave this identity to the conservative side of politics. Britishness was re-worked in such a way through the anti-racism campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. Something similar could be done with Englishness as a result of Brexit, but this would imply a further weakening of Britishness in its English heartland.