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.
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’. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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’.
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. 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. 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. 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’.
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