The best book on Scottish politics that I have read in a long time is Englishness: the Political Force Transforming Britain
, by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones (2021). This is not as paradoxical as it sounds: it explores the inextricable tangles of Englishness, Britishness and Scottishness. It is impressive both for the sharpness of its analysis and the solidity of its empirical foundations, based on extensive social surveys carried out for the Future of England Survey.
Some preliminary spadework is devoted to defining measures of national self-identification: how strongly do individuals identify themselves as English or British or both? One intriguing conclusion is that national identities are not always mutually exclusive: some people identify strongly as both English and British. A parallel phenomenon exists in Scotland but means something different: 'Britishness means different things in different parts of Britain'.
Henderson and Wyn Jones focus primarily on a key group of voters who identify strongly as English. They are, in a sense, English nationalists, but their nationalism is crucially different from the Scottish and Welsh variants. Where Scottish and Welsh nationalists broadly reject Britishness, English nationalists adopt a complex and potentially unstable fusion of Englishness at home and Britishness abroad. 'Those who identify as British in England are not like the self-described British in Scotland or Wales. Indeed, British identifiers in Scotland and Wales are very like those who describe themselves as English in England.'
Armed with this distinction, Henderson and Wyn Jones offer a plausible interpretation of how the 2015 Westminster General Election and the 2016 Brexit referendum were won and lost. In each case, the votes of the same English nationalist group were decisive. In 2015, Conservative posters depicting Ed Miliband in the pocket of the SNP swung middle English voters against Labour. In this case, English nationalists voted to save England from control by the Scots. In 2016, broadly the same group voted to save Britain from control by the Europeans. (Note the switch here from England to Britain.)
Various paradoxes appear: 'those most nationalist about the British state are English identifiers, not British identifiers'. But these same voters are ambivalent about preserving the integrity of the UK state: many would gladly see the back of Northern Ireland and think Scottish independence might be a price worth paying if it enhanced the status and autonomy of England.
This version of Englishness also has paradoxical implications for constitutional change. In many respects, it is a nostalgic conservative phenomenon, dreaming of a return a golden age in (say) the 1950s. But this desire to take back control is strongly linked to an insistence on English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), a potentially revolutionary idea in terms of the UK constitution.
In a narrow technical sense, EVEL already exists, introduced in 2015 through an amendment to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. And, as demonstrated by the different Covid lockdown rules applied to the countries of the UK, England already exists as a de facto political unit. But any attempt to go further and create a de jure English state 'would immediately run up against the structural constraint that is the institutional fusion of English and UK-wide governmental institutions'. Creating an English Parliament, for example, would require radical constitutional surgery.
In popular and media culture, the elision of England and Britain remains commonplace, though the increasing visibility of Scottish and Welsh devolution makes it harder to sustain. So long as it persists, however, English nationalists have the option of switching, more or less consciously, between two different identities. They can switch between a British nationalism that glories in its imperial past and an 'anti- or post-colonial nationalism' which 'views England as being maligned and maltreated by the internally imperial British state'. The latter view is reinforced by English resentment against the privileged position of Scots within the union, a phenomenon that Henderson and Wyn Jones call 'devo-anxiety'.
This brings us to the book's core explanatory thesis, that English nationalism is causally related to a sense of low efficacy. English nationalists form 'a part of the population that simply does not believe that the state is interested in them or that they can effect meaningful change to its direction'. In a sense, this is old news: these people are well known in the media as 'the left behind', the 'red wall' voters who abandoned Labour in 2019. What gives it new solidity is the detailed social analysis of their beliefs and aspirations.
Low efficacy is one of the big issues of our times, maybe even the
big issue. But it has many causes and takes many different forms. Economic inequality has been increasing for decades. The stagnation of the global economy since 2008 means that for most people income and opportunities are static if not declining, while the gap with the ultra-rich is visibly growing.
This is not helped by technological change and the automation of routine tasks. On the one hand, the chances of finding meaningful and satisfying long-term employment drop year by year; on the other hand, people's everyday lives are increasingly controlled by apps and algorithms that they do not understand. Surveillance breeds paranoia. The slogan 'Take back control' has an ever more hollow ring.
This sense of disempowerment carries over into politics. Low efficacy threatens a crisis of democracy, apparent in the rise of populism. Even though they can vote and are nominally free to express themselves, people feel that they have no influence on political outcomes. The Westminster electoral system, using first-past-the-post voting and dominated in England by two parties, is particularly restrictive. When electoral success hinges on swing in a few marginal constituencies where the big parties can concentrate resources, it is all too clear that most votes really don't count.
Low efficacy takes many forms. Some people express themselves vocally but still find themselves outvoted or ignored; others struggle to express themselves at all. Low efficacy may be individual or collective. Some people feel socially isolated and struggle to form bonds; others are socially integrated but in a peer group which feels marginalised and deprived.
This offers a plausible picture of Euro- and devo-sceptical feelings among English nationalists. According to Henderson and Wyn Jones, there has been a huge recent decline in the satisfaction of English voters: from the 1940s to the 1960s 'the English enjoyed something like the ideal combination of deference and efficacy for a representative democracy'. The welfare state was flourishing; Labour and Conservatives alternated in power; Britain was respected abroad; and at home England dominated the UK without challenge.
This nostalgic version of English nationalism may appear straightforwardly anti-modern. But it may be worth recalling what Tom Nairn wrote 45 years ago in The Break-up of Britain
. For Nairn, very crudely, 19th-century liberal nationalism was archetypally modern, as exemplified in new, potentially democratic nation states like Italy, Germany and many others.
Scotland, in Nairn's eyes, missed out on this natural progression because it had been dragged prematurely into industrial modernity through its union with England and its subsequent role in empire-building. This argument might now be stood on its head. England, one might say, followed the same trajectory: entangled in imperial projects, it also failed in the 19th century to develop a 'normal' modern national identity. Only now, following half-accidentally in the footsteps of Scotland, is England starting to explore forms of national identity that might point the way towards fuller democracy.
Or perhaps not. Maybe, as I suggested a few months ago (5 August 2020), the whole idea that we inhabit a shared linear progressive history is a snare and a delusion. Only time will tell.
Dennis Smith is a retired librarian who dabbles in philosophy, watches birds
and does a bit of conservation work in the hope that the planet can still be