Brexit apart, the decisive moment so far in the unravelling of Britain came not – as some, myself included, had feared – on 18 September 2014, when the Scottish nation voted against independence. It arrived first thing the next day at 7am when David Cameron announced that, with the Scottish referendum out of the way, it was now time to assuage the grievances of the English nation. Cameron’s trumpeting of English votes for English laws (with its unfortunate acronym, EVEL) had devastating consequences in Scotland where many anti-independence voters – the reluctant and the switherers – found themselves suddenly, regretfully undeceived.
Two hours earlier, in the course of a congratulatory phone call to Labour’s Alistair Darling, the chair of Scotland’s Better Together campaign, Cameron had been warned not to make the statement. As Darling knew, one of the most persuasive of the SNP’s arguments was that if Scots voted to stay in the Union, then English politicians, however solicitous in the months leading up to the referendum, would revert to their default position: a quasi-imperial indifference to a northern outpost. After all, it had happened before. In 1979, when the referendum majority for Scottish devolution failed to reach a mandated 40 per cent threshold, this indecisive outcome was followed by 18 years of Tory rule, with no assembly to serve as a buffer between Thatcherite diktat and a Scotland that wholeheartedly rejected the Conservatives.
Cameron’s speech unintentionally subverted the Union, but it had other side effects too. It launched a bizarre train of events which led to the Tories’ serendipitous discovery of a magic election winning formula – posh boys posing as populist English nationalists; to Brexit; and to Cameron’s own unanticipated ejection from Downing Street. By continuing to court English nationalism, the Tories have created an intolerable situation in which they dominate England but guarantee a SNP government in Scotland.
As Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, and Gavin Esler recognise in two new works, English and Scottish nationalisms are not only antagonistic but co-dependent: the rise of the SNP has provoked an English nationalist response which in turn appals Scottish opinion, and so the spiral of instability continues. How will Britain break? From the attractive pull of the SNP, or the repulsive push of Boris Johnson’s Tories – or both in unacknowledged tandem?
In Englishness, Henderson and Wyn Jones pay especial attention to the general election of 2015, an interlude between the Scottish referendum of 2014 and the Brexit referendum of 2016 which has not received the prominence it deserves. That election established a new pattern in British politics: it was the first in which a different party dominated in each of the four component parts of the United Kingdom: the Conservatives in England, the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales and the DUP in Northern Ireland. And it wasn’t a fluke. The 2017 and 2019 elections followed the same contours.
In the course of the 2015 campaign, as Henderson and Wyn Jones note, Tory pollsters made a potent discovery: the existence of significant English loathing of the SNP, especially its former leader Alex Salmond. This was fortuitous, as Nicola Sturgeon’s party seemed destined to sweep Scotland, with Salmond making one of his many comebacks, this time as a Westminster MP. Lacking its customary haul of Scottish seats, Ed Miliband’s Labour would be unlikely to form a government without cutting a deal with the SNP. Might Salmond become the puppeteer pulling the strings of a minority Miliband administration?
When incensed English swing voters – not only susceptible Ukip supporters, but also otherwise middle-of-the-road Lib Dems – envisaged a scenario in which the SNP imposed a Labour government on the UK for which England hadn’t voted, they expressed a willingness to lend their votes to the Conservatives. The chief Tory strategist Lynton Crosby had hit upon a recipe for success. Instead of the hung parliament the polls had predicted, the Tories won outright, and Cameron was unexpectedly compelled to make good on his promise of a Brexit referendum.
But the Tories’ anti-SNP line verged on a darker prejudice, something which alarmed Gordon Brown, predictably enough perhaps, but also Michael Forsyth, the veteran Scottish Thatcherite. The implication was obvious, Henderson and Wyn Jones acknowledge: the attack on the SNP was “shading into – and fanning – a more general anti-Scottishness”. What this reader found startling is that 300 years after the Union of Parliaments of 1707, substantial swathes of the English electorate still regarded Scots as outsiders – foreigners almost – who should not have a decisive say in determining who governs Britain.
The openness of the appeal to English chauvinism was unprecedented in Britain’s modern history as a democracy. Nothing like this had been seen since the scurrilous opposition in the early 1760s to Lord Bute, the first Scot to become prime minister. As Esler notes, however, there were more recent portents of Anglocentric arrogance. Why, for instance, during the mass hysteria which broke out in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997 was the Queen compelled to leave Balmoral to be with her grieving people? Is Scotland Up There rather than Part of Here?
Henderson and Wyn Jones lament the sad fact that our precious United Kingdom is to some degree “a union of ignorance”. That’s not entirely the fault of voters, they concede, since reporting of the precise powers that have been devolved tends to be vague, as are government announcements. How often is it spelled out whether a new policy initiative applies to the UK, Great Britain, England and Wales, or England alone?
The data from the Future of England surveys Henderson, Wyn Jones and their colleagues have carried out since 2011 reveal that English identity is a far from straightforward phenomenon. Englishness and Britishness are “intertwined” – deeply, inconsistently and hypocritically. Contrary to received assumption, English nationalists are not Little Englanders, and the common mode of English identity is one of feeling equally English and British. Indeed, the very stuff of English nationalism, Henderson and Wyn Jones argue persuasively, is better termed “Anglo-British”, fetishises the British empire and is rarely about England alone.
Notwithstanding concerns about the UK’s international standing and a notional commitment to Britain, there is lukewarm support for the British state’s current footprint. Much of the English electorate, for example, would like to see the back of Northern Ireland. Confusingly, while English nationalists exhibit symptoms of “devo-anxiety” and take “a dim view” of devolution for the Scots and Welsh, a suspicion that the skewed Barnett formula for the allocation of public funding unfairly disadvantages England means that they want some form of devolution for themselves. Tellingly, a politicised Englishness is closely linked to a sense of powerlessness, of having no voice.
An estranged English nationalism found its voice in the Brexit referendum of 2016, but the campaign also gave expression to some of its Anglo-British ambiguities. Although the Daily Mail famously asked “Who will speak for England?”, what is striking is that the campaign was framed predominantly in British terms.
Nigel Farage, however, was correct to describe Euroscepticism as “our very English rebellion”. For Brexit was largely driven by English nationalism, but on behalf of what Henderson and Wyn Jones label “Britain-as-Greater England”. Since then, of course, England’s nationalists have come to prize the purity of their Brexit above the territorial integrity of the British state itself.
Britishness, Henderson and Wyn Jones conclude, does not mean the same thing in England, Scotland and Wales. Those in England who are most explicitly nationalist about the British state are those whose identity is English, not – as we might expect – those who identify as British. Overt Britishness in England is, it transpires, a more liberal phenomenon, largely unrelated to Britishness in Scotland and Wales, which aligns more closely with the values of English nationalists.
Henderson and Wyn Jones paint a depressing picture, at least for unionists. Notwithstanding Brown’s pro-Union arguments about pooling and sharing resources, there is little sense here that Britishness inspires a sense of belonging to a generous four-way partnership.
The Union exists, rather, as a series of grudging bilateral relationships between the three peripheral nations and an English core whose surrogates are Westminster and Whitehall. English nationalists’ pride in the prestige and idea of Great Britain is largely vacuous, ill-informed and accompanied by festering resentment of the largesse enjoyed by their fellow Britons. Worse still, English nationalists cling possessively to British institutions, regarding them as their own – as “English in all but name”. Well might Scottish unionists despair, when their English partners are no more respectful of the Union than the SNP.
Esler perceives too in How Britain Ends that “English nationalism has become the most destabilising force in the UK”. However, our present discontents arise in good measure from Britain’s uncodified constitutional arrangements: “no one knows for sure where to draw the line”. The informality of Britain’s historic governing practices rested on the restraint and common decency of the good chaps who ran things; but deference has evaporated, and the good chaps have given way to chancers, bounders and cads. Moreover, the Covid crisis has unmasked semi-hidden features of what Esler calls “Britain’s federalisation by stealth”, including the existence of four chief medical officers.
The posts of chief medical officer for England and Scotland date from Victorian times, Northern Ireland’s from the 1920s and Wales’s from 1969. So many aspects of Britain’s asymmetric and unsystematic four-nation approach to governance turn out to be quasi-federal. There’s no British legal system, no common denominator in British education, nothing that we might plausibly describe as British democracy (given the different electoral arrangements for the devolved governments), and certainly no British media. As Esler writes, the Sun’s strikingly divergent editions in England and Scotland address “two very different” readers: a John Bull and a Braveheart.
[see also: The Brexiteer’s guide to history]
The media problem isn’t confined to the calculated bigotries of the Murdoch press. Esler, a former BBC correspondent with roots in Scotland and Northern Ireland, is keenly alert to the “unthinking metropolitan bias” that infects the BBC. Yet, its Home Counties slant and occasional spectacular failures notwithstanding, the painstaking impartiality of the BBC is an essential ingredient of the liberal Britishness that today’s undeclared populist frenemies – the Tories and the SNP – have a shared interest in dismantling. While south of the border the Tories wage war on the BBC as a trendy Remoaner stronghold, in Scotland the SNP attacks the corporation as an arm of a despised Tory establishment.
A functioning democracy requires the prospect of alternation in government, but the parties of English and Scottish nationalism have carved up large tranches of the British Labour vote between them, effectively transforming the UK and Scotland, for the moment at least, into single-party monopolies. Of course, the SNP – whose populism is more restrained – has not joined the Tories in demonising the judiciary and civil service. But what if its plans for a second independence referendum are thwarted by the courts, and the civil service takes fright? Although the rampant nationalisms of England and Scotland most obviously threaten the existence of the Union, the liberal fibre of our institutions is also at stake.
Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews
Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain
Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £30
How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations
Apollo, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?