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The English Question

It is of vital importance to determine what England is before deciding what role England can play in the huge events that are happening.

If Brexit is an English revolt what will happen to England after Brexit? Will the forces of English nationalism unlocked by this period of extraordinary politics be absorbed and settled by the new populism of Boris Johnson’s remade Conservative Party? Or will they find expression in other more disturbing ways: xenophobia, far-right agitation, intensified intergenerational conflict, antagonism between those with university degrees and those without, the break-up of the United Kingdom?

In his celebrated essay “The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”, published in 1941 during the German bombing raids on London, George Orwell wrote that it is “of the deepest importance to try and determine what England is, before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening”.

Today, as we try to make sense of the huge events that are destabilising the United Kingdom, Orwell’s words have a haunting resonance as new questions arise about the future of the union, and particularly what it means to be English in the 21st century.

Certainly, one senses a yearning among many for a more coherent and harmonious English national identity, defined not by bitterness, resentment or loss but something approaching the rediscovery of a common good. One feels this yearning most acutely during occasions of great national sporting moment – Olympic Games, World Cups and European Championships – that unite us so fleetingly in celebration or despair. When these moments pass, as they must, we feel their loss keenly because they offer glimpses into another way of being.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people”, and he’s right that international sport is a mirror in which we see the nation reflected back at us. Football is our national game and we’re fortunate that in Gareth Southgate the England football team has a gracious and intelligent manager. Southgate is alert to the nuances and complexities of national identity in a cosmopolitan age and can talk about them with more sophistication than most politicians. He understands how patriotism can, indeed must, be a progressive cause rather than serve as a proxy for a darker, more unpleasant nationalism.

Southgate also understands how in a multicultural country we can find greater unity through diversity, so long as we share a sense of common purpose. This ideal was exemplified by his multiracial players, whose fortitude and togetherness were apparent during and in the immediate aftermath of a recent European Championship qualifier in Bulgaria, when sections of the home crowd racially abused Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings, who was making his international debut. Here was peculiar grace.   

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The tortuous Brexit process has destabilised the already fragile post-imperial British state. Unresolved tensions from the deep past – the balance of power in Europe, the Irish Question, the English Question, Scottish independence – have returned to haunt the present moment. We are once more living in an age of questions. Perhaps these questions (which are mostly to do with identity) can never be satisfactorily answered. Perhaps at best they can only be managed.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement is a case in point. It brought peace and stability to the island of Ireland after so much bloodshed and violence, and it did so by embracing ambiguity. Ireland was not united. The British did not leave. As Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Tony Blair and the government’s chief negotiator for Northern Ireland from 1997 until 2007, said recently in a BBC interview, “the point of this [the dispute over a hard border on the island of Ireland] is not how long it takes for a lorry to cross a border in Northern Ireland. The issue is identity. The Good Friday Agreement tried to solve the issue of identity by allowing people in Northern Ireland to live there and feel Irish or British or feel both. If you put in a customs border… then that will be destroyed.”

The issue of identity: many of us embrace ambiguity in our own lives and are comfortable with having multiple or compound identities. We are English and British. We are Scottish and British. We are English, Muslim, Asian and British. But will the endgame of Brexit coerce us into making unwanted either/or choices, just as the ill-conceived European referendum forced upon the nation greater polarisation and division?

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From the beginning the UK was what David Reynolds, a writer and Cambridge historian who introduced our new “Disunited Kingdom” series last week, has called a “mini English empire”. And yet, for the most part, the forces that bound it together – Protestantism, empire, monarchy, great power conflict, cross-border class solidarity, the trade unions, institutions such as the NHS and BBC – held firm. It’s still arguably the most successful multi-national state in the world. Norway and Sweden separated long ago; Yugoslavia collapsed in a murderous civil war; Belgium is a scarcely credible pseudo-state, and Spain, another fragile kingdom, holds together only because of state repression.

But now the asymmetrical relationship between England and the smaller nations of the UK has been further complicated by Brexit. As England leads us out of the European Union, Scotland (which voted Remain), Northern Ireland (which voted Remain) and Wales (which narrowly voted Leave) must follow, with potentially fatal consequences for the stability of the Union. 

Speak to diplomats and politicians from other EU states and what strikes you is their incomprehension at what is happening in Britain, whose governance they once admired for its pragmatism and diplomacy. “Everyone understands English,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president of the European Commission, quipped on 16 October, “but no one understands England.”

Juncker was using “England” as a synonym for Britain, or the United Kingdom, but his remark captured something essential about the present crisis, for he is correct. England is hard to understand: even the English don’t understand it. England, of course, doesn’t have its own distinct political institutions or parliament. Its two main parties have been captured by ideologues and zealots and its political discourse is viciously polarised. Its sporting teams mostly sing not an English but a dirge-like unionist anthem in pre-match ceremonies. It does not champion a national capitalism, as David Edgerton has written, and its utilities, infrastructure and many of its iconic brands and great companies have long since been sold off to foreign speculators. Too much wealth and power are concentrated in London and the south-east. And the confidence and assertiveness of Scottish and Welsh nationalists are forcing upon the English a reconsideration of who they are and what they want in this age of upheaval.

“Where’s England?” Donald Trump asked at a press conference in August. “I asked Boris [Johnson], where’s England? What’s happening with England? You don’t use it too much any more.”

You wouldn’t expect Trump to understand the difference between England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, and yet, as with Juncker’s, his question was (unintentionally) profound. The president had stumbled on something fundamental: what has happened to England?

In his new book, New Model Island, Alex Niven, an academic at Newcastle University, argues provocatively that England does not even exist. For Niven, there is a “void at the heart of all England”, which is why “Englishness is so often felt as a condition of loss”. For Ferdinand Mount, a high Tory essayist and writer, the dominant tone of English discourse is “one of regret, of nostalgia rather than self-congratulation”. The way to avoid English nostalgia, the cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote in 2014, “is to look for the lost possibilities in any era”.

So what are we searching for when we search for England?

What possibilities have been lost – Fisher called them lost futures – in the confusion and disappointment of the present crisis?

According to Niven, even more than nostalgia the “most complex and profound facet” of Englishness is its “hiddenness”. England is, he writes, a “confused, post-imperial half-nation”. Its regions have been disempowered and its infrastructure – rail links between the northern cities, say, or from west to east – has been chronically neglected. Niven advocates what he calls a “radical regionalism”, a remaking of England so that it more closely resembles something akin to the old Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, the seven kingdoms (or regions, in this new reimagining) of the geographical space that was once “England”. “For all the sympathy I feel for those who look to English revenants for a sense of home and identity, I think there is great urgency now in the need to show up the hollowness of English dreaming, and to gesture at how this already fractured country might be reshaped along fairer, more civic, more politically humane lines.”


George Orwell by Ralph Steadman

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The issue of national identity creates anxiety among the British elite. The right is obsessed with exalting a glorious past, real or imagined, and with tales of imperial derring-do, whether great victories or noble defeats. For the left Britain’s imperial past is a source of anger and embarrassment: the long shadows of empire are slavery and colonialism, and Rhodes must fall. 

The rise of English identity politics is not just a question of nomenclature, nor is it another troublesome consequence of Brexit. A squeamish fascination with the forbidden topic of what it means to be English – the so-called English Question – has deep roots.

Professor George Beech of Western Michigan University points out that when the Angles and Saxons arrived in “Britain” during the fifth century, they quickly renamed the country “Engla-land”. Yet they were living among the Romano-British and the moniker “Britain” or “Briton” remained in stubborn usage to signify the whole island until the unification of the kingdoms of England in the tenth century. Through the Middle Ages there was a recognisable English national consciousness. Much later, after the Treaty of Union between the parliaments of Scotland and England in 1707 (the respective crowns were unified in 1603), the “United Kingdom” entered popular language. “English” and “British” became coterminous or interchangeable.

English identity had become something paradoxical: encased within the carapace of the new Union state and inseparable from empire. Union was not an end in itself, writes David Reynolds in his new book, Island Stories, “but the means to an end: the advancement of what was now the ‘British empire’”. The problem was, as Reynolds acknowledges, “although England’s empire-building made the Union, it never created a unitary UK state or fostered a strong and coherent sense of British identity”.

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In his anti-Brexit polemic, Heroic Failure, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole argued that as the sun set on empire English nationalism in the 20th century was sustained by narratives of glorious defeat: the retreat from Dunkirk, Scott’s doomed mission in the Antarctic, the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the last stand against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the battle of the Somme, and so it goes on. “There is something genuinely magnificent in this English capacity to embrace disaster,” O’Toole writes. “It is also highly creative. It transforms ugly facts into beautiful fantasies.”

O’Toole considers Brexit to be an ugly fact: a spectacular act of self-harm by a deluded nation. But Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest have made of it a beautiful fantasy about the renewal of a buccaneering “Global Britain”. The problem now, O’Toole says, “is that the original English cult of heroic failure was, paradoxically, a symptom of British power.” Today it is a symptom of British weakness.

From St George and the dragon to Robin Hood, through to two world wars and one World Cup, the myths and legends of Englishness have been defined by a narrative of valiant but fair play in the face of seemingly insurmountable opponents. At the same time, what it means to be English has proved a frustrating enigmatic and elusive question.

The dilemma of choosing an allegiance to the nation or the Union, or both, has come to define our split identities in these. islands. During the New Labour years David Blunkett argued for an “open and pluralistic” Englishness that should not be forgotten or ignored in Tony Blair’s heady pursuit of a reinvigorated Britishness (“Cool Britannia” etc).

When you rebrand something – a political party, a nation – you have to reframe it and tell convincing stories about it. Blair wanted to tell a story about a “new” party and a “new” country that was progressive, liberal, dynamic and open to the world. He did not want to look back in anger or regret. If history is the consciousness of a nation, Blair wanted to be unchained from history. “I want us to be a young country again,” he said in a speech in Brighton in 1995, as if this could be willed into being. Then, more emphatically: “We will be a young country, equipped for the future with a just society, a new politics and a clear understanding of its role in the world.”

A year later, in a conference speech in Blackpool, he said: “At the time of the next election there will be just one thousand days until the new millennium, a thousand days to prepare for a thousand years.” He went on: “Let us call our nation now to its destiny. Let us lead it to our new age of achievement and build for us, for our children, their children, a Britain – a Britain united to win in the 21st century.”

But just when Blair thought he was winning the ghosts of the past blew wilder than before. Devolution would fire rather than settle the question of Scottish independence. The Iraq War destroyed trust in him and his government. And something began to stir among the English. The experience of being haunted is one of noticing absences in the present, and Cool Britannia seemed haunted by an eerie Englishness that was everywhere and nowhere. 

Some of this was noticed at the time. In a 1999 speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, William Hague, then leader of the Conservative Party, warned against the dangers of trying “to ignore this English consciousness or bottle it up” in the fear that “it could turn into a more dangerous English nationalism that could threaten the future of the United Kingdom”. Today, his remarks offer an eerie foreshadowing of events that followed.

Sometime later, in 2012, Ed Miliband gave a speech as Labour leader in which he told party members that they “should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity [and] also proudly talk the language of patriotism. It is part of celebrating what binds us together and what we project outwards to the world.”

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The Brexit vote revealed mass disaffection among the English of the small cities and towns. According to Paul Collier, an Oxford economist and author most recently of The Future or Capitalism, stark social divergences too long unaddressed were producing mutinies. “Think of the most famous mutiny: on the Bounty,” he told this magazine last year. “What happened to those sailors was that they ended up on an island in the middle of nowhere. That wasn’t their objective when they mutinied. They didn’t mutiny with a view to the future but because the conditions they were living in had become intolerable. Mutinies are angry reactions to neglect.”

If the vote for Brexit was a mutiny, an angry reaction to neglect, it has at least made manifest social, economic and political tensions that had been haunting the English imagination. Across the country – but especially beyond the boundaries of the M25 – the sense has grown that the English lack agency and true democratic power. The absence of an English parliament or a proper forum to debate England-only matters has led to feelings of disempowerment. The discontinuities and imbalances between the four home nations (really three nations and a troubled province) have created a democratic deficit in England, especially in the north, the south-west and the eastern coastal towns. For many, the modern UK is less a union of partners than an unhappy family grappling with long-nurtured resentments.

A sense of English disaffection has found expression not only in new political movements – Ukip, the English Defence League, the Brexit Party, Corbynism – but also through the mobilisation of English iconography. As part of the campaign for a Leave vote, the right effectively mobilised a range of recognised cultural markers, from Shakespeare to the St George’s flag, and folk music to Merrie England iconography, in an attempt to tell a story about England that offered a much-needed antidote to feelings of powerlessness. Something had been lost along the way in the English journey, but now change was coming and control could be retaken from Brussels.

Brexit has forced the English to confront a need for new national myths and also to re-examine those of the past. Could these old myths be usefully repurposed as the foundations for new national narratives of the future?

As Orwell suggests in “The Lion and The Unicorn”, English culture is characterised by a resistance to centralised power, respect for the law and by a love for all cultural activities that are communal “not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside, the ‘nice cup of tea’”. Could small gestures such as making St George’s Day a national holiday and embracing St George’s Day parades – of the kind held every year in Lincoln – help slay the dragon of regressive nationalism in favour of a more progressive patriotism?

For sure, the Brexit debacle can help us to understand what England means to so many of those who live far away from the metropolis. The tensions within the Union, the effects of mass immigration and freedom of movement, the dominance of London and the slippages between sub- and supra-national identities (English and British) have contributed to a sense of alienation among pro-Brexit voters. 

he culture wars of the new identity politics are mostly about race, gender and sexuality rather than class. Radical individualism and a desire for supreme self-expression have weakened the ties that once bound us together in communities and nations. This unbinding has enabled hard nationalists such as Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League, and his followers to mobilise support among the disaffected white working class, who, to echo Nigel Farage, want their country back, whatever they understand their country to be or have been.

“Robinson is engaged in a class culture war,” Jonathan Rutherford, an academic and one of the leading Blue Labour thinkers, has said. “He is a tribune of that working-class white identity – although he’d probably not like the white identity bit. He’s for them, and of them, and who else is?”

English national identity is, on the whole, defined by an absence of progressive sentiment: it’s too often associated with Robinson-style rage and resentment. This absence – an eerie Englishness, if you will, that hovers in the margins of popular consciousness – must be filled by something better. More than mere politics, culture can help us to understand the story of post-Brexit England and why so many of us experience Englishness as absent or ersatz and phoney.

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At Lord’s in July a diverse and likeable multiracial England cricket team – the captain was Irish, the star fast bowler was a Bajan with a British father, the sole spin bowler was a Muslim from Yorkshire with Pakistani heritage, the match-defining all-rounder grew up in Cumbria but was born in New Zealand – won the World Cup in an extraordinary dramatic final against New Zealand. Shortly before, Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, wrote that “an inclusive England may be symbolised by Raheem Sterling or Nikita Parris scoring goals for England or Moeen Ali taking wickets in the World Cup, but it also reflects the lived reality of who most of us now think of as English”.

Commenting on the Lord’s final, Jonathan Liew wrote in this magazine: “In linking diversity so explicitly with sporting triumph, there is always the danger of reinforcing the idea that multiculturalism must somehow derive its virtue from measurable success, rather than the fact that it’s simply the right thing to do.”

He concluded: “Perhaps, to adapt that old Steve Archibald line about team spirit, diversity is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory. Perhaps it was a largely symbolic point, part of the feel-good origin story a sporting team creates in order to give itself purpose. Even so, as England’s multicultural champions cavorted on the Lord’s outfield, it was hard not to feel that somehow, we were getting somewhere at last.”

Though sport is important, it’s not the only cultural form through which to measure the success of the multicultural nation. Popular culture is saturated in meaning. From Zadie Smith’s essays to Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning “fusion fiction”, to rapper Dave triumphing in the this year’s Mercury Prize, the best of popular art, film, literature and music celebrates diversity and difference as essential characteristics of what it means to be English today. But celebrating diversity as an end in itself is not enough. It has to be the means to something better. 

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari writes that, “Imagined orders [like national identities] are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.”

One should not fetishise the flag or other symbols of nationhood. But patriotism can bring us together just as nationalism can push us apart. And the question of what it means to be English can no longer be neglected, not after Brexit, not after the Scottish independence referendum. (So far in the election campaign the English Question has been ignored while the independence question dominates the debate in Scotland.)

Reinvigorating Englishness with a sense of progressive purpose can help foster greater social cohesion, offering stability in unstable times. England can and must be more than an imagined community. Nationality is about much more than birthplace and citizenship – it is an expression of cultural and social belonging.

From the turmoil of present times, one hopes a more confident and settled English culture can emerge that celebrates the proudly multiple identities of a new generation. A crisis of nationhood can either freeze England into stasis or mobilise it into action. Solving the conundrum of national identity in a fragmenting multinational state remains the key to the constitutional future and governance of these islands – and not just for the English. Perhaps, as Alex Niven argues in New Model Island, the solution is a reconfigured union and a new radical regionalism. Whatever the future of the UK, a reinvigorated English nationalism does not have to be reactionary, as Fintan O’Toole would have it: but it will be if the left remains silent.

The struggle to define what a nation is in a globalised age of mass migration is part of what it means to be modern. In some ways, all nations are imaginary constructs. But this much is true: the crisis of Brexit is also an opportunity for the English. It compels us to turn back and look again, like the Dick Wittington of folk legend, at the civic nation as it is today, so that we can better understand and thus create what it might be tomorrow. For history is now and England. 

Jason Cowley is editor-in-chief of the New Statesman and is working on a book for Picador about English identity.

Katy Shaw is the author of “Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature” (Palgrave)

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question