5 October 2020

English nationalism springs from a shrunken idea of what Britain is


Douglas Ross’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference has provided the first significant political moment of this strange, virtual conference.

Instead of just attacking the Scottish Nationalists and talking up his party’s prospects at next year’s Holyrood elections, he spent ten minutes taking chunks out of English colleagues whom he feels are either indulgently defeatist about the Union or, worse, actively uninterested in it.

His central charge was that this ‘English nationalism’, far from being confined to the fringes of the party, has actually penetrated to its very highest echelons:

“They question why Scottish interests should be put first, if Scotland won’t always be around. Many, including some who govern our country, want to see a UK Government focused on England. We pretend these are the views of only a small minority, but I hear them far too often.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in this speech. The line about Scottish interests, especially, reflects the truth that I highlighted in a previous article about how allowing Scottish independence to be too frequently re-litigated undermines the utilitarian basis for the Union. British policymakers have a legitimate right to factor in the threat of independence when making investments which are supposed to yield a long-term dividend for the whole United Kingdom (just as Scottish voters have the right to enjoy the benefits of Union, having chosen it just six years ago).

But the charge of ‘English nationalism’ needs some unpacking. Arthur Aughey noted in 2010 that “without major party mobilisation of these anxieties and the promotion of an English Parliament, English nationalism is likely to remain a mood not a movement”.

The ‘movement’ definition is perhaps the obvious one, suggesting a mirror image to the movements behind Welsh and Scottish nationalism. In this guise, English nationalism remains a fringe force, in the Conservative Party as in the country. You can certainly find Tories who want to set up an English Parliament, or even slough off the United Kingdom altogether. But they are not organised, and they do not lobby. There is no suggestion that this government or a future one will adopt such an agenda.

When Remainers adopted the orthodoxy that Brexit was a result of ‘English nationalism’, and thus started describing the European Research Group as an ‘English nationalist party’, this is one of the (several) realities they needed to overlook to get the charges to stick.

The ‘mood’ point does, however, have some substance. But if that doesn’t spring from the explicit, pro-active English nationalism I outlined above, how did it come about? How did so many southern Tories come to elide ‘Britain’ – whose history, heroes, and symbols they certainly haven’t rejected – with ‘England’?

The answer lies in Ross’s criticism of the ‘devolve and forget’ attitude to the constitution which has prevailed since 1998. It’s very easy to focus on the constitution as an issue confined to the realm of high politics, but over time (and it has been over two decades now) the dry and technical architecture of the state has big downstream impacts on culture.

In this case, the fragmentation of British governance has led to a shrinking of our horizons. The readers of most English newspapers, in particular, don’t regularly encounter Scottish news. Nor do Scottish figures feature prominently in big stories if the policy area in question is devolved – and that includes such major ‘bread and butter’ areas as education and health.

Slowly but surely, this changed news environment will change our sense of ourselves and the ‘imagined community’ of the nation will shrink, with the inevitable consequence that relations between the new, smaller communities are shallower and more transactional. If unionists want to see where this ends, they need look no further than Northern Ireland, which seems now to many mainland voters to be as much a problem as a place.

This is how you end up with people who conceive of themselves as British but have arguably come to function as ‘English nationalists’. It isn’t that they have positively adopted an English national identity, but that the horizons of their British one have drawn inward as the arena in which we think and act collectively as ‘the British’ has shrunk and continues to shrink.

Such analysis doesn’t lend itself to easy answers for traditional, devolutionary unionism. Ross says in his speech that “just because there is a division of powers across our country does not mean that there should be a division of interest”, but ‘should’ is doing a lot of work there. To date, the division of powers has produced exactly such a division of interest.

If we don’t share public services or governance, there will come a time when we no longer share an identity, and swiftly after that a time when we’re no longer prepared to share money. The Union needs the British nation, and the British nation needs shared national institutions and experiences. Attacks on ‘devolve and forget’ are a step in the right direction, but a small one.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.