In the years since the EU referendum, the Tories’ opponents have hit upon a new line of attack. The self-styled Conservative and Unionist Party has become, they say, an ‘English nationalist’ party.
Boris Johnson was branded thus by ‘Tory grandees’ during the negotiations. Major newspapers have wrung their hands about the attitudes of the membership. Even pro-Brexit outlets such as the Spectator have published cover stories calling the European Research Group “a separate English nationalist party”.
This charge has always struggled to withstand serious scrutiny. The attempt to paint the entire Brexit enterprise in those colours forces people to ignore too much – not least that a majority of Welsh voters, two-fifths of Scottish voters, and a majority of Northern Irish unionists voted Leave.
Far from being an incubator of English nationalist sentiment, in fact, organised centre-right politics appears to have become something of a bastion against it.
There is undoubtedly a challenging undercurrent of it in the country at large, as Dr David Jeffery has detailed. Pro-UK politicians need to be wary about the risk of affection for the Union dwindling in England as the perennial effort to buy off the SNP corrodes its standing.
But there is no sign yet that this is manifesting in a serious way inside the party system. Even Nigel Farage, probably the closest thing to an English version of Alex Salmond available, has stuck to organising his various outfits on a British basis.
Meanwhile the latest results from ConservativeHome’s monthly survey, published earlier this week, suggest that no less than two thirds of grassroots Tories would prefer a Labour revival in Scotland to more years of SNP dominance – even though this would make it easier for Sir Keir Starmer to become Prime Minister. Exclude those who picked neither option and the ratio rises to around five-to-one.
The next question, released yesterday, finds no fewer than 85% of Tory members say the maintenance of the Union is either ‘fairly’ important or of ‘paramount’ importance, with more than half saying the latter!
Of course, electoral reality is slightly more complicated. A partial Labour revival is actually in the Scottish Conservatives’ interest, as they win voters from the SNP who could never vote Tory. Up to a point, more Labour votes mean more Conservative MPs. But it is still a remarkably country-before-party finding for a group so often caricatured as insular and unconcerned with the rest of the UK.
In truth, ‘English nationalist’ is usually employed as a slur. The targets don’t even need to be English. Carwyn Jones, cheerleader for a confederal Britain and former First Minister of Wales, recently applied the label to the Welsh Conservatives’ devosceptic wing.
Devocrats tend to get very sensitive about people conflating England and Britain. But Jones’ mistaken charge reveals how they often end up doing so in reverse. Because they don’t believe that Britain is a nation – and more, cannot or will not accept that unionists do think in such terms – they cannot accept British movements for what they are. Either you are a Welsh or Scottish movement, or an English one.
Try to shoehorn a genuinely British movement into this inadequate dogma, and you understand how people end up trying to label Welsh unionists waving Union flags as ‘English nationalists’.
This is, to an extent, an understandable mistake to make. Two decades of devolution have dramatically shrunk the areas of life in which we live as ‘the British’, many to within the borders of England. But that is not the same thing as transforming Britishness into Englishness. If the growing strength of devosceptic unionism in Wales, and a new and sharp-edged British identity amongst their Scottish counterparts, were not proof enough of that, the ongoing loyalty of their English counterparts surely is.
But the identity challenge is not confined to the Conservatives. In fact, it may be much more acutely felt by Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. At least the Tories currently have a winning electoral coalition. The opposition have to rebuild one. But whether they are able – or even willing – to do so remains to be seen.
Starmer wants to wrap his party in the Union Flag. But this aggravates not only that section of the left which is instinctively antipathetic to that sort of politics, but also a big section of the party’s devocrat wing.
In Wales, for example, Labour operates as a de facto nationalist party – to the extent of running pro-independence candidates. In Scotland, it has to tread a fine line of being Scottish enough to woo switchers from the SNP whilst British enough to hold on to its core unionist electorate and attract tactical votes from the Tories. There is even a lobby, led by ex-MP John Denham, calling for Labour to adopt the same approach to English nationalism as it did to Scottish (which would be suicidal).
It is hard to see a long-term future for either Labour or the United Kingdom if they go down this route, further balkanising the constitution in a doomed attempt to buy off competing nationalisms.
But there is an alternative. As others have pointed out, there is a long tradition – what we might now call ‘Old Labour’ – which saw no difficulty in combining a left-wing economic agenda with staunch British patriotism. A modern version of such an agenda could focus in winning support across the UK not by winnowing the Union down to nothing, but instead bolstering it with new, British institutions of a social-democratic character.
With fresh evidence illustrating that Scottish independence would entail a brutal austerity regime, and the Army playing a crucial role in the vaccine rollout, the left-wing case for a strong British state is waiting to be made. But to make it, Starmer will have to face down the guilty men who can’t let go of New Labour’s failed approach. Has he the imagination to do so, or the courage?
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