Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.
Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!
There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.
I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.
Identity, Englishness and Britishness
It’s necessary to think about identity and national identity in general before thinking about what Englishness is. The problem with many conversations about Englishness is that there is an assumption that it is a solidly existing reality in the world. A good sociological approach to national identity would begin with Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities. The bare bones of Anderson’s theory is that a nation is a socially constructed community based on various presumptions of shared attributes: language, religion, skin colour, culture &c. Of course, social constructs are not unreal, but they are perceived realities: nationality is no absolute thing. It is helpful to remember that national identity is very much an imagined thing, and that is why it becomes very difficult to locate national identity with any real exactness. It is also useful to note that things like ethnic identity and religious identity, which also form imagined communities, touch on the meaning of national identity, which means that those who deal in national identity should be aware that they can often be understood as dealing in something more exclusive.
As I live in the shadows of Twickenham Rugby Stadium, the Six Nations Tournament, playing at the moment, turns the streets around my home into a veritable carnival of Englishness every time the English rugby team play a home match. There are shirts, hats and flags, songs and chants, and a jovial sense of imagined community. However, I’m also aware that this demonstration of Englishness is inherently exclusive, as many from the North of England would simply say that it’s not their game (being mainly supporters of rugby league rather than rugby union), that Yorkshire-folk would be additionally put off at the sight of a red rose being used as a symbol of England (Yorkshire’s symbol is the white rose, against the rival red rose of Lancashire). Also, we cannot deny that there are issues of class surrounding English rugby union (traditionally played in English grammar and fee-paying schools). Thus, although the English revellers be unaware of it, their expression of national identity is inherently partial and exclusive. Here is the rub, when we talk about identity, we are automatically separating those with a certain identity from those without it, constructing an us–them polarisation.
The question becomes more complex when we try to define Englishness in its relation to Britishness. I note that the English nationalists like to define Britishness as something artificial compared to the reality of Englishness — this is a ridiculous comparison of two imagined communities. It is indeed an over-simplification to equate Britishness with the collective identity of the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish (although the Province has even more knotty issues of identity). In terms of per capita possible claim on Britishness, then, it is 83% Englishness, but in terms of those who actually claim the identity that figure must be much higher with many many Scots and Welsh and half the Northern Irish rejecting it as a personal identity. Thus, when it comes to the people who call themselves British, they are overwhelming the people of England.
However, nothing is that straightforward. Over the last half-century this country has benefited from mass immigration, boosting skills and labour, and enriching culture. Those whose forebears came from overseas and were bureaucratically classed as subjects of the British Empire, who live in the UK with a passport that reads ‘British citizen’, mostly remain alienated from the identity of Englishness, perceiving it to be an ethnic identity. I feel this may be starting to change, but it is true that the majority of non-white Britons do not feel welcome or able to call themselves English. Thus, there is the clear distinction of Britishness being available as a non-ethnic identity as opposed to Englishness. The BNP would like us to re-imagine Britishness on ethnic grounds, while I and the more progressive English nationalists would like to see a re-imagining of Englishness along non-ethnic grounds. However, the ethnic distinction between Britishness and Englishness is real and active in our society.
English nation, nationalism and Parliament
One problem I came across was the assumption by English nationalists that, if one is English and holds the English national interest at heart, one must be an English nationalist. It is a deceptive conflation of the concepts of nation and nationalism (albeit innocently made). The nation is an imagined community based on perceived things held in common; a nationalism is a political agenda in which the concept of nation is a prime motivation. Of course there can be a plurality of English nationalisms, each being a distinct political agenda motivated by a concept of Englishness. Although English nationalists may believe that their political agenda is the best course of action for the nation, it is not necessarily true that is the best. A national interest is a slippery thing, and valuing the concept of nation does not make a nationalism a lightning rod of the national interest.
I know that there are some English nationalists who espouse progressive political ideals, but we should not be blind to the fact that nationalisms have most often been on the agenda of the political Right, and that patriotism and populism have led to racism and fascism in the past. Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that nationalists are fascists, but emphasizing the fact that nationalisms have a rather problematic history. Even the well-supported nationalisms of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Féin, which proclaim themselves to be progressive have had to struggle (and in some cases fail) to keep their nationalisms progressive.
I am wary of ‘English votes on English laws’ because it conceals its true intent: no non-English votes on English laws. Thus, it is primarily about stopping the MPs elected from non-English constituencies from voting on certain bills. I am uneasy about the creation of a democratic assembly that does not rank all elected members equally in terms of their voting rights and powers. Likewise, I question the democratic value of assemblies in which members are elected under different systems (additional members &c.) on the same principle, that the members have mandates of differing quality.
However, the West Lothian Question is put that, with a devolved Scottish Parliament, Scottish MPs may vote on laws that will only effect the rest of UK and not Scotland. Trickily, the question is often framed, and originally so framed by Tam Dalyell, that explicitly puts English MPs in the equation, whereas the uneven nature of our present devolution makes the division not so clear cut. In effect, the question should be about the rest of the UK being affected by the votes of MPs from nations with devolved assemblies. However, a more significant question is about the location of sovereignty. Constitutional scholars are generally agreed that the inexact term parliamentary sovereignty best describes the UK Constitution. English nationalists tend to speak as if Scottish devolution is the granting of sovereignty to Scotland. However, sovereignty is retained by the UK Parliament, which has simply devolved some issues (education, health, agriculture and justice) to Holyrood. This makes it somewhat like a beefed-up county council.
The 2004 UK-Parliament vote on ‘top-up’ tuition fees for students in higher education is often taken as an example of the need for English votes on English laws. The Higher Education Act 2004 was passed by the House of Commons on a narrow 316–311 vote. In that vote, 46 Scottish Labour MPs voted with the government to introduce the fees which would not affect Scottish students. However, this simplistic analysis of the vote does not tell the whole story. It attempts to makes us think that that, as the outcome of the vote will have no effect in Scotland, Scottish MPs shouldn’t vote, but this is not true. What is denied in this simplistic analysis is that the outcome of the vote does have an important effect on Scotland. The effects in Scotland and the rest of the UK are different, but equal in magnitude. Without top-up fees, Scottish universities are financially disadvantaged in relation to English universities. Also, the Scottish Executive has to pay the top-up fees for all Scottish students studying in the rest of the UK. In the end, the Scottish budget is now landed with the bill of increased funds for Scottish universities and paying for Scottish students studying in the rest of the UK. The many Scots MPs who voted against the bill in the UK Parliament were well aware that it was in Scotland’s best interest that it not be passed, so as not to force Scotland into this education funding conundrum. In light of this, the vote was of great importance to Scotland, and Scottish MPs should vote on such bills. I do not support top-up fees, and believe that the vote on them was a travesty of democracy, but not for the simplistic reasons put forward by English nationalists.
I noticed how the English nationalists liked the term ‘disenfranchisement’ to describe the political situation of England within the UK. However, seeing as the word means ‘not having a vote’ it is an incorrect use of the word: English people and English MPs have votes. However, the proposal of English votes on English laws is clearly about creating the disenfranchisement of MPs that do not represent English constituencies. It is demonstrably true that any measure that might be labelled an ‘English law’ will still have a significant effect on the rest of the UK, due to England constituting 83% of the population of the UK.
Likewise, the idea of an English Parliament within the UK (if the other nations seek independence, an English Parliament is necessary of course, but it’s likely to be a rearranged UK Parliament) is a white elephant. Legislating on issues pertaining to 83% of the population on issues that are not reserved by the UK Parliament would create a massive duplication of responsibility and power. In the end, England is too big a sector of the UK to make an effective devolvement of central government control. What is useful in principle, though the practice has other issues, is what I have here in London: a strategic authority with responsibilities between that of the boroughs and central government for a population over 2 million larger than that of Scotland. The vote on a regional assembly for the North East failed because of local dismay in historic boundaries being removed or changed. To keep the effective top-tier units of the UK of similar size, I would support giving such intermediate responsibility to large city-regions and to large counties or groups of counties — meaningful units. The English nationalists decry this ‘break up’ of England, but it is no more breaking up the country as is allowing local government. Even if the New Labour policy of regional assemblies were implemented, England would be as it ever was, not broken up, but a proud and prominent part of these islands.
In conclusion, English nationalism is more about romanticism, flag waving and over-simplification of the political agenda. Such an agenda has the worrying potential to move into dangerous territory, but more generally deflects from the real issues of our democratic deficit, economic recovery, increasing numbers of people in poverty, health, education and jobs. It would be nice however if an English nationalist tried a reasoned argument.