Only when England can see itself as England will it be possible to challenge the idea that Britain is England, writes former Labour MP John Denham
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Nicola Sturgeon’s sudden resignation prompted a sigh of relief from many unionist parties and commentators. Stripped of its dominant leader, perhaps a dying nationalism would allow the return of British politics as usual?
Pollster Peter Kellner says Scotland can determine whether Labour can win a UK majority and by how much. Labour figures brief they can increase their target from 15 seats to 30. Conservative ministers are a bit torn. One says “as a unionist I’m delighted, but as a Conservative it’s a disaster”.
Party leaders make a difference, as both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated in 2019. The next Scottish National Party leader may struggle to do better than Sturgeon. Independence from a post-Brexit UK faces formidable practical obstacles. Yet it was not nationalists who caused nationalism, the roots of which reflect deep-seated frustrations at the treatment of Scotland, Wales and, in a different context, Northern Ireland, by the UK state. Until tackled they will continually re-emerge.
Unionism of the 21st Century lacks a compelling story. Smugness at the fiscal difficulties of independence merely highlights unionism’s weakness.
Unionist politics, the UK state, and much of the media, academia and culture are steeped in an Anglo-centric view of Britain. Forged first in empire and then in the immediate post-war period, this Anglo-centric unionism saw the Union as the extension of English institutions. It assumed that England’s interests were those of the Union as a whole. The Union cannot find a new way forward until it can put Anglo-centrism behind it.
Anglo-centrism worked well enough for England and, with nods to national identities and traditions, not too badly for the other nations until the end of empire and a changing economy undermined the common interests on which it rested.
England’s size and electoral system enabled the very English Thatcherism to dominate the UK. The centralised UK state proved ideal for facilitating financialisation, privatisation and globalisation, concentrating prosperity in one corner of England.
Both a coherent British business class and an organised British working-class were fractured. The small nationalist movements of the 1960s came to embody – either as nationalism or national Labour – resentments against Anglo-British unionism.
At the same time, Anglo-British unionism supported a centralised UK state that left England with inequality, hollowed-out communities and weak local economies. What is sometimes called ‘English nationalism’ is actually an Anglo-centric British nationalism that no longer works for most of England. Perhaps half of England now doubts the value of the Union.
New Labour hoped devolution would both lance the nationalist boil and keep Labour’s hold on power. But it lost its right to speak for Scotland and weakened its ability to rule the UK from the Westminster Parliament. (A distinctly Welsh Labour has done better but is shunned by the rest of UK Labour).
Labour never seriously considered the purpose of the Union state, which continued to patronise the devolved administrations and, believing that Union and England interests were the same, denied England its own identity. English ‘devolution’ was, as today, essentially remote control from Whitehall.
Today, an England-based Conservatism in thrall to Anglo-centric British nationalism wants to re-assert the power of the UK state, undermining devolution and denying Scotland a legal route to leave. Rishi Sunak has pulled back a little but without any new vision of how the Union might work.
Labour also offers no radical rethink of the UK. Its proposals, to extend both national and English devolution, though welcome as far as they go, are simply trying to refresh the inadequate settlement of 1997.
New institutions aim to draw the devolved nations into the embrace of the UK state, while England will still be denied national democracy or representation. The confusion between the government of the UK and and the government of England will remain, and England’s voice reduced to regions with little real power. The centralist UK Treasury will continue to micro-manage England public spending.
Labour talks of a “new Britain” but Britishness is no longer the dominant identity of the UK. Cosmopolitan ‘British not English’ in England has little in common with Britishness in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or those English who are also proudly British.
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In England, Labour will not even name the nation when it talks about English-only policy (and even calls England ‘Britain’). Denying the reality of political plurality across the UK, Labour wants single party dominance of Westminster, denies cooperation with nationalists, blocks reform to the electoral system and refuses a future referendum on Scottish independence.
At heart, the party still wants to dominate the Union from England. Anglo-centric British unionism has always relied on unionist members of the Scottish elite who buy into its British nationalism and anti-English assumptions while advocating for Scotland, and it is no surprise that Gordon Brown is the architect of current Labour thinking.
The assumptions of Anglo-centric British unionism are so deeply rooted that a radical break with established ideas of nation and state are essential.
The alternative is to move towards a genuine union of nations. By focusing the UK state solely on those things we need to do together, each nation could enjoy its own sovereignty, voluntarily pooled. By recognising the inescapable plurality of UK politics, it would be possible to create a state at local, national and UK level in which power is shared and exercised in shared interests.
Only when England can see itself as England will it be possible to challenge the idea that Britain is England and allow the other nations to feel like partners of equal status.
If not, the future will all feel very much ‘business as usual’. Whatever happens to the SNP in the short-term, national resentments will re-emerge and intensify in some form. If it continues, as it might well, the Union will be an unhappy and unsuccessful enterprise.
Professor John Denham was Labour MP for Southampton Itchen from 1992 to 2015. He is director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton
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