The rise of English nationalist sentiment and the surge in Euroscepticism are related, argues Ben Wellings. For one, Euroscepticism is driven mainly by those who self-identify as ‘English not British’. Moreover, while politicised Englishness is thought to have arisen out of New Labour’s constitutional reforms in the late 1990s, the ideological content of an English nationalism was formed in opposition to European integration and had actually emerged by the early ’90s.
It is tempting to see the surge in support for UKIP ahead of the elections to the European Parliament as part of a long-standing dynamic in UK-EU relations: not so much a ‘crisis’, but more of a ‘chronic condition’. ontinuing to diagnose the condition as ‘UK-EU relations’ mask as much as it reveals. Importantly, there is a new element to this current relapse that we should be aware of: England.
In reality, the politics of nationalism within the United Kingdom and the surge in Euroscepticism are related. Indeed, there are important ways that Euroscepticism and nationalism in England overlap and support each other. Euroscepticism the most formed-up expression of English grievance and an ideology that provides the political content for English nationalism.
The usual starting point for an analysis of English nationalism is the arrival of New Labour and the constitutional reforms associated with devolution. However, devolution and the subsequent success of the Scottish National Party are best seen as necessary rather than sufficient conditions for the formation of nationalism. It is true that the spectre of English nationalism was invoked to scare voters off support for devolution in Scotland giving it a political form that it had not assumed before. For example, speaking in Edinburgh in April 1997, John Major warned that ‘as sure as night follows day’ the re-establishment of a parliament in Edinburgh would lead to a resentful backlash amongst the English. And then… nothing happened.
Or so we thought. A series of assumptions were built into subsequent opinion survey questions as a result of this “Scottish” focus on the Union. When asked if they were happy with the current constitutional arrangements, it was assumed that the arrangements in question related to the union between England and Scotland. But this was asking the right question about the wrong union. For much of this period, Scotland might be likened in the (southern) English imagination to Chamberlain’s Czechoslovakia: a far away country of which we knew little. The constitutional arrangement that got people in England really exercised was not the UK but the EU.
Thus the political space that was occupied in Scotland by discussion of the Union was filled in England by an angry and one-sided debate about the EU, initially about the euro and Draft Constitutional Treaty and eventually (and reluctantly) about a referendum on whether to withdraw from the EU altogether. Throughout this period, none of the major parties chose to engage with a growing sense of Englishness. New Labour, for seemingly good electoral reasons, studiously avoided courting the English as a distinct political constituency. The Conservative position – reduced in Scotland – was harder to explain, but appeared to rest on a residual commitment to Unionism. ore importantly for much of this period, the Conservatives mounted a passionate defence of British sovereignty against European integration. This appealed more in England than in Scotland and was a sentiment that allowed UKIP to advance – again overwhelmingly in England – at European and more recently, local elections.
The ‘Future of England’ surveys published by the IPPR in 2012 and 2013 were the first to really interrogate a link between Englishness and Euroscepticism. The first point they discovered was that Englishness had become politicised, mostly since 2007, and was a vehicle for a variety of political grievances. The second point was that the British were not Eurosceptic, but that the
English were. In other words, among those who identified as ‘British not English’, 45% thought that UK membership of the EU was a good thing, but this figure dropped to 14% for those who identified as ‘English not British’. Additionally, a British identity was in decline and, unlike 1975, the English were now the most Eurosceptic of the UK’s four nations. Overall, the authors concluded that ‘Attitudes towards England’s two unions, therefore are clearly linked: Euroscepticism and devo-anxiety are two sides of the same coin of English discontent’.
In terms of causality, however, we need to look beyond devolution. In Mike Kenny’s recently published account of contemporary English nationhood, he too shifts attention away from devolution as a driver of a recently politicised Englishness. In his analysis, however, it is not Euroscepticism in particular, but scepticism towards politics in general, underpinned by an anxiety brought on by rapid social and economic change, that allow and support a sense of English grievance. This is hard to deny, but it remains that such grievances are often expressed at second order elections like those to the European Parliament linking English powerfully with hostility to European integration.
And such sentiment has a long genealogy. The process of European integration – and the United Kingdom’s involvement in it – shaped the nationalism that we see in England today. The loss of empire and the break in relations with the Dominions left Britain without a clear sense of mission that could be tied to national narratives. The 1975 referendum broke party management of the issue of Europe turning it into a question that could only be resolved by the ‘British People’. Thatcherism added a neoliberal and individualistic element to the defence of British sovereignty that debates over Maastricht only deepened. Thus the ideological content of an English nationalism formed in opposition to European integration had emerged by the early 1990s, long before devolution had entered the political consciousness in the southern heartlands of Euroscepticism, even if it meant that English nationalists unselfconsciously defended British sovereignty.
Thus whereas debate in Scotland currently revolves around whether an independent Scotland would automatically remain in the EU, debate in England follows a trajectory set by those who want to take Britain out. The politics of nationalism and Euroscepticism should be seen together as parts of related phenomena. Englishness has been politicised in recent years Euroscepticism provide the ideological content English. Overall, we should expect to see Eurosceptic gains this May concentrated disproportionately in England, even if the rhetoric remains that of British disengagement.
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About the Author
Ben Wellings is Lecturer in European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and is the author of English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: losing the peace (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012).