England after Brexit

by John Denham

3 Aug 2016

One of the widespread reactions to the Brexit vote has been the feeling amongst Remain supporters that we have done something rather ‘un-British’ and ‘un-European’. In truth, Brexit is a sign that Britain, and particularly England, is subject to the same political forces that are apparent across Europe.

The most dynamic political forces in Western Europe are the politics of nation, people and place. The least dynamic are those that rely on disappearing social identities and those that feel most discomforted by the modern world. They certainly include the traditional Labour-voting culture of an organised white working class that has been much discussed after the referendum. But the Leave wins in many other parts of the country suggest comparable discomfort amongst an older, respectable, conservatism of status, service and responsibility. (The sort that might like banks to have managers, not global offices in Canary Wharf.)

Those changes are the wider context to the referendum in England. Identities that have been secure for a long time are declining and other identities, particularly of nation, are rising again. That doesn’t mean that the Leave vote was a vote for English nationalism. There certainly was a strong correlation between intensity of ‘feeling English’ and the determination to vote Leave. But ‘Leaving’ also correlated strongly with social class, ethnicity and fundamental values, including support for capital punishment.

It makes more sense to see Brexit in England as the latest sign of the emergence of a broader sense of English identity and of English issues into politics. As Britain and Empire lose salience, as devolution legitimises the identities of others, as Europe is seen to influence our lives, not least through rapid migration, and as communities are reshaped by a changing economy, ‘who are we?’ is a natural question to ask. ‘English’ is better understood as an emergent identity, one that is taking shape - and so has many different expressions - as others fall away.

We have limited quantitative evidence about what people mean when they say they are English. To some English appears as an ethnic identity, to others it is civic. To some it is perhaps a ‘qualified civic identity’, open to anyone but all must play by the same rules. Many view their Englishness through their regional or more local identity.

On the one hand, we should not make a causal link between national identity and a particular political standpoint; on the other there is an increasing and insistent English dimension to politics.

The 2015 election saw four UK nations contested and won by different political parties. For the first time, many English voters saw ‘English interests’ as distinctly from UK issues, most obviously in the fear of SNP influence on a minority Labour government.

Future General Elections are still likely to be fought on national lines and English interests will become increasingly distinct from those of the Union, even amongst unionists. Post-Brexit, much of Scotland aspires to be out of the Union and in the EU; much of England wants to be in the Union and out of the EU. Scotland, in the main, wants more immigration; England, in the main, does not. The dominance of London and of its financial services sector hangs over the whole nation.

In those debates, who speaks for the English interest? Is it the Prime Minister of the UK? In which case who speaks for the Union? But if the PM speaks for the Union, who speaks for England?

All these issues will surely require the articulation of a distinct English point of view that, in turn, requires English governance.

These practical and democratic problems, coupled to the dynamism that lies behind the politics of nation, people and place, will create pressure for change in three areas:

  • the creation of some form of English Parliament, a focus forum for debate and legislation.

  • a federal framework for a continuing union.

  • an ambitious devolution process within England.

At the moment, none are clearly articulated by any of the major political parties. There is an unresolved tension between growing popular sentiment - itself not yet cohering into a clear set of demands - and formal politics. Until it is resolved, the fragmentation and division that characterised the referendum campaign is likely to stay with us.

Professor John Denham, Centre for English Politics and Identity, Winchester University

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