England’s Sense of Self — the Disunited Kingdom
On St George’s day, Matthew Durkin argues that Andrew Marr of all people should know the real grievances behind the Brexit vote — English nationalism.
In the rush to define the meaning of the 2016 EU referendum result, veteran broadcaster Andrew Marr kicked off his Sunday morning show three days after with a monologue to set out his thoughts on the vote.
If the genie of English nationalism is now out of the bottle, it cannot be left up to Nigel Farage to define what that means.
Marr chose to adopt wholesale the populist narrative of Brexit as a rebellion of “the struggling against the strutting”, employing divisive rhetoric about “waves of migration and globalised culture” being responsible for “eroding our sense of self” while a decadent urban class “was having such a good time, they barely noticed”.
Marr defended his comments over this Easter weekend as being merely an “urban liberal trying to explain the immediate aftermath of the referendum”, but there was an entirely different argument there to be made about identity that could have guided the post-referendum debate towards a more constructive direction.
Marr’s piece to camera began by surveying the map of a divided country, but instead of highlighting the most obvious geographic division — the Remain win in Scotland and Northern Ireland set against the Leave win in England and Wales — he stuck to a narrative pitting “posher, better-educated and richer” areas against “post-industrial Britain”.
Bigotgate and English Identity
One of the defining political moments of the pre-Brexit era took place in one such post-industrial area, when Gillian Duffy encountered Gordon Brown on the campaign trail for the 2010 General Election in Rochdale, in an incident that became known as “Bigotgate”.
Six years later, Mrs Duffy offered her thoughts on the EU referendum to the BBC, lamenting: “We’re losing our identity. I love being English and I don’t want to be a European.”
Nigel Farage knew just how to tap into that emotion and used it throughout his career to exploit what had become uncomfortable territory for established politicians. Farage used his speech at the 2011 UKIP party conference to call for an English parliament to give the English people “self-respect and pride” and accused political leaders of being “ashamed of the very word ‘England’”. But, of the two unions that England is part of, it’s not the EU that denies it a political identity of its own.
We’re losing our identity. I love being English and I don’t want to be a European.Gillian Duffy
The following year, Farage developed the idea further, suggesting in an interview with Andrew Neil that “the English parliament should be in the House of Commons” without MPs from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Neil countered that Westminster could be “the imperial parliament” of the union, with connotations that perhaps highlight the difficulty of squaring national political aspirations with British institutions accustomed to absolute sovereignty.
Marr’s ‘Grimy Island Gormenghast’
Marr, certainly, should have seen all of this coming. As long ago as 1996, at a time when deep splits on Europe first threatened to tear the Conservative party apart, he wrote in the Independent that leaving the EU would be more likely to lead to Britain becoming “a grimy island Gormenghast” than to a promised “rebirth of a once-great trading nation” and that if that “style of conservative English nationalism much resented north of the border” triumphed, it would surely drive Scotland out of the union.
The real challenge to our “sense of self” that springs from the 2016 vote is to work out how the nations of the UK should best relate to each other and to our neighbours — to find a new settlement in which we can be at ease with ourselves and with our place in the world.
Polling since the referendum shows that one of the strongest predictors of support for Brexit was identifying as English rather than British but, in the adversarial climate of the negotiations, the identity question has been reduced to simplistic exhortations to “believe in Britain”. This leaves a vacuum for those English Brexit voters who, regardless of their view on the EU, wanted England to be a normal European country, not the centre of “Empire 2.0”.
Polling since the referendum shows that one of the strongest predictors of support for Brexit was identifying as English rather than British.
If the genie of English nationalism is now out of the bottle, it cannot be left up to Nigel Farage to define what that means. England’s rich cultural and democratic traditions and millennia of history deeply intertwined with our neighbours — on all sides — provide a strong basis to develop a sense of civic nationalism, proud to be a member of the family of European nations and seeing no contradiction between this and engagement with the wider world.
As things stand, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union: but it could just be that, in the process, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will become reconciled to finding a new place within it.