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‘A Disunited Kingdom? It Is Time to Tell an Inclusive English Story’

Anthony Barnett explores why a recent conference in Edinburgh aimed to initiate a conversation about an ‘England’ distinct from ‘Britain’

England rugby fans during the 2016 RBS Six Nations. Photo: PA/Alamy

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A new era in British politics began on 18 November in Edinburgh. It will take a decade, perhaps two, to reach fulfilment.

The historic legacy of entrenched attachment to 350 years of greatness is so deeply embedded in English institutions, there is no easy discarding of it. But, finally, the effort needed to genuinely renew Britain has started to take shape, as a multi-national political undertaking independent of any party or faction. 

In these pages, Byline Times is publishing a series of three of many significant interventions made at the recent ‘The Break-Up of Britain?’ Conference in Edinburgh which was also a salute to the late Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn.

Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, stunned the conference with her opening address.

‘A Disunited Kingdom? Reclaiming an Englishness Hijacked by the Right’

At the heart of our political crisis is how England, in particular, has struggled to find its way in the modern world, writes MP Caroline Lucas

She was followed by Labour MP Clive Lewis, who spoke with a freshness desperately lacking in his party’s official discourse.

‘A Disunited Kingdom? Britain is Built on Forgetting Our Imperial History’

Maintaining the illusory story of what Britain was is integral to the illusion of what Britain is – and the maintenance of political and economic hegemony, writes MP Clive Lewis

Later, Byline Times’ Editor, Hardeep Matharu shared her ambivalent attachment to ‘Britishness’ and reluctance to see herself as English, in a plenary, which I chaired, on whether England ‘can recover from Great Britain’.

‘A Disunited Kingdom? For Younger Minorities, Britishness is an Identity We Can Work With – A Quest for Englishness Must Confront This’

Developing a stronger sense of Englishness cannot merely be looked at through a political lens – our identities are personal and multiple, conflicting and shifting, writes Hardeep Matharu

What is the transformation the conference pointed towards? 

All of the people of these isles – of what Fintan O’Toole in a special video contribution to the event described as our “archipelago” – can re-join the EU. But how? To do so, we have to be citizens of a member state. On paper we have only three options. 

The first is to reverse Brexit and return as we were. But the EU won’t want to offer opt-outs that preserve Westminster’s historic attachment to its special sovereignty. Nor should we want to wind the clock back to how things were, as it led to Brexit in the first place. It’s a dead end.

This leaves two other options, both transformative.

One is for Britain to become internally a European country with fair elections and a democratic constitution. A modest change that appears to be so vast no major party makes it a priority. Nor does it offer political bliss or economic redemption. It is simply the starting point to being a modern country. 

The second is that we all re-join the EU as independent nations and replace our membership of the British Union with the European one. It is an option much more conceivable in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where majorities already think of themselves as Europeans – that is to say as Scottish Europeans, Welsh Europeans and Irish Europeans, because you can’t just think of yourself as ‘just European’. 

It is a way forward that demands considering how we work together. One that sees ‘independence’ as a collaboration in a joint enterprise to re-enter the EU.

As the conference discussed it, the Brexit discourse of enmity, contempt, polarisation and sullen fatalism was replaced with a different kind of engagement. In terms of the UK’s current political culture, this alone was a real achievement. As Neal Ascherson observed there were “no tired clichés, no self-pity” and no evasion. 

But what of the all-British option of becoming European, which I suspect most English Byline Times readers still instinctively prefer?

This too demands our jointly recognising each other’s national rights. For we cannot hope to re-enter the EU while the UK is, in effect, a prison of nations. No domestic, democratic constitution is conceivable that does not give member nations the right to succeed to become EU members for themselves. Either way, progressives, liberals, socialists, greens, democrats and republicans alike will need to tell an inclusive English story. This is something that Caroline Lucas begins to do.

For the EU is not a hobgoblin devouring self-determination or the terminator of national identity as conjured up by Brexiters. Rather, it has rescued the nations of Europe and is a berth for national democracies in a market world, which is why Ukraine is fighting to join it. 

Now it is England’s turn. Whether the nations of the UK re-join the EU jointly as Britain or independently we English must become a normal country. How we achieve this is a debate that we failed to have in the last century. The Edinburgh conference initiated it in this one.

These three outstanding contributions, two from English politicians and one from an English Editor (however else she might describe herself), show it’s a debate to be enjoyed and relished. 

Anthony Barnett was the chair of the steering group of the Break-Up of Britain? Confronting the UK’s Democratic CrisisConference in Edinburgh on 18 November 2023. He is a writer and journalist and the co-founder of openDemocracy

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