Published on 3 December 2018
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Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

The current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Michael Kenny, Iain McLean and Akash Paun have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK.

In fact, conflating what is English with what is British has long been regarded as necessary to preserve the stability of the union state. With a majority share in the multi-national state it created through successive unions with its neighbours, England was perceived to have guaranteed that its interests could never be ignored within the UK. But to prevent English dominance from becoming too overt or overbearing, and to reduce the possibility of a nationalist backlash, the English were encouraged to regard themselves first and foremost as part of the new ‘invented nation’ of ‘Britons’, which had been ‘consciously and officially constructed’ to bind together the older nations of England, Scotland and Wales, according to the historian Linda Colley.

The entanglement of England and Britain in terms of national identity and constitutional structures has been reflected at the level of academic study too. Governing England is a notably under-studied subject in comparison with the governance of the smaller UK nations, and of the UK as a whole. As the scholars Henderson, Jeffery, Wincott and Wyn Jones recently argued, ‘to focus explicitly on England and its national identities goes against the grain of conventional understandings of UK politics’. As part of what these authors call a ‘triple effacement’ of the complexities of contemporary territorial governance, studies of British politics often ignore Northern Ireland altogether, leave Scotland and Wales to area specialists, and fail to treat England as a separate ‘unit of analysis’, thus studying ‘the United Kingdom as a fictive country: Anglo-Britain’.

One of the core aims of Governing England, and the British Academy programme of research and events from which it emerged, has been to correct this imbalance. In particular, the new collection examines the complex relationship between changing patterns of identity and questions of institutional legitimacy. England is a divided nation, and debate about its nationhood has barely begun. The book therefore does not offer simple, overarching conclusions about what the English want, but instead presents evidence of change in four main respects, and sketches the outlines of an ongoing research agenda.

First, England’s relationship with the other nations of the UK has been transformed by devolution, leaving England as the only nation subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, while also undermining the ability of the English majority at Westminster to shape the governance of the UK as a whole. This has become ever more apparent since the EU referendum, as the complications of the Irish Border and the determination of Edinburgh and Cardiff to defend their interests in the Brexit process have frustrated the ability of the Anglo-dominated UK government to ‘take back control’ from Brussels on its own terms. As Brexit proceeds, relations between the four nations of the UK are coming under significant pressure, and a crucial question will be the extent to which the English remain willing to accept the compromises necessary to maintain the stability of the union state.

Second, there are signs of change in the attitudes struck by the main UK parties towards England as a political community. The Conservatives appealed directly to English national sentiment in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum and during the 2015 general election campaign. This was in part a response to the UKIP insurgency, arguably the closest England has come to a serious nationalist movement of its own. UKIP’s rapid decline since 2016 raises another crucial question: will departure from the EU address the root concerns of the millions of English voters who turned out to vote for Brexit, and if not, what will be the political outlet for this latent discontent? Labour’s response will be significant. The party’s instinctive aversion to Englishness appears to have undermined its position in its English heartlands, without preventing decline in Scotland. For Labour figures including John Denham (a contributor to the new book), the party must seek to develop a progressive vision of modern English identity in order to reconnect with the many politically disengaged communities that expressed their discontent via a vote for Leave.

Third, the excessively centralised nature of England’s polity has been recognised for some time, but attempts by successive governments to redress this have been half-hearted and often undermined by countervailing tendencies to reinforce central control. The weakness of regional identities across most of England is one explanation for the absence of genuine devolution within England, other than in London, which does increasingly have a distinct sense of itself, as Tony Travers discusses in the book. The more recent city-regional devolution initiatives to Manchester, Liverpool, the West Midlands and elsewhere are built on more fragile foundations. They were created without referendums, giving them a weaker starting point in terms of profile and legitimacy. Their powers also fall far short of those devolved to the non-English nations. But the history of devolution suggests that, once established, subnational institutions often accrue additional powers, create a focus for the expression of alternative political identities, and find creative ways to influence national debate beyond their formal responsibilities. England may be in the first leg of a journey of constitutional transformation – or this might be yet another false dawn.

Fourth, underlying these various sets of questions is a more fundamental quandary of how to conceive of contemporary forms of political Englishness. This volume includes competing views including the contentions that: little has changed; Englishness has been captured by populist nationalism; and a more progressive and inclusive Englishness is struggling to emerge. English – and British – politics in 2018 is in a state of flux, and there is a real danger that observers mistake temporary tremors for a more profound tectonic shift. It will be for future researchers to determine whether or not this recent period has marked a turning point in the governance and national consciousness of England.

Whatever change there has been in recent years, England and Britain are still deeply intertwined in terms of both governance and identity, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. It remains true, as Hazell concluded, that ‘we cannot readily disentangle Englishness from Britishness in our history or in our institutions’, but equally apt is sociologist Krishan Kumar’s prescient observation that ‘In whichever direction they look, the English find themselves called upon to reflect upon their identity, and to re-think their position in the world’. There are, as Michael Kenny concludes in the final chapter of the book, ‘momentous decisions that lie ahead for the English and their political representatives,’ as England refashions its relations with Europe and the wider world, and, in all probability, with the other nations of these islands; and, also, as some of England’s most powerful urban regions seek a new relationship with the centre. The English are not at ease with how they are governed, but it is not yet clear how they would like it to change.

This article is an edited extract of Governing England: English institutions and identity in a changing United Kingdom, edited by Michael Kenny, Iain McLean and Akash Paun, which was published on 29 November 2018 by the British Academy and Oxford University.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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