How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations

Gavin Esler

Head of Zeus, £8.99

Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain

Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones

Oxford University Press, £30

Review by Iain Macwhirter

Whatever happened to English Votes for English Laws? Announced with great fanfare by David Cameron on the morning after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, EVEL was hailed as the answer to the West Lothian Question. It did happen. There is, somewhere in the bowels of Westminster, a Grand Committee that is supposed to ensure that legislation passed for England is voted upon by a majority of English MPs. But few people – even in England – seem aware of its existence.

Yet according to Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, this was the birth of political Englishness. It was “the moment at which England, and in particular, distinctively English attitudes towards government and the governance of this country, were launched into the mainstream British political agenda”. We are seeing a new wave of self-consciously political “English nationalism”, which the authors believe is now the “driving force” of UK politics.

They substantiate this with copious charts and tables from research such as the Future of England Survey indicating, for example, that people who, 30 years ago described themselves as British rather than English by a ratio of two to one are now more likely to describe themselves as English. This new English nationalism is fuelled by what they call “devo-anxiety” – a sense of grievance over unfair treatment vis a vis the Scots. It is allied to “the belief that Britain self-evidently is, or should be, the greatest nation on earth”.

I'm not entirely sure that these attitudes are terribly novel elements in the English self-image, though I agree that they were usually thought of as aspects of “Britishness” in the past. However, it is now widely believed in academia and the London media that English nationalism per se is “the dog that has finally barked”. No longer is it just the SNP that's threatening the existence of the Union.

The former Newsnight presenter, Gavin Esler a Scot himself, declares that the “United Kingdom cannot survive the rise in English nationalism”. Westminster, he argues, should work towards a federal constitution as a matter of urgency, even considering an English parliament. Brexit, he says, was the “death knell” of Britain and Britishness, and the Union is a busted flush.

It would be a rich irony indeed if it turned out to be England that broke up Britain while the Scots were left dithering on the sidelines. Professor Ailsa Henderson, an authority on nations and regions based in Edinburgh University, doesn't go quite that far. But she is adamant that the rise in English nationalism is a genuine political force that can no longer be ignored.

The authors of Englishness make a brave effort to conceal their distaste for it. “Euroscepticism and negative attitudes toward immigration,” they say, “are both prevalent amongst those who feel exclusively or predominantly English, as well as a strong sense of kinship with (some) of the nations of the so-called Anglosphere.” In other words, unlike Scottish nationalism, which is invariably portrayed as inclusive and welcoming (at least by SNP supporters), the English variety is about kith and kin, imperial nostalgia and not liking foreigners. English nationalists are mostly elderly Brexiteers – that unprepossessing bunch millennials like to call “gammon”.

Gavin Esler agrees that Brexit is essentially what we are talking about here, and that this new belligerent English nationalism does Britain no favours. He regards it as narrow-minded, nativist and xenophobic – rather as many of his London colleagues used to regard the SNP. But Esler now sees Scottish independence, at least the essentially federal 2014 version, as a plausible means of keeping the English nationalist dog in its kennel, as well as addressing legitimate demands for English “home rule”.

The SNP has done a brilliant job over the years of deodorising nationalism and making it acceptable to people who'd normally run a mile from any politics defined by it. Like many hacks, I've tended to use the phrase “English nationalism” dismissively, associating it with football hooliganism and racism. But if we are now to take English nationalism seriously, as these authors claim, as a “transformative” political force, I would have to ask: where exactly is it? I don't see any obvious party political vehicle for this new English nativism.

The far right – in the shape of the British National Party or its fragments – has never had any political representation in the UK parliament. Many European countries, like Norway and Sweden, have had nativist parties not only represented but participating in government. Not Britain. The only English nationalist party around with any credibility is the UK Conservative Party, and while it has little Englanders in its ranks, it is far from being another National Front.

Remainers and the left have tried to portray Boris Johnson as an imperialist xenophobe, but as anyone who has studied him knows, the Prime Minister is, Brexit aside, a liberal interventionist in the mould of Michael Heseltine. The Conservative and Unionist Party, moreover, is avowedly, indeed dogmatically, British – not English. The party has never advocated an English parliament or any serious version of federalism. It is averse to grand constitutional projects of any kind.

Tories are nationalistic in that they wave the flag and want “Britain to be Great” – but most democratic parties want their countries to be great. Nicola Sturgeon is rarely seen without a flag. So in the absence of an obvious political representation for this new English nationalism, I can't see it having much of a future. The Brexit Party might have become a vehicle for ideological “English exceptionalism”, but it cancelled itself. Its successor, ReformUK, seems more interested in Covid than the constitution. Nigel Farage is quitting politics altogether.

I'm not denying, however, that there is a greater sense of Englishness abroad, post-Brexit. Or that British institutions, including the Monarchy, are in a bad way. Gavin Esler's account of How Britain Ends is witty, informed, smart – the best-written polemic I've read in some time. “Englishness” is drier, austere, as you would expect from an academic work basing its authority on quantitative research. But they both come to the same conclusion that, like it or loathe it, English nationalism is here to stay.