Europe and the English problem

20 May 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 22 May 2016

Many in Northern Ireland and in Scotland and Wales would be forgiven for feeling locked out of the referendum debate. 

This is not just because it has precipitated a bitter civil war within the Conservative Party which although entertaining to watch is not directly relevant to our own concerns.

But more because underpinning the row is a debate about what it is to be English.

It is becoming clear that the most populous, but least understood, of the component parts of the UK is a nation which is increasingly ill at ease with itself, uncertain of its place both in the world and the state which in numerical terms it dominates.

We are used to thinking about England in terms of its imperial past and the days of the British Empire.

What tends to be forgotten is that for the greater part of its history England was ruled by foreign states and its people oppressed and enslaved.

From the time of the Roman invasion in the first century, England was under continuous foreign occupation for more than 1,100 years. The so-called “Empire race” was once a country that was colonised and exploited. It was rich in resources, from grain and livestock to silver and copper but was militarily and politically weak with its fractious warring kingdoms and constant conflict with its neighbours in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  Easy pickings for powerful invaders.

Even the name England refers to a group of invaders: the Angles, a Saxon tribe - “Engla Land” was originally coined by other even more brutal insurgents, the Vikings.

The last English king was killed in battle in 1066 after a reign of just nine months. Harold was succeeded by a line of Norman warrior leaders who could not even speak English, and who exploited the country’s wealth in order to pursue their political ambitions in France. The first “native speaking” English monarch was Henry IV who came to the throne at the beginning of the 14th Century.

Perhaps it was this history of vulnerability that led to the notion of England as an island nation, separate from the rest of the continent, constantly fearful of invasion and determined to create an empire of its own. To achieve this it eliminated conflict close to home by a combination of coercion and agreement and achieved maritime supremacy to defend its shores and expand overseas.

When Queen Victoria was on the throne she was an empress who reigned over much of the planet. Queen Elizabeth II is merely “Head of the Commonwealth.”

The fact that Britain is no longer a so-called “Great Power” has led to mutually exclusive ideas of how it should take its place in the world.

Note the use of the term “Britain”. For many English people the terms British and English are used interchangeably. This is probably because the English make up 84% of the UK population and the parliament has always been in London. The emergence of the English flag of St George is comparatively recent and the English do not even have their own national anthem. 

For David Cameron and his faction, the future is in Europe: globalisation trumps national identity - what is critical is unfettered access to global markets and the continued primacy of the City of London. To leave the Union would be to threaten the economy and more specifically trade.  Membership of the EU is the best route to prosperity in a globalised world.

For the Brexit campaigners full self-determination is a pre-requisite for national identity. They believe this would build national self confidence and argue that Britain is distinct from other European partners and has its own separate tradition of parliamentary democracy and, unlike most European nations, was neither occupied by or governed by oppressive regimes in the 20th Century. There is also the question of immigration which has played a major part in the debate. Those who want Britain to leave argue that immigration is depressing wages for British workers and claim that the business lobby in favour of staying in are happy to exploit that.

The battle within the Conservatives is between nationalists and free marketeers.

The left has had little to say in the debate to date. Neither of these positions is appealing to it and, although most in the Labour Party favour remaining, it is for them the lesser of two evils, given how difficult it would be to pursue a socialist agenda with the European Union, with its free market philosophy and restrictions on nationalisation.

But there is another aspect to this. Devolution has created separate power bases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The English themselves have no government and no parliament. Being “British” is no longer what it once was, the conflation of British and English no longer works, English nationalism is on the rise, but it is not always a confident form of nationalism, it’s increasingly resentful and surly.

In 1961 Enoch Powell attempted to define Englishness in the context of having lost its empire in a speech to the Churchill Society. He said: “That power and that glory have vanished, as surely, if not as tracelessly, as the imperial fleet from the waters of Spithead.

“And yet England is not as Nineveh and Tyre, nor as Rome, nor as Spain. Herodotus relates how the Athenians, returning to their city after it had been sacked and burnt by Xerxes and the Persian army, were astonished to find, alive and flourishing in the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the native symbol of their country.

“So we today, at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England herself.”

Many in Northern Ireland and Scotland have argued that a vote to leave the EU would seriously damage, perhaps end the union because that would imply English voters forcing Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the EU when a majority within Scotland and Northern Ireland want to remain.

Powell was a unionist. But don’t expect this to perturb the new English nationalists. In the run up to the Scottish Referendum the right wing columnist and Brexiteer Simon Heffer claimed that England would benefit from an independent Scotland  He wrote: “It was an outrage that voters in the rest of the United Kingdom were not asked to express in a referendum their views about the Union. Had a campaign been properly run in England about the net contribution the Treasury makes to Scotland, and had some of the anti-English propaganda that flies about routinely in Scotland been given wider currency in an English referendum campaign, the result would have been interesting.”

Win or lose the referendum the new English nationalists are not going away: with serious potential consequences not just for the Conservative Party, but for the union as well. 

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