English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace

May 24, 2012

Englishness has long been a puzzle both to philosophers and to historians. As long ago as 1741, David Hume declared: "The English, of any people in the universe, have the least of a national character, unless this very singularity may pass for such." In his 2001 book England: An Elegy, the philosopher Roger Scruton asked: "What was England? A territory? A language? A culture? An empire? An idea?", but concluded rather lamely: "All answers seem inadequate." Often, Englishness has been explained by what it is not - to be English, it is said, is not to be Scottish, Welsh or Irish; more recently, it has been suggested that to be English is not to be European.

Until recently, however, most people were quite happy to equate Englishness with Britishness. In 1924, Stanley Baldwin, speaking at the annual dinner of the Royal Society of St George, confessed to "a feeling of satisfaction and profound thankfulness that I may use the word 'England' without some fellow at the back of the room shouting out 'Britain' ". Since, as Ben Wellings notes, England was the dominant nation in the UK, it "would have been folly...to create demands on the peripheries by trumpeting its own supremacy too loudly". So English nationalism remained quiescent. But after devolution, quiescence no longer seems an option, for the idea of Britishness is no longer available to sustain English nationalism. Englishness appears more than ever as a void, an absence. Is it anything more than a state of mind? Social scientists have sought to elucidate its mysteries. Indeed, one interviewee quoted by Wellings hoped "that Scotland would bloody well hurry up and become independent so that everyone would shut up and people would stop doing all this stupid research about bloody national identity".

In English Nationalism and Euroscepticism, Wellings suggests that English identity has been formed less by devolution than by resistance to Europe. His central thesis is that Englishness can be defined as Euroscepticism, which is stronger in England than elsewhere; although, in 1975, in the referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Economic Community (as the European Union then was), England was more, not less, pro-European than Scotland, and the Scottish National Party argued for a "no" vote. Today, by contrast, the SNP calls for "independence in Europe". In Scotland, as Wellings emphasises, the EU is seen not as a threat to independence but as an enabler of it.

But England has no real nationalist party. The Conservatives, who would seem best suited to the role, remain a Unionist party, seeking to win back support in Scotland and Wales rather than jettisoning the Celtic fringe. Perhaps the UK Independence Party will come to be an English nationalist party. Just one of its 13 members of the European Parliament elected in 2009 represents a non-English constituency, and the party supports calls for an English Parliament.

In England, the sovereignty of Parliament is seen as a guarantor of liberty. But the leitmotif of the European project is the transcending of sovereignty. Yet, to preserve parliamentary sovereignty, Eurosceptics found in 1975 that they had to call on the forces of popular sovereignty through the referendum. More recently, popular sovereignty expressed itself through an e-petition debated in the Commons last October, when 81 Conservative MPs defied a three-line whip to support the petition's call for an in/out referendum on Europe.

Since none of the major political parties is prepared to sponsor English nationalism, it is for the time being peripheral politically. How long it will remain so must be a matter of speculation. But perhaps the eurozone crisis will recur. If so, it could have profound effects. In the 1970s, Europe split the Labour Party; in the 1990s, it split the Conservatives and nearly destroyed John Major's government. Europe could easily prove as divisive in the future as it has been in the past, raising as it does fundamental questions of national identity.

English Nationalism and Euroscepticism is an original work, analysing an important and surprisingly neglected aspect of contemporary British politics. It is well written, well argued and enjoyable to read. But perhaps the dilemma of Englishness was more succinctly put by Henry James in his novel The Tragic Muse, in the scene in which Nick Dormer surveys a landed estate that he will never inherit, and feels "the sense of England - a sort of apprehended revelation of his country", which "laid on him a hand that was too ghostly to press, and yet somehow too urgent to be light".

English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: Losing the Peace

By Ben Wellings Peter Lang, 254pp, £37.00. ISBN 9783034302043. Published 11 January 2012

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