Over the past few years numerous constitutional experts and political observers have been warning that the English feel disenfranchised and alienated from Westminster. English identity has risen and become politicised, perhaps as a badge of resistance against the British state, the European Union, globalisation and immigration; and British identity has decreased, to the point where only the denizens of London feel more British than English. Campaigners such as myself have argued strongly that England requires the same sort of democratic recognition of nationhood and national identity as is enjoyed by Scotland, namely its own parliament and government. Our argument is that an English parliament gives legitimate expression to English national identity, making English identity more inclusive and constructive instead of a badge of resentment. The British political elite were frightened of normalising English national identity in case they ‘fanned the flames of English nationalism’ and instead offered fig leaves in the shape of regional assemblies, regional ministers, elected mayors, English votes on English laws, city regions and police commissioners – anything other than recognition of England as a discrete nation and source of political identity and citizenship.
The result is an England that feels it has no voice and no one who will speak for it. And so here we are. The English have given the British a damn good hiding in a referendum on the EU, and in doing so have delivered an existential crisis to both unions of which they are a part. No one can claim that the British Establishment weren’t warned. IPPR, Arthur Aughey, John Denham, Michael Kenny, Simon Lee, Frank Field, Anthony Barnett , myself and many others have all repeatedly warned that there needs to be recognition of the growing English demos.
Scandalously the English, and in particular the English working class, are now getting the blame for voting against the wishes of the British and European political establishments that not only failed to recognise their nationhood but actively tried to suppress it.
There are many factors that that played into how people voted in the EU referendum: economic vibrancy, immigration, democracy and sovereignty. One issue that hasn’t been explored (or at least I haven’t seen it) is the issue of civic identity. The two parts of the UK that voted overwhelmingly to remain are Scotland and London, both of which have a very strong and inclusive sense of citizenship/civic identity. In England there is no civic nationalism, evidenced by the fact that we have no parliament; and Wales, although it has an assembly, has always had more of a cultural – linguistic – nationalism.
So I would like to float the idea – admittedly only a hypothesis – that the British Government may have lost the EU referendum because successive British Governments denied England a parliament and denied the English the chance to feel secure in, and positive about, their national identity.