Losing the Peace: English Nationalism and Euroscepticism

Ben Wellings

Brexit is Euroscepticism’s greatest victory to date. One of the most noticeable features of the June EU membership referendum vote was the divergence between the different nations of the United Kingdom, with Scotland’s overwhelming ‘Remain’ vote contrasting with the more complicated majority for ‘Leave’ in England.

Given my research on the links between Euroscepticism and English nationalism, this aspect of the vote was not a surprise. What follows is an outline of the argument I made in English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: losing the peace (2012). Based on archival research and semi-structured interviews, I argued that Euroscepticism was and is the most formed up expression of contemporary English nationalism.

I approached Euroscepticism obliquely. My principle concern was to understand the apparent ‘absence’ of English nationalism in the wake of devolution in the late 1990s. Euroscepticism was broadly defined as resistance to European integration (in its hard and soft varieties) and included all political resistance to European integration since the 1960s, during what we might call the ‘Anti-marketeer’ (1960s-70s) and ‘Eurosceptic’ periods (1980s to date).

It was the alignment of Euroscepticism and national imaginaries that gave Euroscepticism in England its popular resonance and its persistent quality. By linking Euroscepticism with the politics of nationalism in the United Kingdom, I argued that English nationalism was not absent at all, but instead expressed itself differently to other nationalisms in the United Kingdom.

In other words, we should not look to Scotland for an ideal-type against which to look for expressions of nationalism in England. This had been the mistaken assumption of much searching for the ‘English backlash’ against devolution that seemingly failed to materialise in the 2000s. Rather than being absent, English nationalism was hidden in plain view: a defence of British sovereignty against the deepening of the EU’s powers rather than an assertion of autonomy within the UK was the main vehicle for contemporary English nationalism even prior to devolution.

By linking English nationalism with the politics of European integration instead of devolution, new areas of inquiry were opened up. As one reviewer of the book put it, existing analysis focused on England within the UK was suffering from ‘Singapore syndrome’: all the intellectual firepower was facing in the wrong direction. To properly understand the drivers of English nationalism and the alignment between Euroscepticism and dominant English national narratives that gave resistance to European integration such force, we should turn our analytical attention across the Channel to Brussels rather than across the Tweed to Edinburgh.

To understand the depth of this alignment between English nationalism and Euroscepticism, it is important to understand that for centuries English nationalism was constructed around a defence and legitimisation of British sovereignty. This powerful link between English nationhood and British statehood was formed in the centuries when the British state was consolidating its rule across the British Isles and the Empire. Advancing from an understanding of nationalism as a novel means of legitimising statehood in the modern era, conceptions of Englishness and Britishness merged. Nationalists in England became habituated to defending British sovereignty. For such actors, nationalism was not about secession, but rather about defending the idea of the prodigious reach of British sovereignty within the UK and across the globe.

Sovereignty was, therefore, linked to ‘greatness’ in the English national consciousness. The Twentieth Century brought very real threats to the existence of this sovereignty, most notably in 1940. Survival was followed by victory, even if that victory turned out to be a Pyrrhic one.

More than any other, it was this historical experience that set English national consciousness on a different trajectory to the post-War European identity. In the ideology required to legitimise the very novel form of political organisation required by European integration, the two wars represented catastrophe followed by renaissance. ‘Post-War’ in the new Europe was not just a period of time but an ontological state. But in Britain, ‘the War’ represented an apogee followed by eclipse; it was Britain’s ‘finest hour’ and what came thereafter was decline.

The greatest admission of that decline was ‘Europe’. In the official British mindset of the 1940s and 1950s, European integration was literally for losers. Membership of the fledgling EU was itself a belated admission of defeat. Sovereignty – so important in the construction of English nationalism and so dearly defended – was being voluntarily surrendered for the dubious advantage of selling washing machines in Dusseldorf, as Harold Wilson put it. Britain may have won the war, but it had lost the peace.

All this was important for the emergence of an English nationalism focused on resisting European integration, but older forms of identification had to go first. The end of Empire weakened a particular version of Britishness that had developed in order to legitimise imperial dominion. Enoch Powell sought to outline a post-imperial English nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s opposed to Commonwealth integration and European integration. Powell injected an odd sort of Tory populism into British politics that rested on a veneration of parliamentary sovereignty and British political institutions.

One of the historical ironies of the English resistance to European integration is that Parliamentary Sovereignty was eclipsed by the efforts to save it. In this regard we might say that the operation was a success, but the patient died. This outcome was brought about by the advent of the referendum. Although Norman St John Stevas described referendums as a ‘nasty continental aberration’, it found its way into British political practice. This novel device was introduced into British politics to preserve Labour unity rather than cement European unity. The party was so divided on the question of membership of the European Communities the leadership handed the decision over to the electorate to avoid opposition within the party’s mass membership. This innovation had the effect of ultimately elevating the ‘European question’ to a level above Parliamentary control and making it seem like an issue of such national importance that only ‘The People’ could decide it.

The hope that the 1975 referendum would resolve the issue of Britain’s place in Europe proved illusory. The relationship between late Thatcherism and the emergence of Euroscepticism is well known. But the Thatcherite decade linked a socially conservative yet neo-liberal Euroscepticism to an emerging English nationhood that was expressed in the language of assertive Britishness. This Britishness was increasingly opposed to European integration and had the additional effect of alienating nationalist sentiment outside of England.

Until this point, this emergent English nationalism expressed itself in the language of Britishness. This did not change greatly in the early 1990s, but devolution led to the emergence of England as a political community by default. Scottish and Welsh nationalisms were the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the emergence of English nationalism. Many commentators expected an English ‘backlash’ after devolution, but none came; at least not in the form many were expecting. The fact that a backlash was expected was related to the increased visibility of a cultural form of Englishness – linked strongly to football and an English obsession with ‘the War’ – which appeared to have no political corollary.

But this wasn’t the case. It was just that in defending British sovereignty from nationalists within the UK as well as from the advances of European integration, de facto English nationalists emerged speaking the language of Britishness. Just when secessionists in Scotland and Wales began to campaign for ‘Independence in Europe’, nationalists in England began to campaign for ‘Independence from Europe’.

The self-evident Englishness of this new political force struggled to emerge. The Conservative leadership in opposition refused to embrace the Englishness of the grassroots, preferring to mask their position as the de facto English party with a strident Euroscepticism. New Labour was ideologically opposed to English nationalism, seeing it as the racist baggage of Empire and was too wedded to Scottish seats at Westminster to develop any feeling for English nationalism. The UK Independence Party filled this space. UKIP was another avowedly British party with its heartland in England that only made the link between a politicalised English nationhood and hard Euroscepticism clearer than ever before.

The analysis in this book stopped with the formation of the Coalition government in 2010. Events between then and the Brexit referendum in 2016 appear to have supported the claim made about the causal link made between Euroscepticism and an emergent English nationalism. The blunt version of the argument in this book is that Euroscepticism represents the most formed-up expression of contemporary English nationalism. Since 2010 the debate about the ‘absence’ of Englishness has moved on. Few now suggest that there is no such thing as English nationalism. Brexit has made understanding the link between English nationalism and Euroscepticism even more urgent. English imaginaries are an important place to start. It is not possible to understand ‘British’ attitudes towards the EU without understanding the role of British sovereignty and memories of ‘greatness’ in English national consciousness.

Dr Ben Wellings (ben.wellings@monash.edu) is Deputy-director of the Monash European and EU Centre at Monash University in Australia. His current research examines the place of the Anglosphere in English Eurosceptic thought and politics.