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Michael Kenny

Beyond the Constitution: Englishness in a post-devolved Britain

Beyond the Constitution: Englishness in a post-devolved Britain (Kenny, English; Hayton) challenges the widely held presumption that the rise of Englishness necessarily signals the death-knell of the values and identities associated with Britishness and the legitimacy of the UK's polity. That a sense of Englishness is on the rise is not disputed, but what is disputed is the political salience of that rise in relation to the devolution settlement. Englishness it is argued, refreshingly, is not necessarily a malign force that will undermine Britishness.

Those familiar with The Politics of Englishness (Aughey: 2007) will experience a feeling of déjà vu because not only is the terrain the same, but so are the arguments traversed, and the conclusions drawn. Crucially:

There may be, therefore, a good case for a concerted re-evaluation of the relationship between Britishness and English identity, and a consideration of how a positive vision of Englishness can compliment, rather than threaten, a rejuvenated civic Britishness.

This is the crux: According to this paper Englishness does not require a political nationalism, nor the democratic and institutional trappings of nationhood recently acquired by it's partners in the United Kingdom, it can instead be sated and mollified by positive engagement with Britishness and a flowering of English cultural nationalism and self-awareness.

The authors cast doubt on the notion that recent greater English self-identification with England stems from any political resentment and financial grievances that have arisen as a consequence of devolution. Rather the phenomenon of increasing Englishness is a culturally-orientated wave of consciousness that began in the mid-1990s.

And it is noted that, in spite of English dissatisfaction, the Conservatives have resisted the temptation to play to the politics of English resentment (David Cameron's 'sour little Englanders' quote is referenced), preferring instead to leave that to: a few fringe groups, UKIP, and the far-right. No opinion is offered as to whether these fringe groups are the best vehicles for the articulation of English resentment but the authors do state that:

none of the parties displays any kind of confidence or willingness to bring Englishness into the heart of its strategic and policy thinking. Fearfulness and the hope that English nationalism will quietly subside have been the abiding watchwords of the political elite.

And though this may change the political parties as a whole do not envisage a scenario in which ‘English nationalism will mutate into a small-nation resentment at its position within a larger multi-national entity’. Put bluntly the authors do not envisage the English resorting to an Anglo-centric version of the little-Scotlander mentality, the political ramifications of which have disadvantaged England and precipitated the need for the very English renaissance called for. It is suggested that politicians have failed to engage with Englishness because engagement might signify a readiness to contemplate the next stages of constitutional reform in a manner that acknowledges England. Which presents something of a Catch-22 situation.

Quite what the English have to gain for themselves in forgoing a political nationalism is left unsaid, though it is suggested that the Union may be endangered and that Britishness is a more attractive national identity to liberals. And ethnic minorities. Britishness may be more accessible because it is the idea of a set of values, as opposed to substantive moral and cultural traditions; again, among liberals, rather than the population at large. What these British values are is unclear from this particular paper and a quote from Gordon Brown's Green Paper doesn't offer much help:

A large part of what we describe as Britishness traces back to our own civil war, its ultimate resolution the Declaration of Rights of 1689 and the Acts of Union. Our relative stability as a nation is reflected in a relative lack of precision about what we mean to be British.

The irony of the English points of reference is apparently lost on the authors. But they do suggest that the confidence of this statement of 'British history' could lead to a parallel discussion on a review of English governance. But having dismissed regionalism as taboo, and having warned against the populism of an English parliament or English Votes (they muse upon how the Government might build a bulwark against these seductive proposals) it is hard to understand what the authors are actually proposing, other than a nice poetic Englishness that can cosy up to a splendid civic Britishness. There is no discussion on the potential benefits of English citizenship and English civic nationalism.

Devolution recognised three nations of the multi-national UK state, it gave institutional political recognition to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it reinforced the distinctness of those nations whilst simultaneously confirming the in-distinctness of England. England is Britain is England; an absorptive patria to which the Scots, Welsh and Irish belong, and in which they will have their say. Unionism for the three nations is now on an in-and-for-themselves basis; for themselves in their own national assemblies; in Westminster as part of greater England. By contrast England is not for-itself. For England unionism is absolute, England remains in-itself; absolutely, resolutely in Britain.

And that's just how they want it. The authors' wish to confine English nationalism to purely cultural terms, to deny a for-itself political expression of Englishness, stems from their idea that a politically assertive England would undermine the multi-national solidarity of the United Kingdom. That multi-national solidarity rested on a contract between the peoples of the UK, a contract that was renegotiated by the devolution referendums and, crucially, renegotiated without input from the people of England. The fear now is that any real or imagined grievances that follow from the asymmetric settlement will lead to an English renegotiation on English terms, for-themselves. As the authors point out it's English restraint, and lack of resentment, that may yet deliver the best from a botched job:

it is worth noting that for all its imperfections, the post-devolution constitutional position may have some merits, and prove more long-lasting than many assume, as the least-worst option currently available in constitutional and fiscal terms, in this debate.

Least worst for whom is left unsaid. For the English, or; for the nations whose existence as a 'national' people has been given democratic recognition, and whose existence as part of a 'multi-national' people - with undiminished representation in a unitary Union Parliament - rests on a magnanimous apolitical Englishness?

This passage from Politics of Englishness crystallises what the authors here are grappling with:

Devolution...has clearly modified the relationship between England and the other parts of the United Kingdom as a legal and political agreement and as a consequence the English question has become in large part England's British question. The question, in short, is to what extent this constitutional modification has undermined English patriotic identification with the United Kingdom.

The fix that the authors seek is not a constitutional fix to a constitutional problem, for them it is a problem best solved by English acquiescence in the face of the English-British dichotomy. A self-confident Englishness that is embellished by patriotic identification with the United Kingdom is what is needed. In fairness the authors do debunk the Kumar thesis that English identity is subsumed in Britishness – that the English have lost their Englishness and need to start from scratch. They must argue this, for to argue otherwise would oppose the very premise that they start from. English identity is strong enough, and; is more capable of being part of a multi-layered English-British identity than the jeremaids and cheerleaders for English nationalism would think; and secure enough to have just the British part of that multiple identity recognised constitutionally – it's a sacrifice the English must make while allowing the other UK nations to do the exact opposite.

In summary the authors, like the politicians, don't know what to do, and the only explanation as to why the English should not have a parliament of their own is a reiteration of Prof John Curtice's mistaken claims that the English are content with the Status Quo.

A shorter version of this article has been published by Open Democracy's Our Kingdom.

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