By Conor Hannigan
Something has been absent from Brexit commentary and discourse. We’ve heard plenty about the single-market debate, the rights of EU citizens in Britain, the perplexing Irish border issue and the looming spectre of Nicola Sturgeon’s Indyref2. But little has been said about the plainly apparent rise of a distinctively English national identity and its role in this saga – and yes, I do mean English. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this absence is informed by the enduring West Lothian question – the simple fact that the English remain without a parliament of their own and so there are few voices at the top who will speak to this identity in explicit terms. The existence of an English national identity is an important phenomenon whose future is largely contingent on the internal relations of post-Brexit Britain, but which is somewhat misguidedly seeking expression through efforts to change the landscape of the UK’s foreign relations.
The manifestation of a distinctively English national identity is a peculiarly recent phenomenon. It has not been until the last fifteen years or so that those living in England have begun to identify as more English than British when asked to choose between the two with England’s white ethnic majority more likely than others to identify in this manner. Likewise, forms and expressions of English nationalism have been sharply on the rise. Importantly, however, in no way can all who choose to identify as English be categorized as English nationalists. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this shift means this choice of national identification can no longer be dismissed as the antics of English Defence League sympathisers. Much of this English phenomenon has to do with the gradual relative decline of Britain, both in a material and an ideational sense.
Several factors contributed to the dwindling of a sense of Britishness which had for so long held Britain’s more distinct national constituents together, but also served to mask the lack of an English national identity . Most obvious is the relative economic decline of Britain, the roots of which can be traced to the structural changes of the global economy during the time of Victorian Britain, which first challenged Britain’s pre-eminent place in the world a century ago. By the same token, loss of Empire robbed the British – and by virtue the English – of what was an imperial identity. According to this interpretation the English defined themselves in terms of what they were doing – spreading Christianity, free trade, and values of liberty and freedom – rather than by who they were. They were careful not to trumpet national achievements as their own, but rather as those of the wider collectivity of Britain and the Empire . The idea of Protestant Britain also acted as an adhesive for Britain’s constituent parts and was important in constructing a British identity contra the proverbial Other (Catholics) to the west and the south. The decline of this idea and of religious practice today has deprived Britain of what was once an important mechanism for constructing and maintaining British national identity.
Similarly, devolution of parliamentary power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has given far less ambiguous representations of each as distinct political communities, but has also compelled the English to imagine themselves as a more distinct nation. Moreover, devolution is plagued by a paradox. Efforts to appease nationalist tendencies by granting devolutionary powers often end up strengthening the lust for independence itself – a paradox neatly represented by the Scottish case. The English response to this has been to engage in a societal security dilemma which reifies and reinforces both distinct identities .
England has always been the leader of the British project – the front legs of the pantomime horse. But the decline of Britain has left the English unsure about their place in the world. In many ways the Brexit vote was the culmination of these English grievances. An institutionalized European Union became a scapegoat for the English insecurity that came about after these changes and challenges to Britain. It remains to be seen whether an exit from the EU will result in a more unified Britain which could serve to quell English national anxieties. Much of the current focus, however, appears to be on an alternative course of action which seeks to express an English national identity in terms of foreign relationships.
Underpinning much of English Euroscepticism is the notion that British accession to the European Communities in 1973 was an act of betrayal towards the Commonwealth countries – most notably those that were party to the ‘Anglosphere’ (the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand). Proponents of this view have often sought to justify their Euroscepticism by suggesting that Britain’s participation in the European project actually represented a turn inwards – that is, away from an internationalist ideal. Yet foreign relations should not be a zero-sum game. Unsurprisingly, a renewed cultivation of the Anglosphere through strengthened bonds with the ‘kin-countries’ seems to be the preferred course of action by some when it comes to the UK’s foreign relations post-Brexit. It is not hard to see how this approach – with the Anglo-American special relationship at its proposed core – harkens back to the imperial identity which once characterized the British/English one.
But is the prospect of a robust Anglosphere really the answer to Britain and England’s post-imperial, post-Brexit identity conundrum? Moreover, is it likely or even feasible? It seems irresponsible to suggest that it is. For one thing, there seems little appetite or incentive on the side of the would-be participants to enter anything like an institutionalized Anglosphere Association of states with the special relationship at its core. Obama made clear that the US strongly encouraged the UK’s continued participation in the European project, not least of all because of the desire for a like-minded country in the EU which could continue to strengthen transatlantic relations. He understood that the special relationship was stronger with the UK in the EU. But certain Brexiteers (mis)interpreted Obama’s attitude as an inability to sympathise with the historic ethnic ties between the US and the UK – ties which Obama couldn’t understand because of his Kenyan descent. Fast forward to the present and a post-Brexit strengthening of the special relationship seems equally unlikely, albeit for different reasons – the most obvious of which stem from the inward-looking nature of the current American president as well as much of the English public’s abhorrence of him.
In essence, efforts to cultivate a robust, institutionalized Anglosphere is grounded in a desire to extend a more parochial form of English ethnic identity beyond the British Isles as a basis for foreign policy. Indeed, the irony of this is that such a policy platform is at odds with itself given the truly cosmopolitan nature of England and Britain’s ethnic majority.
The Future of an Identity
The great paradox of English national identity is that despite such a rich, complex history throughout which the English have been able to lay claim to momentous achievements, a contemporary identity remains strikingly ill-defined. Without a responsible English parliament (much as having one might solve many problems) it is difficult to see where the clarification of what exactly this identity is will come from. Simultaneously, it is difficult to be especially optimistic about Britain’s future outside of the EU in terms of both its domestic circumstances and its foreign relations, at least in the short term.
New circumstances – domestic and international – will inevitably arise once the arduous task of executing Brexit in practice is completed. Yet one thing is clear: the days of English and British pre-eminence in the world have passed. Brexit ought to be the event which triggers this realization, despite dreams of an institutionalized Anglosphere as the catalyst for a restoration of global leadership. Of paramount importance for the immediate future then, is keeping the United Kingdom united and getting back to fostering a civic sense of Britishness in which all those living in the UK can partake and in which an English identity can once again become comfortably nested. Of course, this is easier said than done. But a UK without Scotland deprives the union of its raison d’être and shaky relations between the UK’s constituent parts risks this fledgling sense of English national identity continuing its descent into a spiral of national resentment which has become all too familiar in today’s world.
 Colley, Linda. Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837. Yale University Press, 2005.
 Kumar, Krishan. The making of English national identity. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
 Roe, Paul. “The Societal Security Dilemma.” In Security and identity in Europe: Exploring the new agenda, edited by Lisabeth Aggestam and Adrian G.V. Hyde-Price, 134-53. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
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Conor Hannigan is an MA International Relations candidate at King’s College London with an interest in questions of nationalism, identity, and security. His research has focused on debates surrounding ethnic identity in America during the First World War and English national identity in the context of Brexit.