Tuesday 24 May 2022

Is the Conservative Party an English nationalist party in all but name?

We keep on hearing that the Conservative Party is now an English nationalist Party in all but name (for example, see Tory grandees such as Clarke, Major or Pattern). But is it really? As Aughey noted back in 2010, the putative English nationalist calls for an English parliament, voiced by some Tories immediately post-devolution to Scotland and Wales, were gradually whittled away to 'English pauses for English causes':

what has not happened is the nationalistic Englishing of the Conservative Party. If there is any consistency to Conservative policy on England it is the attempt to demonstrate how distinctive English interests could be accommodated within the Westminster Parliament. That they should be accommodated is the moral and the political case which the Party believed had become urgent after 1997 (as do some on the Labour benches. See for example Field 2007). Indeed, the trajectory of Conservative thinking on the English Question since 1997 is not what an English nationalist reading would suggest at all. The party’s shift is the reverse, from constitutional maximalism to constitutional minimalism. It has gone from tentative support for an English Parliament to support for English Votes on English Laws to a suggestion from Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s that there should be an English Grand Committee to something even less radical as set out in the Conservative Democracy Task Force’s (2008) Answering the Question: Devolution, the West Lothian Question and the Future of the Union, chaired by Kenneth Clarke. The Task Force’s recommendation is that certified English Bills should be considered and voted by English MPs only in Committee and at Report Stage but that the whole House would vote on Second and Third Readings, reserving to all MPs decisions on the principle and the final passage of legislation. This represents, as one critic put it (Young 2008), a shift from English Votes on English Laws to English Pauses on English Clauses. 


Those many critics who point out the political illogicality of the Report perhaps miss the conservative point. The logical solution to the West Lothian Question is an English Parliament but Kenneth Clarke’s answer takes five pages to say what Disraeli once said in one line, namely that England is governed not by logic but by Parliament and for the Conservatives that Parliament remains Westminster. 

Eventually, the Tories abolished even Cameron's enfeebled version of English Votes on English Laws. Over time, the Tories' English grievance gave way to unionist pragmatism and statecraft and they arrived at a collective decision: the preservation of the Union and England's sense of Britishness takes precedence over English democracy and constitutional recognition of England. 

Michael Gove urged party members to see the bigger picture:

When some of my colleagues say we need to re-visit the West Lothian Question, or we need to have a new settlement that is fairer to people in England, I say "no, remember the bigger picture."

The bigger picture is British nationalism or, as they prefer to call it, 'unionism'. That England is governed not by logic (or democratic principles) but by the Imperial Parliament has consequences beyond democracy. It affects our understanding of England's place in the Union and our concept of 'us' - the demos. It allows Westminster politicians to not bother delineating English and UK policies, to refer to both England and the UK as 'the country' and to sometimes talk of Britain or the UK in regard to England-only policy.

"The next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History - so that every Briton can take pride in this nation." - Michael Gove

The English are denied a discrete sense of nationhood and rolled into an Anglocentric British nationalism in which England as a discrete nation is left unimagined and the word 'England' left unspoken. Politicans speak to England but for Britain and about Britain. Changes to the national curriculum [in England] allow every Briton to feel pride in Britain. Pledges for 40 new hospitals, 6000 new GPs and 50,000 nurses are delivered in front of British flags with nary a mention of England, it is 'our NHS' instead of 'NHS England' and 'hospitals across the country' instead of 'hospitals across England'. Changes to planning laws in England are enacted to 'get Britain building'. Beyond England, on the peripheries of the Anglo-British state, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish see that the Union Parliament has become even more Anglocentric and is, in effect, for large swathes of the Government's legislative programme, an English parliament that talks about England as Britain (a practice condemned by Welsh MPs during the pandemic). This is called 'English nationalism' but is, in fact, a British nationalism that occludes England, which prefers to speak of Britain when it should be speaking of England. It is not the preserve of Tories. Labour leaders (Blair, Brown, Corbyn and Starmer) all regularly conflated England and Britain.

"Britain is a great nation. A country where we can watch the most exciting sport - Wimbledon, the FA Cup, Test Cricket. Where you can listen to the best pop music - the Beatles, Blur, Oasis and Simply Red." - Tony Blair

Our inability to create an English politics separate from the institutions of Britain and the Imperial Parliament at Westminster is an impediment to creating a modern English identity in our own image, as Ben Wellings has written:

One of the greatest barriers to creating a truly civic nationalism in England may, ironically, be the institutions of government themselves, or more accurately, perceptions of parliament as a symbol of English freedom. We have seen how English historiography concerned with England's place in the world since the break from Rome has created the configuration: sovereign parliament equals sovereign nation equal freedom and liberty.

Brexit was a vote for Westminster sovereignty. It could almost be described as a Westminster nationalism. Voters who prioritised their Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish identities (those voters best represented by their national legislatures) were more likely to vote Remain. Across the UK, those who felt strong British and/or strong English identity (those represented best, or only, by Westminster) were more likely to vote Leave, with those prioritising a strong English identity over British identity - combining constitutional grievances against both the EU and the UK - most likely of all to vote Leave (see Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain).

Ironically, many of those who urged Conservative restraint, arguing against an English parliament or English Votes on English Laws, fearing that a discrete institutional and constitutional recognition of Englishness would up-end the Union, now complain that English nationalism has appropriated the institutions of Britain and British nationalism (including the Conservative Party) for itself and blame English nationalism for destroying the Union through Brexit. Even though the Leave campaign spoke the language of British, not English, sovereignty and flew British, not English, flags. Forced to choose between nothing, on the one hand, and a Brexit nationalism that defended Westminster sovereignty, the bastion of their historic English freedoms and liberty, the English chose the latter.


Instead of a civic English nationalism that is rooted in democracy and an understanding of the English as a national demos, the Conservative's refusal to speak to, of and for England, and the absence of an institutional and constitutional Englishness, has left the institutions of British democracy and governance hopelessly Anglocentric, and left England feeling aggrieved and unspoken for. Whatever that is, it is not English nationalism. 

The fact that it's a self-defeating form of unionism that has damaged the Union, implemented largely by English politicians, doesn't make it English nationalism. And the fact that British or European-identifying progressives want to other it and define themselves against it doesn't make it English nationalism either. For the James O'Briens and Alistair Campbells of this world, along with endless Guardian and New European think piece writers proclaiming 'I don't want to be English' or 'I'm embarrassed by my Englishness', this is a difficult concept to come to terms with. But they have no more interest in a legitimate, democractic expression of Englishness than do the Union Flag-waving, so-called English nationalist, Brexiteers that they oppose. It may be an uncomfortable understanding to reach but they are on opposite ends of the same British nationalist spectrum as the Brexiteers. 

It is not English nationalism but, rather, the negation of a discrete English nationalism for the furtherance of Britishness and British nationalism (sometime progressive, sometimes not; sometimes Labour, sometimes Tory; always British, always unionist), that has dictated where England finds itself. If they want an English nationalism that is inclusive, progressive, pro-European and democratic, then they have to argue for that. Conversely, if they want England to wallow in post-imperial British nostalgia, clinging to the symbols of Britishness as they are discarded elsewhere, then don't permit England the tools to normalise itself.

The left should be calling for an English parliament and English institutions. That's the only way we'll get a progressive Englishness. - Anthony Barnett


A progressive Englishness is also the root to a progressive Britishness. You cannot have a progressive Britishness that contains a surly, angry undercurrent of Englishness seeking representation through British institutions. 

The Tories are a British nationalist party and unionist party, and so are those on the benches opposite them.


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