Nation of England: Self-rule will come with self-pride

‘Nation of England’! Now there’s a phrase to stir the blood or – for some – to make it boil. ‘Nation of England’: sounds rather un-English, doesn’t it? We English are not given to aggressive displays of ‘national pride’ and self-assertion. It sounds like the demand of some rebellious ethnic minority to be respected and established as a nation, reminding one of ‘Nation of Islam’ or, indeed, ‘Nation of Israel’. But do we English have a minority-ethnic status within Britain like that of Asian Muslims; or are we – more like the Palestinians than the Israelis – a nation without a state even as we live within our own country?

To make such comparisons is to invite derision. Why? Because we’re told, by the government itself, that “England is . . . the dominant partner” in the United Kingdom (see previous post); that MPs from English constituencies represent over 85% of the UK population; and that “English interests are fully represented” in the UK parliament. But what the government and critics of English nationalism do not acknowledge is that England is a nation without any political representation as such; that England is not merely a ‘part’ of the UK, albeit the largest part – and, in any event, size does not  equate to political power; and that the English are not only 85% of the UK population but are a people: a nation that demands political status and representation. In this sense, the current nation-less condition of England within the UK is indeed akin to that of the Palestinians: dwelling in a country – a territory – they know as Palestine (England) but which is subsumed within the state of Isreal (Britain / UK) that accords them no nation status.

The injustices inflicted on the English people by the British state are clearly less glaring and violent than those suffered by the Palestinians at the hands of the state of Israel. However, structurally, the wrong is the same: denial to a people of their ancestral rights of ownership of their land, which is what makes the land and its people together a nation. Instead, the land is officially the possession of an alien state: England is not a nation but just a part of the UK; the English are not a nation but just a part – albeit the largest – of the UK population.

As a compendium of the injustices involved in denying England the political, constitutional, legal and cultural status of a nation, you need go no further than the Campaign for an English Parliament’s submission to the Calman Commission (the UK commission currently looking into the issues surrounding a possible extension of the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament), or its shorter version. This document is a clear, comprehensive and at times impassioned setting out of the argument in favour of an English parliament, with the full range of issues concerning the political and cultural suppression of England being explained. The case for an EP ultimately comes down to a plea for equal treatment: “Equality of treatment was . . . a fundamental part of the 1707 Act of Union. We look to a future of equal nations in equality of relationship to each other and to the UK government. Only in that way can the Union be maintained”.

Perhaps it is out of this sort of deference – whether real or tactical – to the Union that generally, throughout the CEP’s submission, England tends to be referred to as a ‘country’ rather than as a ‘nation’ – the passage quoted above being the honourable exception. This is so even at critical points in the CEP’s argument where it would be more logical and forceful to say ‘nation’. For example, when talking about the disparity in the treatment of England (which has no national political institutions) with that of Scotland and Wales (which do now have such national bodies), the CEP document states: “Since the Devolution Acts, 12 out of 14 polls . . . have consistently shown that the people of England are dissatisfied with the status quo and wish for their country to be treated as a whole in equality with Scotland and Wales and to have some form of national self government [my emphases]”.

And again, later in the same page (page 5, for reference), it says: “The powers of home rule that were allocated to Scotland and Wales were on the basis of their nationhood. However, England was disregarded, politically marginalised and has subsequently been referred to by the UK Government not by name, as would be fitting for a country united for over 1000 years, but as the ‘regions’ of Britain [my emphases]”.

Why refer to England as a ‘country’, and to Scotland and Wales as having asserted and obtained ‘nationhood’, when that same right to nationhood is being demanded for England? Calling England a ‘country’ in this context appears to be conceding that it is only a country within the UK: a territorial subdivision of that state. This is the kind of language the government uses about England: calling it a ‘country within the country’ of the UK; or one of the four ‘constituent countries’ or ‘constituent parts’ of the UK, alongside the three other recognised ‘countries’ of the UK. As the Office for National Statistics (ONS) drily puts it: “In the context of the UK, each of the 4 main subdivisions (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is referred to as a country”.

The CEP statement appears to be using the term ‘country’ to denote the geographical territory of a nation, whereas it uses ‘nation’ to refer to a “collection[s] of people with the same culture and history” that inhabits that territory. In which case, it’s logically consistent at least (as in the above examples) to refer to England as a  ‘country’, and to Scotland and Wales as ‘nations’, as this expresses the disparity in these ‘countries” present political status. However, the validity of this distinction breaks down when the CEP goes on to discuss the much-hated government reference to the “nations and regions of Britain”:

“In the first place nations are collections of people with the same culture and history and regions are geographical areas. There is no logical comparison between the two. However what we are to understand is that the countries of Scotland and Wales are inhabited by nations. So what is meant by regions in the
plural? What we must now understand is that England may no longer be regarded as a distinct country but as a collection of regions”.

There is quite a confusion here in the way the terms ‘nation’, ‘country’ and ‘region’ are being used. Surely, ‘nation’ is normally used to refer both to a country – geographical territory – and to ‘its’ people, who are both identified with that land and the ‘owners’ of it: exercising proprietary rights over that land and people through self-rule.  By contrast, ‘country’ and ‘region’ here more logically refer to a geographical territory, with regions being subdivisions of countries. The point about Britain being described as composed of nations and regions, then, is that nationhood is attributed to Scotland (and the Scots) and Wales (and the Welsh); whereas England is not only denied its traditional status as a nation but the ‘country’ of England (defined as the largest constituent part of the UK) is further subdivided into meaningless regions. So England is seen as moving in the opposite direction from Scotland and Wales, which have gone from ‘country’ to ‘nation’ status; whereas England disappears off the map altogether becoming a mere collection of regions.

But surely, this complete dismemberment of England should have been described not in the terms used by the CEP (“England may no longer be regarded as a distinct country but as a collection of regions”) but: “England is not only denied the nationhood accorded to Scotland and Wales but ceases to be a country at all and is broken up into a number of regions of comparable size – but not political status – to Scotland and Wales”. In other words, the grievance is double: primarily, the denial that England is a nation of equivalent status to Scotland and Wales – which is officially a new status resulting from devolution.  But not only that, the lesser status as a ‘country’ that England previously shared with Scotland and Wales is also denied (or at least an attempt is made at denying it) to England, the territory of which is broken up into a number of British regions. Scotland and Wales are ‘promoted’; while England is not only ‘relegated’ but disbanded.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that, in the event, the government did not succeed (or has not yet succeeded) in realising its blueprint for a new Britain without England; but, in effect, that’s still what we have. The consequence of devolution has been to render the ‘country’ status of England meaningless. Prior to devolution the four ‘countries’ of the UK were what you could call ‘virtual nations’: viewed as nations by their inhabitants, and with many of the trappings of nationhood, such as separate legal and educational systems for Scotland; a separate system of governance and distinct political / sectarian traditions in Northern Ireland; proud national traditions and a language of its own in Wales; and England providing the dominant culture and political direction for the ‘country’ (the UK) as a whole, with many of the cultural characteristics and institutions which today are referred to in PC speak as ‘British’ being proud to call themselves ‘English’ – which is what they were – albeit unofficially. Now, with the three other ‘countries’ of the UK having acquired an elevated legal status as ‘nations’ – at least, with government institutions that are unashamedly and overtly national in character – England’s status as a ‘country’ appears worthless, in legal terms at least: a country with no separate, formal national political institutions and government, and no constitutional status.

If such a country, by asserting itself as a nation, would threaten the very existence of the state or ‘nation’ within which it is subsumed, then there’s only one way that larger state is going to react, and that is to negate the idea that that country is a nation at all. Hence the way England’s distinct political traditions, history, identity and culture are suppressed by the present government, in the ways that the CEP document details so well. From being a ‘virtual nation’ whose culture and influential role was respected and proudly expressed, England has in effect become just the name for that part – or, rather, ‘those parts’ and ‘those regions’ – of the UK that do not (yet) have any devolved system of governance.

This ‘extension’ of devolution for ‘England’ is thought of as regional by virtue of two related changes that have taken place even though the political regionalisation that was intended to follow has not (yet) occurred: 1) ‘Britain’ / the UK takes over the status as the ‘nation’ for England only, i.e. England’s nationhood is transferred to it – hence the way everything is British now (for England only); and, under a regional system, the English people’s ‘nation’ would indeed (have) be(en) Britain; 2) ‘England’ does in effect cease to have any status or role within the ‘governance of Britain’, as no actual institutions or bodies with any real power are English as such: England now – not only under any putative regional system – is merely the ‘part’ of the UK that is still governed in a unitary fashion by the Westminster government. As I discussed elsewhere, what devolution in effect means is that all of the laws enacted by the UK parliament apply to England completely, and to the ‘other’ nations of the UK only to a variable degree. England has in effect fully merged into the UK and, in political terms, is the UK: completely indistinguishable from it.

This non-existent status of England is one of the reasons why the government simply won’t recognise the validity of the West Lothian Question and the English Question, as described in the CEP’s statement. If England, technically, is just (part of) the UK, then there is nothing invalid about the idea of elected representatives from (other parts of) the UK voting on government legislation for England or having executive power in English matters, especially as – under devolution – those ‘other’ parts of the UK, like England, have no formal status as nations distinct from the UK. So the terms in which the WLQ and the EQ are framed are themselves viewed as invalid: there are no ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ MPs deciding on matters for ‘England’ to which they are not accountable; only UK MPs, elected in UK elections, administering the UK. Ultimately, the West Lothian and English Questions are dismissed because England does not exist, other than as a convenient name for the ‘parts’ of the UK that are without any form of devolution.

This is the kind of thing we’re up against. The situation is in some ways much graver and blacker than the CEP’s statement appears to countenance. The CEP very reasonably thinks that, as an established ‘country’ within the UK, it is only fair that England should have the same level of democratic control over its own affairs as do the other UK countries. The CEP is proceeding on the basis of a model whereby Britain / the UK remains the state and, in international affairs at least, preserves its present status as effectively the ‘nation’; while England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland can all comfortably co-exist as equal countries-nations within the state-nation.

But this is no longer the starting base from which a resolution of the English Question can be found. We have in effect already moved to the situation I’ve described: Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland have become semi-autonomous nations within the (would-be) nation-state that is Britain, which also includes the territory formerly known as England, which has now become a ‘country’ only in the territorial and administrative sense, not in the sense of a ‘nation’. The UK government won’t – can’t – hear calls for a ‘national’ English parliament because, in its view, such a notion is a non-sequitur: England is not a nation; the nation is Britain; and an ‘English’ parliament would add a superfluous layer of governance, creating two competing ‘national’ jurisdictions. Better to just devolve power to the ‘British’ regions, making the abrogation of England’s nationhood by and to Britain complete.

In this context, we’re never going to get anywhere until the UK government is forced to recognise the status of England as a nation: no national representation for England until England is a nation, which it isn’t at present. And in order to achieve this, we have first to believe in the nation status of England ourselves. The CEP talks as if England were a “proud, historic nation” (as the CEP document quotes Tony Blair speaking about Scotland) only really in a historical sense: in the 1,000 years or so of English history before the Union. But there is only any validity in pursuing the English national cause if England has remained to this day a proud, historic nation that is asserting its right to govern itself. By contrast, the way the CEP refers to England as merely a ‘country’ within a renewed Union seems to embody the view that England can no longer aspire to the status as a full nation but must always in some sense be subordinate to the UK, albeit in restored parity with the ‘other nations’ of the UK.

But we’ve gone beyond this nice English state of affairs. The ‘other’ nations of Britain are no longer interested in this subordinate-nation status as ‘countries’: they legitimately want to be (re-)established as true nations. Meanwhile, the British state knows that if England asserts its national prerogatives, it is finished as a would-be nation. You can’t have both a British and an English nation as such. You could have an English nation within a much revised British state that had no pretensions to be a nation. But at the moment, Britain and England are locked in an endgame, whereby the future of Britain as a nation is dependent on the English people transferring their national identity and allegiances to Britain.

So if we want England to govern itself, we have first to demand that its existence as a nation be restored by obtaining recognition as a nation from a UK government that views it merely as a part of its territory. But to make this demand with the force and authority that might get it listened to, we have to speak as English men and women first, and not as loyal British citizen-subjects. We have to believe in England; we have to hold it as ‘our nation’ and see ourselves as English – and, if necessary, as English to the exclusion of British. It’s only in this way that our voices can actually be those of the sovereign English people: a real nation that is standing up and speaking out for its rights with total conviction in the justice of its claim.

In other words, if we want English-national sovereignty, we have to believe in it and not keep deferring to the sovereignty of a UK parliament that currently denies the existence of England.

We’ll never obtain national self-rule until we’re English in our hearts as well as our minds. Then only will we speak and be the Nation of England; and worthy to govern ourselves once again as the proud, historic nation that we are.

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6 Responses

  1. Hear, hear; I couldn’t agree more.

    Superbly written and argued, too.

  2. […] and UK governance exist. Further background to my thinking on this can be found here and […]

  3. […] only a convenient name for a territorial jurisdiction not, in the government’s view, a nation). In fact, it’s worse; because even in the footnote, England is not mentioned but is referred […]

  4. […] to which England is absolutely subject, while any idea of English national, popular sovereignty is seen simply as a non-sequitur. And England would be even more subject to, and constitutionally indistinct from, the UK state as […]

  5. […] see why English people should naturally be inclined to side with the Palestinians. As I stated in a previous post, our aspirations towards the establishment of a distinct English nation, freed from subordination […]

  6. […] see why English people should naturally be inclined to side with the Palestinians. As I stated in a previous post, our aspirations towards the establishment of a distinct English nation, freed from subordination […]

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