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Englishness, Power & Self-Pity

On Wednesday 25 November, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, laid out the UK Government Spending Review—the economic plan moving forward through and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout his speech, I was struck by how frequently Sunak reminded the House that this plan was for the whole United Kingdom. As opposed to who, one might ask? While this does on the surface seem like an obvious statement for the UK government to make, his insistence was a rather blatant acknowledgment of the implicit Anglo-centrist framework from which the UK operates. Using the £400 billion Sunak announced the UK would be borrowing in 2020/21, Sunak pledged to increase Scotland and Wales’ funding by 4.5%, and Northern Ireland’s 4.4% from the previous year. Notably, he did not mention a specific allocation for England because the English parliament is not devolved—what is technically the UK government operates primarily in the English interest and therefore has no need for individual funding. Both Sunak’s verbal insistence of unity and his pledge to invest in the devolved parliaments was a prime example of how Westminster continues to combat the history and present reality of Anglo-centrism within the United Kingdom.

In my book, I analyse how English nationalism has developed over time since Henry VIII incorporated Wales into England through the Laws in Wales Acts in 1535 and 1542—the first legal step towards the formation of the UK. One of my key arguments is that Englishness today is primarily defined and asserted in response to the fall of the British Empire and the rise of peripheral nationalisms within the UK. In his book English Nationalism: A Short History, Jeremy Black suggests that: ‘nationalism, or at least a distinctive nationalism, has been precipitated, and, in part, forced upon England, by the development in the British Isles of strident nationalisms that have contested Britishness, and with much success’ (Black 2). Black’s use of the word ‘forced’ is accurate; Englishness as a concept is most discussed and asserted when the threat of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalism seems to threaten the stability of English hegemony within the UK. This is part of a larger trend where Englishness is historically tied up with power; during the height of the British Empire, England’s identity was entrenched in its global dominion. (I purposely say England’s identity rather than Britain’s with regards to the British Empire because Empire was at its core an English pursuit.) If power, hegemony, and military strength are the indicators of identity upon which Englishness has relied, the fall of Empire and ‘strident nationalisms’ leave England without its sense of self, and it becomes an increasingly elusive concept.

Throughout the rest of the world, new waves of nationalism tend to rise up in response to external threats, for example against a colonial power (in most cases this has been Britain/England itself) that seeks to squash the unique identity and culture of the nation. For Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while their devolved assemblies do allow for some level of autonomy, the Anglo-centrism of the British government remains a point of contention and is the successful driving force behind nationalist parties within each nation. This pattern makes sense, because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all feel that their culture and in many cases language is in jeopardy, having been eroded over time by England and the Anglo-centric UK system. But when it comes to English nationalism, there is neither an external power (though many Leave voters would argue that the EU is one) nor a firmly defined unique identity to protect.

So, Englishness is, as Fintan O’Toole writes in his book Heroic Failure, an identity rooted in self-pity. As we continually seek to redefine ourselves in the modern world, on the one hand, we remain absolutely convinced of our global superiority, and on the other we feel wounded by the loss of Empire and personally attacked by the desire of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish people who want to break out from under our smothering hold. Rishi Sunak’s verbal assurance that the government’s economic plan will work for all of us is a thinly veiled signal towards unity at a time when the union of the UK remains extremely precarious, and especially so in the year following our formal break from the EU. Ultimately, actions will speak louder than words, and whether Sunak and the government can live up to their promises of a united kingdom, and what implications these plans will have on expressions of nationalism across the four nations, remains to be seen.

Further Reading

“2020 Spending Review Summary.” House of Commons Library. Accessed November 28, 2020.

Black, Jeremy. English Nationalism: A Short History. London: C. Hurst & Co, 2018. Print.

O’Toole, Fintan. Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. London: Apollo, 2018. Print.

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