Last week saw the opening moves in a high-stakes game of poker between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May. It has left us peering into the future, trying to figure out how their row over the timing of a second Scottish independence referendum will play out.
But we need to look backwards as well to grasp the significance of last week’s events. For the emergence of a potent seam of nationalism in Scotland – powerfully accentuated when a different female Conservative leader was in office 30 years ago – laid the foundations for the current ascendancy of the SNP. But the rising tides of nationalism are by no means confined to Scotland. Deep-seated changes to English feelings about their own interests and identity are an important factor behind May’s intransigent response to Sturgeon.
For something profound has stirred in the English psyche over several decades, and this is now having a powerful effect on British politics. A pride in British institutions and traditions has gradually been displaced by a different kind of nationalism. This depicts the English as a people denied the rights enjoyed by other nations, whose cultural traditions are eclipsed while those of other nations are celebrated, and who were overlooked while devolution was offered to every other part of the UK, and to London. This sentiment has taken root most deeply, research suggests, in the coastal towns, the shires and the outskirts of our largest cities.
But, strikingly, a growing sense of attachment to England is also palpable in big cities, among ethnic minorities and younger cohorts – a finding which undercuts simplistic accounts of the chasm between Leavers and Remainers. Importantly, there is evidence that this emerging sense of English national identity appeals to people with different political views, not just Conservatives.
For a good while, this sentiment was primarily visible in cultural forms – the sudden appearance of crosses of St George among England fans at the Euro 96 football tournament being a striking early example. Then, somewhere in the middle of the first decade of this century, it began to spill into politics. Polls started to report that those who felt most English were most likely to favour leaving the EU, and they also revealed growing disquiet at issues such as the distribution of funding across the UK.
Indyref1 was an important staging post on this journey. And then, during the 2015 election campaign, an increasingly rattled Tory party stumbled across the tactic of connecting Ed Miliband’s weakness as a prospective prime minister with the fear that he would be in hock to the SNP if Labour tried to govern without a majority.
The Conservative party, first under David Cameron and now under May, read this national mood as something that needed to be assuaged. This was in part because, if they didn’t address it, Ukip would. And it was also a realisation that Labour was unable to engage with the increasingly disaffected mood of the English, a perception that has been reinforced during Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader.
Over several centuries the English have been taught that their nationhood is expressed in entities that are larger than England. Empire, the Anglosphere, the Commonwealth and, of course, Britain have all been presented as havens for the English idea. But this no longer holds. Brexit represented the culmination of the unforeseen development of a deep-seated contrarianism and growing feeling for self-government among the English.
But have the Conservatives read this emerging national mood correctly? By making the reduction on inward migration a priority, they do appear to be moving in step with it. But in opting for a version of Brexit that involves leaving the customs union and the single market they may well find that they are running against, not with, the tides of English opinion.
For this form of Brexit requires a reassertion of the ethos of the unitary state, and is the antithesis to the kind of flexible, pragmatic statecraft that has kept the union together for so long. The English themselves still, for the most part, favour the union and want the Scots to be part of it, even though many now want a clearer English dimension reflected in it.
A second area where the government’s approach may well lead it away from English sentiment arises from the vision of the UK as a low-tax, deregulated, free-trading state chancellor Philip Hammond and some leading Brexiters have advanced. Such a political economy will accentuate the concerns about the uncertainty and pace of change which globalisation has engendered, and is likely to worsen the huge inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity that have stimulated a rising sense of grievance.
A Brexit that preserves access to the UK’s largest export market, promotes a fairer deal within England, and develops a more devolved UK is most likely to find favour with those May calls the “just about managing”. But the kind of Brexit towards which the government is currently propelling the country looks increasingly unlikely to deliver on these ambitions.
Michael Kenny is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, and author of The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford University Press)