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UKIP and English nationalism

farage & st georgeLet’s look at some recent research by Edinburgh University. While UKIP are basking in the warm glow of favourable polling, north of the border, Edinburgh’s polling finds them stuck on 10%. Respectable certainly, but not a political earthquake. Interestingly in Wales their support stands at 20% – a good nine points clear of Plaid Cymru but trailing 19 to Labour. As for England UKIP are on 29 to Labour’s 30, a score mirroring (trailing) recent polling. If you look at voting intention by self-reported national identity, ‘English Only/More English than British’ identifiers are 42% for UKIP.

The party and Nigel Farage win a plurality of ‘who best stands up for England’, followed in short order by ‘no party’ and ‘no one’. On the EU referendum, 40-37 would have us out in England, where in Wales and Scotland it’s 39-35 and 48-32 to stay. And lastly of English only/mainly, 55% would vote to leave, and just 26% are for staying (the terms are almost reversed if one identifies as British only, or mostly British).

This will come like a bolt from the red, white and blue for precisely nobody. Except perhaps UKIP’s support in Wales. Nevertheless it is fair to say UKIP, among other things, is a lightning rod for English nationalism. And, again, this leads us into the murky waters of what Englishness is and how has got attached to a party that touts United Kingdom in its name?

Nationalisms at one level of remove are, of course, fictions. They are less a body of ideas and more certain structures of feeling that have emerged over time, often quite consciously. They do not stretch back into ancient history. There was no Roman or Carthaginian nationalism. Our ancestors who lived and farmed the north German plains were not suffused with English sensibilities. The idea a nation has certain essential and inviolable attributes different to other nations is completely modern. They are as much a unique property to our period of history as factories, bureaucratic rationality, and capitalism. However, just because nationalism is a fiction doesn’t mean it’s fictional. It is very real. Imagined communities have the habit of coming alive if people behave as if they exist.

Attempting to define the properties of a particular nationalism is a tricky job. Is it emergent or established? Is it the nationalism of a former colonial power or the formerly-colonised? Is it a nationalism that intersects with the nationalism of a “family” of nations, or a diaspora of people dispersed about the globe? If that wasn’t complicated enough, what role ethnicity, gender and class? Whose nationalism is it? And who does this nationalism define itself against the most – who is its primary Others?

Englishness is messy. If it has a unique character, it lies in its being overlaid and intertwined with a “multi-national” nationalism: Britishness. A dynastic and then an imperial project, Britishness is now less about empire and bovver boys and more (officially at least) at ease with liberal secularism, diversity and inclusivity. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalism defines itself against Britishness, though it has crept into their souls too. But, witness the independence referendum campaign in Scotland. The Other being set up isn’t the huggable civic Britishness of London 2012 but the arrogance and austerity of Tory Britain, of the long years – still ongoing – of a nation ruled by a coalition government that holds less than a fifth of Scotland’s Westminster representation.

As Britishness has changed, become something of a brand, and now has a section of the “family” wanting to pull away from it, what of Englishness? What does “being English” mean and why is it an emerging political factor?

The main problem with Englishness is its invisibility. That might sound like a strange argument to make. Every two years the Cross of St George flutters from cars and bedroom windows all over the land as we do battle in the European or World Cup. That I don’t even have to say what sport I’m referring to shows how embedded the England team is in our collective psyche. Yet, is that it? Footy? Think about British virtues – ‘keep calm and carry on’, the stiff upper lips, reserve and understatement, tea and tiffin, royal reverence, fair play and rooting for the underdog. Yes, they’re all a bit aristocratic, but they are entirely English too. So if one rejects a British identity in favour of Englishness, what is one rejecting? UKIP’s persistence supplies part of the answer.

Britishness – and by extension Englishness – has a weird quirk in its character. Conquering the largest empire in history has left a deep stain. You cannot understand racism in these isles without grasping the imperial overhang. But if a national identity is more so a structure of feeling than a set of ideas, another of the empire’s orphans is an inchoate sense of entitlement. This manifests less as strutting, post-colonial arrogance, even if there are plenty of Colonel Blimps haunting the Telegraph‘s comment pages. Rather, it congeals into a sense of Britain, or now the Scots want out; England vs the world. We are the part of the little island that dared. We deserve respect and we are at all times quite prepared to face down insurmountable odds. Group of death in the first round? No-hope entry in Eurovision? Standing up to Brussels? Being the disadvantaged little guy (yes, nationalism is imbued with masculinity) with only your wits and resourcefulness to rely on, that’s what Englishness is about.

This is where UKIP comes in. It is a middle-aged man standing firm with his middle finger raised against the onrush of history. Everything its support doesn’t like: the gays, the East Europeans, the (whisper it) blacks and Asians. The out-of-touch politicians, the scroungers and the shammers, the benefit and health tourists, the people who don’t speak English in town, the lack of jobs, opportunities and housing for “our people”. The European Union is the convenient bogeyman in all this, the German-run communist beast straight out of Revelations. The continental abomination who would pave over England with red tape, Romanians and mosques. UKIP’s standing up, being counted. Doing what the people of this sceptred isle have always done. This is the secret of the party’s appeal. It says the unsaid and does what needs doing.

At least that’s how UKIP likes to see itself. In practice, it attracts plenty who define themselves against official inclusive Britishness too. If you bang on about immigration being the root of people’s problems, don’t be surprised that dredging the sewer turns up a few turds. No, rather than being the sort of figure UKIP’s dear leader cuts, the party is a nervous wreck of a man. It is fearful, distrustful, and hostile to a world its generation ultimately made. It doesn’t stand firm. It wants to retreat. It wants to cower behind the White Cliffs, shouting “go away!” at passing shipping. UKIP is the very opposite of how it presents itself.

How to counter this appeal? A new elite project of Englishness won’t fit the bill. UKIP have articulated a stance, a feeling embedded in the national psyche. It’s almost impossible to undo, because it has always been a part of Englishness. There’s certainly no harm in trying to promote a civic, inclusive nationalism but ultimately cultural/national insecurities of culture usually mirror insecurities elsewhere. Interesting seminars and fine books on English nationalism have their place, but more important is for people to feel secure in their lives, that they have a sense of place and know where they and their children are heading. And only a programme of thoroughgoing political and social change is capable of achieving that.

One Comment

  1. nige says:

    Great article. Are some elements missing. English nationalism rejects the rule of the landed gentry of 1066 & recognises an ethnic englishness of anglo saxon england & northern nordic communities. Often using the white dragon flag as an alternative. Rejecting london centric britishness for regional traditions and dialects of the shires. Without england being recognised as a nation in its own right we’ll see further devolution into regions like Yorkshire and the north west. Socially, culturally and financially the North has never been so divided from the south since danelaw existed.

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