England: the forgotten nation that remade the politics of the UK

It so dominates the Union that Westminster thought it could ignore England’s distinct interests. But recent years have proven politicians ignore voters who identify as English more than British at their peril

June 14, 2021
article header image
Pick and Mix Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A thread of political Englishness runs through our nation’s momentous 21st-century upheavals: its first two decades opened with Labour dominance and ended with four Tory victories and the UK outside the EU. The same English power turned the relatively liberal conservatism of early 2016 into Boris Johnson’s “culture warring” party, and left Labour secure only in diverse and graduate-heavy areas of England. Englishness and, more specifically, a politicised Englishness with a strong sense of nation, national interest, democracy and sovereignty has been at the heart of every change.  

Most people in England are both English and British to some degree, and it makes little sense to ask them to choose between the two. But most are happy to place themselves on a scale from “more English than British” or “equally English and British” to “more British than English.”

Back in 2001, the political differences between these groups were slight. The “more English” were somewhat more likely to vote Conservative, but this did not stop Labour leading in all three groups. In every subsequent general election, the Conservative share of the “more English” voters rose, from 40 per cent to reach an overwhelming 68 per cent in 2019.

The British Social Attitudes survey suggests the “more English” were becoming fewer in number over this same period, but Labour can take less comfort from that than it might because for the “equally English and British,” Conservative support also climbed steadily—with just one small blip—from 28 to 52 per cent. By 2019, Labour was reduced to one in five of the “more English” and one in three of the “equally English.” Only amongst the “more British” did Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour outpoll the Conservatives.

Even though voters don’t usually explain a Conservative preference by saying “it’s the English thing to do,” these trends really are about politics, not cultural identity. While many ideas of England may be tied up with landscape and literature, music and poetry, sport, history or national institutions, political Englishness is defined by its stance on contemporary issues, which increasingly includes governance.

The more people emphasise their English identity, the more they see England as a nation with political rights. They want English laws to be made only by English MPs, and many want a parliament for England. They see English interests that are distinct from those of the UK as a whole and want political parties to pursue them. UK devolution is seen as unfair to England, with Scotland getting more than its fair share of public spending.

During the 2019 election, the political English told pollsters that Brexit would strengthen England. For them, leaving the EU was more important than keeping Scotland in the Union. But worries about UK devolution and the belief that the EU had too much say over our affairs were entrenching long before Scotland’s 2014 referendum or anyone knew there would be a vote on Brexit. These strong views of nation, national interest, democracy and sovereignty generally command a majority of the “more English,” enjoy more support than opposition amongst the “equally English,” but are largely opposed by the “more British.”

The “more English” are more likely to be found outside the major cities. They are older, whiter, have more socially conservative values and are less likely to have been to university. Immigration has always been of more concern to them—although, contrary to common assertions about racism and xenophobia, the “more English” entered 2020 far more liberal on immigration than they had been in 2001, and only a dwindling minority believe you have to be white to English.

There are strong overlaps with the geographies, demographics and values that are often cited to explain political change, and indeed it is not only by voting for Corbyn that the “more British” have diverged markedly from the rest of England. But it was the aspirations of political Englishness that lit the fuse when their desire to deepen national sovereignty and democracy fused with worries about the impact of rapid immigration from eastern Europe and David Cameron’s government could not deliver on its promised controls. Brexit was of course about Britain, but it appealed most to those English who felt their own nation lost out in both the Union and in Europe. For them, “take back control” spoke to a powerful sense that deciding who “comes here” was an issue of national sovereignty.

From the early noughties to 2014, Ukip’s growing success had panicked Conservative backbenchers, emboldened Tory Eurosceptics and forced David Cameron to concede an EU referendum. In the 2014 EU elections, Ukip took 42 per cent of the votes of the “more English” but just 18 per cent of the “more British.” In the referendum itself, fully 70 per cent of the “more English” voted Leave, the “equally English” split 50:50 while 68 per cent of the “more British” voted Remain, a combination which—even with Scotland and Northern Ireland also breaking for Remain—was sufficient to take the whole of the UK out.

Both Brexit and the politics of nations faded in the 2017 election, but political Englishness re-asserted the importance of sovereignty as parliament descended into deadlock on the withdrawal bill. The newly formed Brexit Party topped the poll in the 2019 EU elections, taking 55 per cent of the “more English” against only 23 per cent of the “more British.” The scene was set for Johnson’s English triumph in the 2019 “Get Brexit Done” election. His remodelled Tories married English social conservatism with a “levelling-up” economic promise worth trying for people whose views and communities had long been ignored. His English coalition won again in Hartlepool last month, one of the most English and least British towns.

Paradoxically, the “more English” have exerted this extraordinary power over politics during two decades when they have been shrinking in number. The younger, more diverse and highly educated “more British” have just overtaken them. But with political Englishness widely shared amongst the “equally English,” its power will not fade just yet. Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens all fish in the same pool of the “more British.” Unless and until there is a progressive appeal to aspirations for democratic nationhood, perhaps within a reformed Union, the Conservatives will still speak most loudly to political Englishness. Meanwhile, those progressives amongst the “more British” who don’t want to reach out to the rest of England may find they are living under English Conservatism for a long time.