This May, an English prime minister, newly victorious in hostile English territory, wrote to the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—all of whom regard him as the enemy incarnate, except the DUP, which regards him as treachery incarnate—and asked them to play as a single “Team UK.” In this moment, we must surely scent the endgame for the polity that less than a century ago ruled a quarter of humanity. The UK took a bullet in the head on 12th December 2019 when Boris Johnson romped home: we haven’t noticed only because our body politic was blast-frozen by Covid-19 before it could hit the ground. Time holds our Union cold and dying. Come the thaw, it falls.
Or rather, what’s left of it. For what we now call the UK is already a mere rump. A century ago, prime minister Lloyd George explained to parliament that Ireland, the nation that comprised almost a third of “us” when we were founded in 1801 (and which provided almost 40 per cent of the British Army in 1840) had finally lost patience: “scores of millions—I am not sure I could not say, hundreds of millions—have been expended lavishly by the British taxpayer on making Ireland contented… But the fact remains that Ireland has never been so alienated from British rule as it is today. Therefore the grievance, such as it is, is not a material one.”
Those who point to the likely financial hit of Scottish independence might remember these words from 1919, just a couple of years before the official rupture between Ireland and the UK. Scotland is off, sooner rather than later. The last of the Romano-British—the Welsh, as we English have always called them—will not then tarry long: the grievance, such as it is, is not a material one.
But what, then, has made the UK unbearable to the non-English nations, despite its apparent financial advantages?
It is the English Question.
Of course, the English are not used to thinking of themselves as a troublesome Question. Other nations are Questions. But Winston Churchill, no less, saw the English Question as the bane of the UK. In 1912, he publicly said that Welsh, Irish and Scots nationalisms could all be catered for. English nationalism, however, could not: “there would be no difficulty,” he declared in a speech reported in the Westminster Gazette, “in applying the federal system to Scotland or Wales, as well as to Ireland”—but when it came to England, “a very real difficulty” would arise.
“Our body politic was blast-frozen by Covid-19 before it could hit the ground. Time holds our Union cold and dying. Come the thaw, it falls”
So what was the great problem with English nationalism? If you doubt there is one, just look at us now. A member of the ruling party announces he will not support his “beloved England” if the football team makes what he sees as the wrong cultural gesture; the government proposes 10-year prison sentences for those who cause “emotional or wider distress” if they damage public statues (or, as the Daily Mail put it, “desecrate sacred monuments”); and the nation is apparently convulsing over whether one Oxford college will remove a certain statue from one of its quadrangles, or whether another Oxford college will put back up a certain portrait in one of its common rooms.
Irrespective of where you stand on these issues, it is hard to pretend that such tones are those of a happy island fortress. The cultural hysteria is characteristic of citizens who emerge blinking from colonial rule, only to discover that—once the new elite is installed in the former viceregal mansion—they are only at the start of the struggle over who they really are.
But surely England is the most ancient of modern European nation states, the realm that gave the world parliament, the common law and Magna Carta? How can such a country, once the centre of a vast empire, ever itself be a “postcolonial” land?
This is where we must understand our own history. Fintan O’Toole has divined, in the pages of Prospect and elsewhere, the apparently bizarre way in which England “audaciously dreams itself into the colony status” to justify Brexit. Quite so. But that dream, or nightmare, wasn’t conjured out of nothing by Vote Leave or Cambridge Analytica. It is a broad seam in the national memory. For England, insofar as it has ever existed as a coherent nation, really was always someone else’s country, not that of its people. And the ordinary English know it—not in any mystical way, but in daily reflexes handed down the generations. When a ruthless would-be new elite told them in 2016 (using the simplest English) that they should take back their country from a culturally foreign class who treated them as colonial subjects, deep down it rang true.
So let’s look at the English Question, to find out why Churchill thought that only an extraordinarily radical move could make England safe for the UK.
England is no more a single country than Great Britain or the UK. The “Jurassic divide” in our geology—traced by the Trent-Humber river—has split England since before it was England. Archaeologists can work out immediately whether an Iron Age settlement came from north or south of it.
From early on, the tribes who entered post-Roman Britannia from Germany bifurcated naturally along this ancient line. The first great English historian, the Venerable Bede from Northumbria, mentioned an over-arching split between northerners and southerners nine times in his work. In his lifetime, the Church of Rome recognised this by dividing its English organisation into the York and Canterbury branches.
When the Vikings smashed every other English kingdom and began to settle the north and east, the west Saxons, bidding for the support of everyone culturally English, invented the unifying term “Anglo-Saxon.” By 927 their king, Æthelstan, had conquered the entire land and called himself “King of the English.” That first—and only—English-led unity did not, though, outlast his death in 939: the laws of King Edgar (circa 965) reveal that “among the Danes” (in other words in the north, the northern Midlands and East Anglia) people still made up their laws “as they think best.”
When the Danish state attacked in 1014, the folk in these regions acted as a pro-Scandinavian fifth column, enabling Cnut to add England to his empire in 1016. He was the first king officially to call his land “Englalonde” (or Angle-land, perhaps to airbrush out the defeated West Saxon dynasty) and also the first to claim that his laws applied equally to everybody, regardless of ethnic heritage.
The first united “England” was thus created under colonial rule. Two more Danish kings were followed by the half-Norman Edward the Confessor, who was thoroughly French-cultured, and Harold Godwinson, a half-Danish southern warlord who had no claim of blood and was hated by his rivals in the Midlands and the north. Then came the deluge: William, Duke of Normandy conquered the entire country after a single major battle in 1066, an outcome that would have been much less likely if Anglo-Scandinavian “Englalonde” had in fact been the ancient, united realm of some historians’ fantasies. Divided, the English were conquered.
“The first united ‘England’ was created during colonial rule under the Danish King Cnut”
And so in England, uniquely in western Europe, the grand process of High Medieval nation-building was run by a colonial elite with an entirely different language and at least half an eye on their French possessions. While feasting (in French terms) on “pork,” “mutton” and “beef” from what their peasants (being Anglo-Scandinavians) called “swine,” “sheep” and “cows,” they created parliament, the common law and Magna Carta. They needed foot soldiers for the next stage of their colonial ambitions in the archipelago, so they invented modern English nationalism to make the conquered natives feel like the most-favoured subject people. Here is the anti-Welsh and anti-Scots vituperation that opens the official record of Edward I’s 1294 campaign: Gales soit maldit de Deus e de Saint Symoun! Car tuz jours ad esté pleins de tresoun. Escoce soit maldit de la Mere Dé! Or: “May Wales be cursed by God and Saint Simon! For it has always been full of treason. May Scotland be cursed by the mother of God!”
This French-speaking elite plastered over the timeless cracks in England until their own cultural unity began decaying towards the end of the 14th century. In deposing Richard II in 1399, Henry IV secured some populist covering fire by becoming the first king since Harold 333 years earlier to accept the crown speaking English—but, almost immediately, the unity of England was once again in question.
In 1405, the Percys, mighty in the north, and the Mortimers, who considered themselves Richard II’s heirs, agreed the Tripartite Indenture with Owain Glyndwr: countersigned by the King of France, this Latin agreement proposed to split England into northern and southern realms, with modern-day Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire going to Wales. Having failed to divide England between themselves, the Percy and Mortimer families 50 years later became central players in the Wars of the Roses, which soon coalesced in practice into a straight north vs south fight. (The great “Lancastrian” powerbase was indeed the Duchy of Lancaster, but the core “Yorkist” territories were in the Welsh Marches and the south.)
This culminated in the hecatomb at Towton in 1461. By now, each army saw the other not as political rivals, but as semi-aliens they could barely understand. (William Caxton in 1490 tells how an ordinary Kentish woman mistook a northerner for a Frenchman.) No quarter was given: 20,000 Englishmen, perhaps 1 per cent of the population, were hacked to death by their supposed compatriots in a single afternoon. French-origin chivalric culture was abandoned as nobles and even princes were simply executed after defeat.
The slaughter only ended when a part-Welsh dynasty, the Tudors, invaded from France in 1485, bringing with them Renaissance Humanism. For the next 400-odd years, anybody who was anyone in England was expected to have at least a smattering of Greek and Latin (plus, naturally, decent French). And so, with scarcely a pause for bit of good old-fashioned north vs south English bloodletting, medieval French-speaking elite culture was replaced with a classically-educated elite culture.
The powerbases of this new Tudor elite—the courtiers, parliament, Oxbridge, the Inns of Court—were all in the south. The real driver of the Reformation was the determination of these state-builders to brook no regional English or supra-national loyalties. Uncoincidentally, there were bloody revolts in the north, Norfolk and Cornwall, and though Elizabeth I’s state held together in the face of foreign invasion (as states will), civil war was widely feared as her death approached.
But she and Lord Cecil had a radical solution: they handed England over once again to a foreign monarch—who immediately proposed to abolish it. Just a year on the English throne as James I (but after several decades of being Scotland’s James VI), the monarch proclaimed: “wherefore We have thought good to discontinue the divided names of England and Scotland… and do intend and resolve to take and assume unto Us… the Name and Style of King of
Parliament refused. This was the birth of our modern politics. For the next 85 years, the southern English parliament fought, constitutionally at first and at last physically, to impose itself on a loose, tactical confederation of northern English, Scots, Cornish, Welsh and at times Irish. Cromwell won in 1644-1652 only by unleashing an Islamic State-style, puritanical southeastern populism, which retained visceral memories of 1066: the Levellers and Diggers incessantly claimed that they wanted to take their country back by ending “the Norman yoke.” In the aftershocks, England became practically a failed state: by 1688 one faction of its elite could think of no way to avoid another civil war except asking the Dutch to invade us.
Having stared into the abyss, the elite of the early 18th century finally abolished England. They created Great Britain and appointed a German king. George I was so completely un-English that he had to address his cabinet in French. Lord Chesterfield summed up elite attitudes to classical languages and French in a 1748 letter to his son: “Greek and Latin, is absolutely necessary for every body… The word illiterate, in its common conception, means a man who is ignorant of those two languages… As for French, you have it very well already; and must necessarily, from the universal usage of that language.”
It was all Greek to the common people of England, but that was the point. The Georgian cultural package was British, not English. The gentry, lairds and clan chiefs of “Outer Britain” were no longer dragooned by Cromwellian English populism, but invited to partake in a multilingual, classically branded culture which, being natural to nobody, could be adopted without loss of pride by anybody. So they did.
This extraordinary construct, Great Britain then the UK, worked brilliantly—so long as nobody asked the common peoples. At the general election of 1885, they (or at least, most males over 21) at last got their say. And immediately they began voting on ancient lines. Southern England became a Conservative tribal fortress; the northern English voted with the Celts.
And so from 1885 until 2015, our politics was dominated by a single conflict: the Party of Southern England (aka the Conservative Party) faced off against the federalist League of Outer Britain (successively known as the Liberal Party and the Labour Party). One famous image from a mustering of the League of Sheffield in 1992, at Neil Kinnock’s disastrous pre-election rally, sums it up: of the four flags of the nations the Labour Party flew, the St George’s Cross, by accident or deep instinct, was placed at the back.
“This extraordinary elite construct, Great Britain then the UK, worked brilliantly—so long as nobody asked the common peoples”
From the start, whenever Tory southern England was outvoted by the non-Tory Outer UK, its outrage threatened the state itself. In 1886, Randolph Churchill first played what he called “the Orange card,” happily countenancing violence in Ireland. Conservative leader Bonar Law all but openly succoured armed sedition in Ireland in 1913-14; Winston Churchill growled back at him in March 1914 that “there are worse things than bloodshed, even on an extended scale.”
The obvious question is: why didn’t the Conservatives become English nationalists then? They couldn’t because this elite were first and foremost imperialists: citizens of everywhere and hence nowhere, as we might now say. To them, “England” wasn’t any real nation but a vision of Imperial HQ (not for nothing did Kipling ask “what do they know of England who only England know?”). Yet after 1885, their power depended on the loyalty of southern English voters and a nationalism that they had to keep safely contained.
Hence the deliberate confusion between the flags of “England” and of “the UK/Empire.” The English—above all, the southern English—had to understand themselves, implicitly, as the most-favoured nation.
This fudge worked so long as the Party of the South delivered policies like going back onto the gold standard or closing down the coal mines, which all but openly declared that they cared only for southern jobs. The crisis came after 2010. Traumatised by Blair, the Tories had already clawed back the popular vote in England in 2005, only to find in 2010, once again, that winning a majority of English MPs wasn’t enough to rule the UK. But now, eternally loyal southern English voters had another tribal choice: Ukip. Brexit was merely a tool to win back these voters for the Conservative Party.
The game is given away by how the Brexiteers completely changed their story of who needed to leave the EU and why. Back in the 1990s, the whole UK was to shake off the pathetically moribund EU and head boldly off on the USS Free Enterprise, guided by our shared “Ulster Scots” values (remember them?). More recently, though, the man the Financial Times called “the brains behind Brexit,” Daniel Hannan, rejigged the tale so that it became about the English (who, he claimed, had brought freedom itself with them “from deep in the German woods”) bravely resisting foreign dictatorship. He tweeted on the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 2015: “England’s Nakba. Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, fell in battle, opening the door to occupation and feudalism.”
The fact that Brexit was merely a side effect of an instinctive Tory drive to end the UK (and hence, to govern England forever) is plain from the 2015 election campaign. David Cameron did not, as we might now imagine, trumpet the promise of a Brexit referendum. Brexit wasn’t mentioned until page 72 of the 82-page Tory manifesto, and played no part whatever in the all-important visual campaign. Instead, the Scots—who had only just re-affirmed their allegiance to the Union—were cast as all but an enemy state.
An allegedly risible Ed Miliband was shown in an election poster as the mere puppet of Scottish nationalists, who at this time held only six seats. This was deliberate: the plan had begun to take shape the previous autumn, when within hours of clinching the Scottish independence referendum with the help of a cross-party “vow” about more devolution, Cameron instantly and shamelessly switched and decreed “millions of voices of England must also be heard,” and that “the question of English votes for English laws… requires a decisive answer.”
And so, in 2015, the Conservative Party at last became the English National Party in all but name. Scotland, seeing that the game was up for the UK, went over almost totally to the SNP at the general election, and followed up the next year by voting the opposite way to England in the Brexit referendum.
In 2019 came the coup de grâce. The long-nurtured ambiguity of the Union Flag was finally cleared up. Johnson’s “oven-ready deal” came wrapped in the colours of the UK but everybody could see that “we” no longer meant all of us. As the FT put it, Brexit had “read the rites over British conservatism.” The secret driver of the project was now clear (if it hadn’t already been clear from pre-election polls, which showed that clear majorities of Tory voters were prepared to end the UK to accomplish it): Brexit was merely the means to free up a new English nationalism—led from the south.
“The present government, like every other government, will eventually end up having to choose which England to back”
And yet for all their nationalist posturing, our new rebel elite, like all our elites since 1016, look for their cultural-political vision in another country. A hard Brexit was always about becoming wingman to the Republican America that they confidently expected to remain ascendant. Small wonder their zealots are now in disarray, and desperately hike up the culture war which won them their coup. Which brings us to where we began: the English Question, and what to do about it.
In 1912, Churchill—desperately trying to hold together his beloved UK—knew very well that in seven of the eight elections since the dawn of the modern democratic era in 1884, the Tories had carried England thanks to their total command of the south. This would doom his proposed imperial parliament for a federal UK: “If there were, as there very likely might be, a divergence of feeling and policy between the English parliament and the imperial parliament, the quarrel between these two tremendously powerful bodies might tear the state in halves and bring great evils upon us all. To avoid the possibility of such a quarrel”—the Westminster Gazette had the MP for Dundee saying, before he concluded by pre-empting the logic Gordon Brown is peddling today—“they would have to face the task of dividing England into several great self-governing areas.”
Sadly, Churchill’s insight—that England doesn’t work as a single country—came too late. By then, the Irish were no longer ready to wait for England to solve its own Question. In 2015, the Scots lost patience too. Soon the English will be alone again at last. And the Question will remain.
In a lonely England, the north-south divide will be as clear as when Bede first noted it 1,300 years ago. Since Disraeli, our elected leaders have often spoken of it. Many have explicitly framed policies to bridge it. None has succeeded. For England’s twin economies and cultures aren’t just different, they are incompatible. As recent by-elections have shown, you can’t please both the Red Wall and the Home Counties. For all its patriotic blather, this government, like every other, will eventually have to choose its England.
Their own tribe will call, and they will answer. Electorally, it will be safe for them to do so: without potential Celtic allies for the first time since James I took the throne, the north will be again as powerless as it was under Elizabeth I. Perhaps northern voters, as English nationalists, will be happy with that. Or they might consider taking the advice of Winston Churchill.