by John Denham
Monday, 14
December 2020
Idea
11:21

Boris Johnson is no English nationalist

Just like his critics, the Prime Minister is only interested in British identity
by John Denham
Boris Johnson is a British — not English — nationalist

‘English nationalism’ got both barrels from politicians and the commentariat this weekend. Tory grandee Chris Patten declared Boris Johnson to be an English nationalist, not a Conservative. The Observer opined that he was blinded by a ‘schoolboy English nationalism’. Blaming English nationalism for the political upheavals following Brexit has been the lazy option on Left and Right. Will Hutton railed against ‘xenophobic English nationalism’. Gordon Brown accused the Tories of ‘whipping up English nationalism’. Former Tory MP Guto Bebb has done the same.

But the inconvenient truth is that Johnson and his critics are all nationalists and of the same ilk. They are all British nationalists. They certainly disagree about what is currently the British national interest, but they share a profound disdain for England and its national identity.

Johnson is in a long tradition of Anglo-centric British nationalists who see the union as the extension of English institutions — our monarchy, our parliament — by including others. Because the union is the augmentation of England, England itself did not need, nor could it have, its own identity. Johnson’s view of the union is undoubtedly distinctly English but no different to many in previous generations. When Brexiteers harked back it was to the British empire, not England, as Patten, the last imperial governor of Hong Kong might have acknowledged.

Scotland saw the union as allowing its own legal, educational, and cultural identity. Gordon Brown stands in that tradition, happily claiming Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and other pre- Act of Union events as British history while seeking greater autonomy for Scotland. Brown, like British nationalists north and south of the border, has always wanted to suppress England’s own voice.

On Europe, Johnson’s Conservatives and the Brexiteers did capitalise on English discontent. They won the support of the ‘political English’: people who emphasise their English identity, who put England and its interests ahead of both the union and the EU, want fair funding, and for English MPs to make English laws. They also favour public ownership and more investment across public services.

A real English nationalist would stand for those aspirations; but other than on the EU Johnson does not. The truth is that English nationalism has no voice, no political party, no programme, no public intellectuals, no civic or cultural institutions.

England is the only part of the union to have had no debate or referenda on governance and no new national democratic forum in the past 20 years. If England has not been able to re-imagine itself as a 21st century nation, it is the British nationalists — Left and Right, liberal and conservative — who have worked so hard to silence its people. It’s time they owned the consequences.

Join the discussion


  • Breathing life back into the idea of Britain is going to involve being brave enough to take a sledgehammer to the existing Union and going completely radical with an entirely new country-building project. As I know the Scots, they’re creative, hardworking and industrious people and I have great affection for them – an invitation to participate in a new and ambitious “Great Britain 2.0” project could appeal. What you could set up is a kind of 4-nations thinktank or committee comprising members from all four nations to put together ideas for the new Britain – this would re-enfranchise the peoples of the Celtic fringe as it would lessen the feeling of being dictated to by an overbearing Westminster to wean more autonomy off and allow them to have real ownership over the new project. England would still be the most powerful and influential nation within it (this is simply a matter of fact)…but Scotland would have more power and influence in such a new country than it would do in a dysfunctional EU of going on 30 member states. Considering the current state of the EU (in serious existential crisis because of problems of far greater gravity than Brexit), Scottish independence seems like a bigger risk than ever before. What if the 300 year union is dissolved and all the costs of independence (including a new currency) are taken on…only for the final destination, the EU, to disintegrate? This isn’t such an outlandish idea as most people think. Against that background, Nicola Sturgeon’s impatience to be the one to lead Scotland to independence could prove seriously damaging.

  • Why are you not in a senior position in a UK political party? This is the most sense I have read on this issue for a very long time. Very well said

  • The only problem with this idea is that England is very much the larger country.
    You talk, as if, the four nations are all equal in size, they are not.
    Unless the think tank takes account of this, it merely disenfranchises the English.
    If you take account of it, then you have something like Westminster.

    As England has a population of 56M. Scotland 5.5M.Wales 3.3 and NI 2.0. one can see the difficulty.

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