“What we think of when we talk of English traits really narrows itself to a small district. It excludes Ireland and Scotland and Wales, and reduces itself at last to London, that is, to those who come and go thither.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Identity today is in flux: so the Census results tell us. There are many currents but a key event, especially for political radicals, was the launch of the unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003, backed by almost the whole of the London political establishment. So thorough was that backing that it is difficult to find an appropriate reaction short of repudiating the British State itself.
It’s easier for those on the Celtic periphery to do this, slipping easily into an alternative identity removed both in distance and in scale from the London regime. It’s not so easy to do here, where the difference between England and Britain has historically been seriously blurred. England is 81% of Britain by population and its capital is also Britain’s capital. But one seriously big consequence of devolution is undoubtedly that more folk today identify as primarily English, rather than primarily British, than would have done 20 years ago. And they are prepared to organise as such. These facts have spawned a growing stream of pseudo-academic mush from a self-referential British Left anxious for an ideologically sound response that doesn’t rock the unionist boat.
The challenge facing a distinct English identity is the extent to which it has for a very long time been a dormant one. Tom Nairn, a Scot, wrote in The Break-up of Britain that the price of the Union has been a “peculiar repression and truncation of Englishness”. Anyone looking for an English identity today will find some odd, and often disagreeable, role models. Billy Bragg has done his best to present a radical view of England – and been pilloried for his pains by a labour movement that will happily march behind its trade union banners but views national flags with some unease. So the fringe has it. Dr Frank Hansford-Miller, who founded the English National Party in 1974, used to dress up as a Beefeater, in the belief that this was the English national costume. It didn’t do his cause a lot of good. Today’s English nationalists are as likely to dress in chain mail and pretend to be crusaders, especially if they dislike their neighbours from Asia.
Insisting that the only England is the far Right England does nobody any good. The far Right will find plenty who reject Englishness itself as tainted, for the same reasons that they also reject Britishness. And it can hardly be to England’s benefit to have to choose between a far Right vision and a total vacuum.
It certainly is to the benefit of the UK establishment to foster the idea that there is no third option. That way, the far Right bogeyman can be recruited in support of the status quo. England needs the Celts. They must understand that they have a responsibility not to be selfish but to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of the English. Separatism would abandon England to be ruled by skinheads with swastika tattoos on their foreheads. Only the eggshell-thin veneer of Britishness protects the English from themselves and the havoc they would unleash... It’s ridiculous. It’s manipulative. It serves well the electoral interests of the Labour Party. And it’s not less real for being untrue.
So it’s important to those in power to suppress the creation of any third option. Regionalism can be spiked by insisting that the Prescott zones were it, that no more imaginative solution is open for discussion. Those who accept that as true are pushed back upon either the far Right unitary England or the status quo, lacking, as they do, the confidence to assert that actually there are several different paths down which England could travel and that it isn’t a betrayal of it to say so. A federal England, for example, isn’t any less English than a unitary one. It is MORE English, to the extent that it allows expression for regional and local identities too, which are necessarily part of any inclusive picture.
English nationalism’s greatest fear, stemming from the Prescott zones experiment, is that England will disappear completely. That it won’t be possible to be English at all. That division and disunity will accelerate to the point where Englishness becomes a crime. Yet there’s no problem with division and disunity at the international scale, or with denouncing a European identity, because those are deep-rooted attitudes that go back to the origins of our modern State. English nationalism still dances to a Tudor tune. Beefeaters, remember?
Disappearance does seem an unlikely scenario, though one easily exploited, both by those who might want such an outcome and those who don’t. What puts regionalists off nationalists is the degree of over-reaction this engenders. England becomes an embattled identity and a greedy one, one that wants it all. Any identity that doesn’t subordinate the particular to the national is railed against as an enemy within. Any recognition of legitimate claims – that Kernow and Gwent aren’t English or that it’s time to be friends with the Germans – is feared as a crumbling of the defences that will bring the whole citadel crashing down.
We aren’t opposed to an English Parliament that minds its own business and never interferes in the internal affairs of Wessex. We don’t campaign for one, because it would do nothing to advance our own cause. But we don’t campaign against one either so long as its powers aren’t envisaged as inhibiting the self-government of Wessex, now or at any time in the future. An English Parliament that practised subsidiarity might find itself with little or nothing to do, but that wouldn’t be bad news. We do agree that there’s injustice at large when you cannot write ‘English’ as your nationality on official forms. We do believe you should always have that right. What we don’t believe is that being part of the same nation as us gives those in London the right to dictate to regions that are more than capable of making our own decisions. Let the English identity flourish, because a secure identity is also a generous identity, able to view England as a community of communities. We aren’t afraid of it. It’s a pity if it feels the need to be afraid of us.
English nationalism’s second great driver, besides fear of non-existence, is a fear of unfairness. The classic oppressor-as-victim. If Celts can feel oppressed, so can the English. It doesn’t work, because the English are the majority in the UK by 4:1. It’s true that the English are oppressed, but it’s the English, or some of them, who are doing the oppressing. An English Parliament, without a commitment to subsidiarity, will only go on doing it.
Unfairness implies disadvantage. And the regions of England would be no less disadvantaged without regionalism than England would be with no recognition of its own status. Is the denial of status unique? Far from it. While much depends on what is a nation, there are several traditional national entities in Europe that are divided into regions and have no parliament of their own. For England, you could also read Occitania, Prussia, the Mezzogiorno, Aragon or Castille, all areas of Europe with either their own language or a history of powerful monarchical independence. And there are ways to recognise such entities without denying regional autonomy.
So are Scotland and Wales not disadvantaged, having no regional assemblies? Why is England singled out for special ill-treatment? Territorial government is underpinned by geography. Ignore geography and you ignore the possibility of any sensible arrangement of anything. Scotland and Wales are a fraction of the size of England, so any sub-divisions there count as local government units. An England without regions is, and would continue to be, badly governed because it suffers from diseconomies of scale.
It’s worth pondering just how vast a country England is. So too are the quantities of energy and other resources expended in governing it, and which won’t be around for ever. It’s worth pondering, because it’s difficult for those who live within commuting distance of the capital to understand what it’s like to live on the periphery. Often you’ll get the ‘write-off the regions and invest in London’s success’ line of reasoning from Tory think-tanks, who also fail to understand how the English periphery’s economic weakness is directly related to its political invisibility.
What English nationalists routinely propose as their ‘alternative’ to regionalism is to build high-speed rail lines to Newcastle and Penzance so that those coming cap in hand to London can do so all the quicker. The London view of England is that it’s better by far that those on the periphery should spend their unimportant, provincial lives on trains than that London should surrender any part of its monopoly of power. Centralism has determined nothing less than the very shape of England (and who gets to call themselves English). Lothian, now Scottish, was once part of Northumbria. It was abandoned by the united English realm, quite possibly because a king based in Wessex couldn’t hope to get an army there quickly enough to defend it in the event of invasion.
English nationalism’s third great driver is a belief in the responsibility of the sovereign centre to inspect and correct the localities, a tradition which regionalism would decisively break. The fear is not just that England is being mapped out of existence, not just that it’s being discriminated against by a Celt-loving Labour Party, but that without institutions to impose a uniform culture and a sense of subservience to the centre, all hell would break loose. You’d have different areas doing whatever they want, and that would never do. These things have to be carefully doled out, by royal charter, by private legislation, by ministerial fiat. You can’t just do it.
Why does the leading English identity only grudgingly concede a pinch of autonomy to counties and cities, while bringing down a metaphorical mace upon the heads of those who would restore England to its regional roots? We are all conquered. The Celts know they lost. The English lost too but have been taught to identify with their conquerors to the point where they think they won. They won at Hastings and have gone on winning ever since. If we want an end to Norman rule by 2066, regional government has to play a pivotal part.
It’s fashionable to sneer at the idea of the Norman Yoke, dismiss it as a 17th century fable and carry on the issuing of orders from London as if that’s simply an inevitable fact of nature. It’s not inevitable and it’s not natural either. Scholars like Jim Bulpitt have written about the centuries-old relationship between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’, between ‘high politics’ and ‘low politics’. What we’ve seen with devolution is a partial re-instatement of ‘middle politics’ that needs to go much further.
Our aim is, so far as Wessex is concerned, to lead that process of going further. Professor Jonathan Bradbury has written that the Blair government’s introduction of devolution succeeded “precisely because of its focus on local origination in each territory. From a central Whig perspective this produced adhockery and incoherence; from a Bulpittian perspective on territorial management it was a lesson in peripheralising the problems and legitimation of reform in each territory to local actors, thereby freeing the centre from the difficulties of imposing solutions but also arriving at workable answers.”
In other words, you cannot make ‘English regionalism’ work by drawing a map in London and expecting the locals to conform. The demand has to come from below and for that reason every region should be recognisably different. We don’t work any more closely than we need to with regionalists in other parts of England because that would be an undermining of the very ethos of regionalism. A tidy solution is the thing we rightly fear most, because it is the thing that leaves regions most susceptible to continuing central co-ordination and control.
Going further means having a thorough understanding of our place within England. The language of nationalism isn’t helpful to this. Is Wessex a nation in its own right? No, it isn’t. It’s a good theme for pub chats, but let’s be honest about it here. We can claim to be Saxons and not Angles/Engles, but so can Essaxons and Sussaxons. We can claim to have had our own kings. So did Rheged. Why should it matter? A region and a nation are both areas that assert their right to self-government and in both cases the only limit is the will to succeed. The word used tells us very little. Northern Ireland – a province that certainly didn’t set out to be a nation – has enjoyed more self-government for longer than any of the nations still enclosed within the UK.
When English nationalists come to investigate regionalism they always do so with an agenda. Does it represent a good idea for ‘England as a whole’? Or should it be suppressed as a threat to ‘England as a whole’? (That is to say, to the Anglo-Norman State.) Two can play at this game. Is England a good idea for Wessex? We have the right to reserve judgement, because Wessex created the unified English kingdom, for reasons that made sense at the time. It was our idea. As Britain is Greater England, so England is Greater Wessex. In a sense, Wessex owns England. And could dissolve it should it so choose, back to the mere geographical expression it was in the days of Bede.
Not that we advocate that. But it’s just worth remembering every time you’re told that ‘it’s for an English Parliament to decide whether England should have regions or not’. It isn’t. We aren’t dictated to by Mercians or Northumbrians who don’t know their history and so hide behind the Norman/Tudor version of it. You can imagine the reaction if England’s right to exist was judged by its relevance to ‘Europe as a whole’, but that’s somehow ‘different’, in a deeply irrational way.
The relationship between England and Wessex clearly matters more to some than to others. It matters to those nationalists, Celtic as well as English, who insist on dividing the world into silos of sovereignty. It matters much less to regionalists with a more flexible and accommodating approach to political geography. It matters least of all to those who realise that Wessex is real to the extent that folk talk about Wessex and not about something else, even if that something else is England. So maybe enough has been said on the subject. To make Wessex, we need to talk about Wessex and nothing more. England and Wessex are in no way identities in conflict. There is room for both. But to be English is not enough. We assert the right to be Wessaxon too.