It is a topic that is, once again, beginning to be raised in the news media and discussed across the public sphere. For many, however, it remains a subject that should rear its head only in private conversation. It was, and still is, a phenomenon that had the power to divide the British nation. The division continues; the reference is, of course, to Brexit.
In the years since 2016 and the EU Referendum, there has been the gradual awakening as to the direction and consequences of Brexit. Along with a developing public awareness of the implications of the UK’s secession from the European Community, there has appeared a growing number of books describing, critically analysing, and forming additional conclusions about Brexit. One such conclusion posits the growth and influence of English nationalism as a chief protagonist in the movement towards and the eventual success of a Brexit outcome.
It is generally agreed that, prior to the Brexit referendum, there was, in the words of one commentator, “a widespread doubt as to whether English nationalism existed at all, at least beyond a small fringe. Since then, it has come to be regarded as an obvious explanation for the vote to leave the European Union.”
Since 2016, when the decision was taken by the British people to leave the EU, successive opinion polls have shown a continuing mixed response to the UK’s decision. So too, these polls have raised doubts about the extent of the continuation of an English commitment to the union of the United Kingdom itself. “Yet…”, in the opinion of Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones, the two academics who co-authored the book under review in this article, “…even as Englishness is apparently reshaping Britain’s place in the world and perhaps, ultimately, the state itself, it remains poorly understood.”
The title of this book, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, gives an indication as to what it is about. A major thesis of the book is that “…the rise Englishness, and its impact on British constitutional politics, has for too long been an under-explored, semi-secret, phenomenon.” Writing in The Irish Times, the polemicist, journalist, and drama critic, Fintan O’Toole (himself the author of “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”), expressed the view that “What makes the crisis of British politics so strange is that at its heart is a force that dare not speak its name: Englishness.”
The present book’s purpose may be seen, therefore, to be an exploration of what “Englishness” means, from where and whence has it arisen, what are its manifestations, as well as its past, present, and future consequences – for both England and the wider United Kingdom.
The co-authors of the book are a Scot, Ailsa Henderson, and a Welshman, Richard Wyn Jones. It may be thought by some would readers of this article that, with such authors, it merely presents a Celtic analysis of the phenomenon known as Englishness. However, in mitigation, it needs to be said that the sources used by the writers cross many national boundaries, contain evidence from a variety of disciplines, and has many references that would deflect criticisms suggesting bias, prejudice, and the presence of “fake news”.
Henderson and Wyn Jones are of the view that, despite the central role the phenomenon has played in recent British history, including the possibility that its reality is reshaping the nature of the British state and its place in the world, Englishness remains, as stated above, “poorly understood.” This book is a major contribution to a possible explanation of this understanding.
A major source of data for the book is The Future of England Survey (originally published in 2011 and republished many times since). This is a specially commissioned public attitudes survey programme exploring the political implications of English identity. The use of this data and contributions from many of its writers and commentators, demonstrates that, for Henderson and Wyn Jones, Englishness has its basis in English nationalism.
According to the authors of the book, however, it needs to be understood this is not a nationalism that outrightly rejects Britain and Britishness. It is, rather, “a nationalism that combines a sense of grievance about England’s place in the United Kingdom with a fierce commitment to a particular vision of Britain’s past, present, and future.” Indeed, the juxtaposition between England and Britain in this book – what has been termed its “Janus-faced nature” – is, according to the book’s authors, the “key to understanding not only English nationalism, but also to understanding the ways in which it is transforming British politics.”
This book is, therefore, invaluable in helping the reader to understand why it was that the United Kingdom voted in 2016 to leave the European Union. Indeed, one commentator has said that this book should “be read by anyone – and especially every politician – who wishes to understand the forces driving British politics to its current febrile, fractured, state.” Therefore, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, joins books by Stephen Haseler, Dennis MacShane, David Edgerton, Gavin Exler, and others, who have in recent years written on the nature of the transformation that has occurred in contemporary English and UK politics, as well as the place and role of the UK in modern global affairs.
For those who may not be confident of or bothered about pouring over statistics and evaluating data, this book is highly informative and would provide satisfaction in being read for its important single and multiple statements, summary passages, and conclusions. These are to be found throughout the book, but essentially in the concluding pages.
This reviewer found the closing paragraph of Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain to be most apposite and instructive. Indeed, the paragraph is worthy of being quoted:
“Looking to the future raises an uncertain and concerning prospect. For those in England who cleave to the traditional and still-dominant view of their own national identity and national destiny, there is the danger that by their actions they could end up undermining the very basic of their own world view, not only because their efforts to leave the external (European) Union may well result in their cherished view of Britain’s place in the world being exposed as a conceit, but, in the process, because they may also undermine the UK itself. And, whilst it is true that a perhaps surprising number seem not to be overly concerned about the latter, it is hard to imagine that any break-up would not be the source of regret and recrimination.”
The enquirer may start by reading this conclusion, and then reading the book with an appreciation of its aims, purposes, and eventual goal; or begin at page one and read to the conclusion of the book, deepening, and widening an understanding of the overall thesis which determines the conclusion. Whichever method of approach is used, the book will impress with its thesis that Englishness has indeed been a catalyst for change in the life of the people of the British Isles.
The book will repay attentive reading and thoughtful consideration, especially, but not only, for those with an interest in the deliberations, directions, and developments in British political life.