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English Identity and the EU Vote

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Utrikesperspektiv.se or the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund. Also note that this piece was written approximately a week before publishing, and therefore does not account for the most recent developments.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

English identity has been dormant for over a decade, and has come to be associated with some of the uglier sides of society. Beneath the surface, however, Englishness is on the rise. The unexpected Conservative majority in the 2015 general election was completely the work of the English electorate, who voted in their droves for traditional values and Victorian-style capitalism. Old class divides have reopened, with unaffordable tuition fees and further manufacturing collapse. England play Wales in a major football tournament for the first time in over 50 years, seven days before the referendum. The nation will be at fever pitch come the 23rd, and the campaign which manages to harness this best may be the side that comes out on top on the 24th.

Britain is about to decide which doomsday scenario appeals to it least. Will it be death by immigration, under the thumb of a tyrannical Luxembourger? Or will it be a self-inflicted demise, spluttering and drowning in the Atlantic, having leapt at a mirage from the helm of a merchant vessel? The debate has raged for months on end, and has progressed from an initial tone of socioeconomic hyperbole to an even-less-useful one of outright lunacy. The most recent contributions have included Boris Johnson coining the date of the referendum ‘independence day for Britain’, David Cameron suggesting a ‘Leave’ vote could put peace on the continent at risk, and England football fans proclaiming their hatred of the Germans while fighting the Russians in the South of France.

Curiously, the descent into mudwrestling has come at a time when the more nuanced arguments were just beginning to garner support. ‘Vote Leave’ have been vying to extend their appeal beyond the Islamophobic right by introducing a dialogue about democratic accountability, and ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ have been pushing home their advantage in the economic sphere by bringing in Oxbridge professors and business leaders aplenty. Both campaigns have swiftly retreated from such genuine debate for the run-in, however, and now there are around ten days of rhetoric wars to endure before the votes are cast. The respective leaders will hope that by laying claim to ‘British Values’, and by appealing to the heart, that they can swing a crucial percentage point and make or break the continent. Many are wondering how the campaigns turned so ugly, and how previously undecided voices have adopted the most extreme positions of scaremongering.

Rewind 20 months, however, and it’s easy to see where the current tactics originate. The referendum on Scottish independence has a huge degree of symmetry with the EU vote, and back in September 2014 the canvassing was entering a similar final phase. In both instances, the ‘Leave’ campaigns have been unable to offer concrete visions for post-independence, and hence have been forced to try and ride a wave of sheer nationalism over the minutiae of economic disintegration. The ‘Remain’ campaigns both started with an academic case, but have ended up having to be more emotive in a bid to not seem like the less patriotic option. The days leading up to the Scottish vote were dominated by buzzwords and prophetic soundbites, accusations of ‘Project Fear’ and desperate pleas by figureheads: Would Scotland choose unity and security, but live under a Westminster dictatorship? Or would it choose freedom and optimism, but risk jumping into the unknown? The exact same choice is on the table this time around, and the exact same arguments are being used in the skirmishes beforehand.

Votes are cast on the 23rd of June.
Votes are cast on the 23rd of June.

When the dust settled, it was a combination of head and heart – of economic uncertainty and UK pride – which prevented the collapse of the union. The vote had over an 80% turnout, and the lesson to take home was a simple one – you need to convince people, but you also need to motivate them. This bodes fairly well for those in the ‘Remain’ camp – the broad feeling is that they have won the logical argument, and that ‘the economists have spoken’. The task for campaigners now, therefore, is to try and match the Brexit fervour, and to drum up enough support to mobilise the Bremain vote on the 23rd. The way they go about this may well be the decisive factor in not just Britain’s future, but the future of Europe and the entire populist movement. With this in mind, they need to very carefully consider their message over the next ten days.

The main obstacle they face is that making a passionate case to stay in Europe is not as easy to achieve as making one for staying in the UK. Britain’s nearest neighbours – France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and The Netherlands – all blend together geographically, culturally and linguistically, and the UK is left somewhat excluded. London interacts with the continent economically, but the average Brit is still sceptical of life on the mainland. France are still seen as ‘the old enemy’, and Germany as the new. It would be disingenuous to try and cultivate a nation of Europhiles in under a fortnight, so the emotive case for Remain needs to somehow promote a stronger union without promoting integration. The key to this will be in something not often discussed – the psyche of the English.

England’s attitude to Europe is unique, and is only ever brought to the fore in parody or in sport. This has been the case for so long that giving it serious consideration seems unusual, but there are two related archetypes which summarise the English mind-set, and these need to be given sombre credence as part of a strategy seeking to energise the nation. The first is the ‘Little Englander’, and this character has already been won over by the Brexit campaign. Harking back to a (largely mythical) time when everyone doffed their hats to one another, sipped on tea and played cricket in parks, the Little Englander sees their culture being eroded and, for want of a better expression, wants to save the shire. These votes are lost given the weight on immigration, so Remain need to focus their efforts on the second archetype, the outward looking English.

Comedian Al Murray portraying a stereotypical Englishman. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Comedian Al Murray portraying a stereotypical Englishman. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Englishman with a global outlook is cut from a different cloth to the pro-European Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, however, and the message needs to reflect this. In these cases, recycling proclamations of togetherness and cooperation from 2014 may well be sufficient, as those arguments are ideal for countries that understand cooperation, understand compromise, and understand the value of being part of something bigger. The 54 million English simply do not understand these concepts to the same extent, however, and the only way to sell a European project to them is to put them in control of it. The second archetype is an ugly one – the old imperialist.

The joke about Britain in the United States, and in a lot of places around the world, is that they wish they still had an empire. They created modern-day Australia and New Zealand, and now they lose to them at sport. They created modern-day America, who now eclipse them economically. They have lost a huge amount of their global influence, and are hopelessly looking for ways to reclaim it. While this isn’t really applicable to the country as a whole, there is an English fire causing the smoke. Decolonisation was followed by Thatcher, who reshaped the global economic landscape from a base in London. Thatcher was followed by the Iraq war, where Britain and the USA dominated the headlines as global peacekeepers. Jump to 2016, however, and there isn’t an obvious avenue through which the UK is shaping the world. The global financial crisis in 2008 and the London Olympics in 2012 have kept the English distracted from their 21st century decline, but just as they enter a period of relative stability it’s becoming evident that they’ve been overtaken left, right and centre. America is dominant, Asia is rising, and Europe is seen as a German empire with Merkel at the helm. Having some fraction of German influence in a tri-polar world is not something the English will be able to digest, so voters need to be convinced that the Union flag will be rising in Brussels.

The new message out of the Remain camp has been the right one. The soundbite from recent TV debates has been to ‘lead not leave’ the European Union. It has been about shaping the continent rather than cooperating with it, and that appeals to the world builder in the English subconscious. ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ was always the wrong name for a campaign that needed to play up to these values, and starting to do so this late in the day is a necessary gamble that may just save the ‘In’ campaign. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen – they are playing catch-up to a Brexit campaign built around two Churchillian Englishmen in Farage and Johnson, who realised long ago that constant references to empire do you no harm. If this can be made a choice between governing themselves and governing a continent, however, the old Rule Britannia instinct will kick back in.

Whatever the result, the referendum looks like it may be the last opportunity for Britain to shape the world. It will set Europe off on a path of integration or disintegration, and boost the politics of the left or the right all around the continent. For the next decade or two, the successes and failures of Europe will be attributed to this decision taken by the English, and that will fit the national psyche just fine.

Scott Harvey

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