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Englishness and Britishness are not the same. That matters as nationalism resurges in the UK

Can a Labour government go far enough with constitutional reform to deflect renewed Scottish demands for independence?

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage: he is best understood not as a nationalist, but as a populist skilled in mobilising and leveraging economic, social and cultural resentments. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

English nationalism is resurrected by Nigel Farage’s return to the electoral fray as head of the Reform party in the British general election. Yet close analysis of his ideology suggests he is best understood not as a nationalist, but as a populist skilled in mobilising and leveraging economic, social and cultural resentments, rather than national identity.

Brexit blamed Brussels for London’s failings,” says Jim Gallagher, a close adviser to Gordon Brown in diagnosing and advocating reforms in British constitutional arrangements they hope can save the UK’s union from disintegrating under a Labour government.

Nationalism is relational, requiring another to mobilise it as an oppositional force. That was applied to Brussels during Brexit rather than to the other nationalities in Britain – the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish, or against London. Taking back control from Brussels, not London, made more sense for Conservatives and UKIP in 2016, and still resonates in the Tory party during this election. But will it then be applied against a Labour government? And what might be the consequences for the UK if that happens over a presumed two terms of office for Labour?

Surveys of Englishness and Britishness show most English voters remain Anglo-British rather than English only, in that they assume English interests subsume and represent British ones elsewhere in the UK. Those who say they are “English only” are more likely to support Brexit. Britishness is mainly a cosmopolitan identity in England, adopted by non-whites especially in multicultural London. To be British in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales is a very different identity, hostile to nationalism there and closer to Englishness in political attitudes, including on Brexit. The entanglement of the two identities makes it difficult to speak of English nationalism as a unitary political force, since it lacks proper political organisation as yet and does not make demands on the British state, other than to distance itself from Brussels.

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But the current conjuncture of the British Conservatives as they face electoral annihilation and possible splits or reverse takeover by the Reform party recalls the reconfiguration of Liberals and the emergent Labour Party in the 1920s. In that case, the resulting opposition could become more explicitly English nationalist. The Labour leadership does not share its membership’s support for electoral reform of the first-past-the-post system that would better reflect a more diverse range of parties. It may have to manage a huge and increasingly unruly backbench majority.

How to understand that potential scenario and channel it away from becoming a destructive force for British politics and its political union was discussed at a workshop on England in the world this week among a number of specialist researchers. Gallagher believes it will be difficult for Labour to deliver sufficient reforms to head off an electoral recovery of the SNP in Scotland within two to three years of its presumed losses to Labour in this election. Ailsa Henderson points to surveys showing up to half of Scottish voters still support independence, even if it they don’t see it as an urgent priority. John Denham’s surveys for the British Academy show there is a persisting if ill-focused demand in England for more democratic governing structures in which they can find the voice offered to Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish through devolved powers.

With the Conservative moderate David Lidington, Denham proposes a new structure of regional and local government in England to match that democratic aspiration. It would include the new mayor roles developed in Manchester, Birmingham and other cities, supplemented by a more co-ordinated and democratic layer of local government. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland lack this – as Ireland does, compared with other European states. But huge regional and social inequalities in England and the lack of funds to support subnational governance is a major constraint on such Labour reforms.

On foreign policy, surveys show there is much in common between the four UK territories. In England, Brexit supporters are more Atlanticist and support the white Commonwealth more than Scottish voters, who are far less committed to nuclear force. Overall there is much less popular support for great power-type international military interventions than among political and policy elites. All this would put real strains on a Labour government if it followed US policies under a Biden or Trump administration, like Blair’s support for the Iraq War in 2003.

Gallagher fears a Labour government would not go far enough with constitutional reform to deflect renewed Scottish demands for independence; nor would it prioritise the issue sufficiently. It would also lack the financial resources to fund health and other transactional improvements to the UK’s welfare union without renewed economic growth. These discussions provide a valuable lens on Labour’s forthcoming UK statecraft as it prepares for office.