The more profound unionist argument – that Britain together has been and can be greater than its parts

John Denham in The Guardian puts it well:

“English is now a political identity, as the Portsmouth shipyard closure showed. But only Labour can make it a progressive one. For many political commentators, the coming year will be defined by the Scottish independence referendum. I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s as likely to be the year of England; a year in which that country’s future and identity are discussed as never before.

Researchers have tracked the rising popularity of “English” as a national identity. Recent changes have been so sharp that, of all the people in the UK, only England’s ethnic minorities are now most likely to describe themselves as British. Though the rise of English identity reflects a rising national pride, in part it reflects a belief that “everyone else” has a voice. Brussels, Europeans, new migrants, the Scots, the Welsh: all seem to have more say than us, say the newly assertive English. The complexities of the Barnett funding formula – which sets public spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are not well understood, but the sense that it allows governments in Wales and Scotland to do things the English cannot afford is widespread.

Last week’s decision to close Portsmouth’s historic shipyard was instantly and popularly framed in nationalist terms. It may have involved a British company with three British shipyards building ships for the British Royal Navy, but in popular language it was an England-Scotland decision.

As the government’s perceived insensitivity to southern England’s engineering base showed, much of the political establishment has been slow to pick up on a profound shift in the public mood. From here on, it will be harder and harder for any decision not to be seen and understood in these national terms, and Westminster had better catch up.

The unionist campaign in Scotland has been primarily about the interests of Scotland. The more profound unionist argument – that Britain together has been and can be greater than its parts (which is what make me a unionist) – is very much more muted. If union now means a pragmatic transaction in which every cost and benefit can be calculated, then many English people will ask: “Who is doing the same calculation for us?”

If Westminster gets this at all, the consensus is to leave it on the backburner until after the Scottish referendum. Outside of Westminster, this reticence will be seen as another example of the Scots being allowed to speak first. There may not be mass English anger, because we don’t have a vote in the referendum, but the feeling that everyone but us has a say on the future of our country will only grow as the year goes on: if we can’t have a say on the future of Britain, why can’t we at least have a say on the future of England?

And then there’s the swirling uncertainty of next year’s European elections. Euroscepticism has combined with popular concern about migration in a particularly sharp and sometimes unpleasant way in England. While most proud English men and women would have no truck with Nigel Farage’s crude populism, Ukip undoubtedly gains more than most from English alienation. If the opening of migration to Bulgaria and Romania has a marked and visible impact, it is easy to see a poisonous polarisation of English politics rising again. With the once great Conservative and Unionist party now reduced to an English National Conservative party, David Cameron will be strongly tempted, post referendum, to combine Euro scepticism with a narrow English-first agenda.

At worst, the coming year could leave us with an English identity that is more deeply held but also more backward- looking, more isolationist, more anti-unionist and more strongly defined as white and anti-migrant. Such an England would lack the confidence in our future needed to exercise influence in the world. This England would be an uncomfortable place for the minorities who, as in previous generations, have a huge role to play in shaping England’s future.

As the only party with a strong base in three nations, Labour looks better able to sustain a progressive English story that is inclusive and confident of our role in the union, Europe and the wider world. Ed Miliband has begun this. The first Labour leader since Lansbury to address the English issue, he has a personal story that challenges Englishness as ethnic or anti-migrant. But the wider party is only beginning to define a distinctly English identity. The “dragon” which says English Labour can’t win on its own has not entirely been slain.

Labour’s English regional voices need to be part of a wider English story, not just strong local lobbies. Labour’s southern voices are only just asserting themselves. The national Labour parties need to act together, not unilaterally, to shape the union we want to see. Above all, it’s getting too late for unavoidable questions about English political representation and devolution at national and local level to be filed under “too difficult”.” (

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