English nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere is the first sustained research that examines the inter-relationships between English nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere. Much initial analysis of Brexit concentrated on the revolt of those ‘left behind’ by globalisation. English nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere analyses the elite project behind Brexit. This project was framed within the political traditions of an expansive English nationalism. Far from being parochial ‘Little Englanders’, elite Brexiteers sought to lessen the rupture of leaving the European Union by suggesting a return to trade and security alliances with ‘true friends’ and ‘traditional allies’ in the Anglosphere. Brexit was thus reassuringly presented as a giant leap into the known. Legitimising this far-reaching change in British and European politics required the re-articulation of a globally oriented Englishness. This politicised Englishness was underpinned by arguments about the United Kingdom’s imperial past and its global future advanced as a critique of its European present. When framing the UK’s EU membership as a European interregnum followed by a global restoration, Brexiteers both invoked and occluded England by asserting the wider categories of belonging that inform contemporary English nationalism.
English nationalism, Euroscepticism and the Anglosphere
This chapter defines the three core concepts on which the subsequent analysis of the book rests: nationalism, Euroscepticism and the Anglosphere. Written in the shadow of Brexit, it shows how these three political ideas are inter-related and mutually reinforcing. A defence of British sovereignty has historically conditioned English nationalism. This inflects it with wider categories of belonging than the English nation itself, notably those English-speaking countries of the Anglosphere, whilst aligning it closely with Euroscepticism. The chapter goes on to outline the argument that understandings of English nationalism have been conceptually underdeveloped in their application to the outcome of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the subsequent politics of withdrawal.
This chapter examines the continuing elision between England, Britain and the United Kingdom that exists in political rhetoric despite twenty years of devolution. Accordingly this chapter shows how English nationalism is simultaneously expressed by and subsumed within a defence of British sovereignty that leads to a particular framing of major political – and especially constitutional – dilemmas in British politics. From the 1990s this defence of British sovereignty led to a nationalist logic of leaving the EU and reconnecting the United Kingdom with a global-era version of the ‘English-speaking peoples’: the Anglosphere. By making English nationalism the independent variable, this chapter lays the foundations of the argument that Brexit was a moment of English nationalism.
This chapter argues that one of the most important frames for linking popular grievances and the elite project of leaving the EU was a national one in which a majority of the English electorate sought to defend British sovereignty from the EU. The Englishness of the vote to leave the European Union in 2016 therefore requires an examination of an elusive subject: English nationalism. There is little academic or political consensus on this topic and whether or not a politicised English identity can be labelled nationalism as such or into what kind of model of nationalism England best fits. Such divergent views depend on definitions of nationalism itself. Historic imperatives in English nationalism created a sense of nationhood that was broader than England alone and was constituted through engagement with other peoples across the world, notably the English-speaking peoples. This was a major component of the wider categories of belonging that informed understandings of English nationhood. This merged the content of English nationalism with wider polities and projects, notably Britain and Empire, but not the European Union for which the Anglosphere operated as an alternative.
This chapter develops the idea of the importance of English constitutional history as a link between English nationalism, Euroscepticism and the Anglosphere. It argues that England’s constitutional development is the fulcrum that links English nationalism, Euroscepticism and the Anglosphere and serves as a point of commonality for all three ideologies. The process of disengaging from the European Union was bound up with debates about England’s constitutional development, ties to the Anglosphere and England’s uncertain constitutional position within a changing United Kingdom. To illustrate this argument this chapter looks at the debate surrounding the re-publication of Our Island Story in 2005 and the subsequent political support for its constitutional narrative as a means of cohering Britain and Britishness. By simultaneously suggesting an alternative (global) future for the United Kingdom, Eurosceptic Anglospherists in England articulated arguments about Britain’s place in Europe in English national frames that in turn linked Britain with the Anglosphere.
This chapter establishes why political and strategic ties to the English-speaking peoples resonate in English nationalism and why they can be presented as a reassuring, if perhaps less obviously viable, alternative to European integration. The years leading up to the Brexit referendum were also years of debates about Britain’s imperial past. The enduring political legacy of this historic development was that English nationalists could always – and had to – draw upon ‘wider categories of belonging’ than England itself to explain and justify England’s place in the world. In articulating England anew at the beginning of the twenty-first century, political actors drew heavily upon established ways of understanding Englishness that were not based on multiculturalism but that rested upon with notions of England’s wider categories of belonging contained in memories of empire and arguments about the Anglosphere in refashioning Britain’s place in the world.
The memory of twentieth century conflict is the ‘third pillar’ on which Anglosphere thinking rests and a major point of intersection between Englishness and Euroscepticism, but one that again occludes England. It positions Anglosphere countries on the side of ‘right’ in the pivotal conflict of the twentieth century against Nazism, totalitarianism and militarism; a conflict remembered as a straightforward contest between good and evil compared to the more complicated memories of conflicts of the Cold War era and afterwards. In the Anglo-British memory, the Second World War also serves as a point of difference between the EU narrative of ‘never again’ and an English worldview which represents ‘1940’ as the apogee of Britain’s greatness. If in the ‘European’ narrative the Second World War represents a catastrophe followed by a renaissance, then in the dominant English narrative it represents an apogee followed by a decline: a decline, moreover, institutionalised in the form of the European Union.
The Anglosphere, England and the Brexit referendum
This chapter analyses the place of the Anglosphere in the Brexit referendum campaign and the ways that this English understanding of the Anglosphere was inter-related with English national narratives. It will argue that the idea of the Anglosphere gave Brexiteers an alternative vision of an international community to the EU. The Anglosphere’s core states provided Brexiteers with economic and political models to emulate (and in their view exceed) those of the European Union. Crucially these alternative models resonated powerfully with the wider categories of belonging in English conceptions of nationhood. By framing the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union as a return to the Anglosphere, Brexiteers were able to lessen the sense of rupture associated with Brexit in England and situate a potentially radical departure within narratives of continuity.
Obscured by the neologism ‘Brexit’ was a complex interplay of elite projects and popular grievances that combined through the device of a referendum to start the process of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. The place of the Anglosphere in the referendum campaign illustrated the way that Brexit could be profitably understood as a nationalist project that sought to realign the United Kingdom’s place in the global order framed within powerful English national narratives. These narratives operated to legitimise a significant rupture in the British, European and global order and sought to provide a reassuring sense of continuity (in England). With Brexiteers insisting that Britain’s EU past was merely an interregnum in its hitherto global story, allied with popular grievances over immigration that were strongest in the least ‘global’ parts of England, what we can identify as English nationalism played a major part in reshaping British, European and global politics.
By examining the links between English nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere we can start to offer an explanation of Brexit that pushes us beyond accounts that give greatest causal force to a protest by those ‘left behind’ from the benefits of globalisation. The ‘left behind’ explanation helps explain what people were voting against, but is less helpful in seeking to understand what they might have been voting for and which frames helped inform such a decision. With Brexit seen as a protracted event that pre- and post-dated the 2016 referendum, we can see that England’s wider categories of belonging operated not only as a point of intellectual departure for addressing a political dilemma, but suggested a political destination too.