One of the most remarkable things about the aftermath of the 2016 vote to leave the EU is how little the peddlers of various constitutional reform orthodoxies have allowed it to throw them off their stride, no matter how totally it undercuts their previous positions.
For example, those who insisted that a leave vote would place the Union in immediate jeopardy – because the peoples of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland would not stand to be “dragged out of Europe” by England – continue to insist that theirs is the responsible unionist position even as they find themselves making common cause with both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (who presumably have their reasons for so loyally serving the Union’s interests).
But another cherished narrative to get this stubborn treatment is England, or more specifically the idea that Brexit can be pinned on the English or at least “English nationalism”.
So strong is this newfound antipathy to England, in fact, that it seems to have overshadowed the progressive effort to latch on to Englishness that I warned against previously. Which is a sort of silver lining, at least.
The defence of this narrative usually takes the form of painting a broad and misleading portrait of “Brexit Britain”, not least skating over the fact that a second home nation – Wales – voted Leave. The million Scottish leave voters, and the majority support for Brexit amongst the unionist community in Northern Ireland, are veiled beneath the official outrage of their respective devocracies.
But there is surely no finer example of the art that Nick Cohen’s recent cover piece for the Spectator in which he claimed that:
“On the backbenches the European Research Group operates as a separate English nationalist party.”
It is a testament to the sheer power of the intellectual inertia which has built up around such narratives that not only could a writer of Cohen’s calibre operate under this misconception, but that the editors of that avowedly unionist magazine would let it through. Because even passing scrutiny of the ERG reveals the idea of it being an “English nationalist” outfit to be not just false, but absurd.
This is not the same thing as saying that the ERG, and the course of action it pursues, are good for the United Kingdom. That is a matter for individual judgement and, eventually, for history to adjudicate on. But in terms of its composition and objectives, it is quite obviously a British, unionist alliance – and arguably the most British, most unionist one in the Commons.
First, composition. In the system of somewhat pre-modern factions into which Brexit has fractured the Commons, the ERG is possibly the only one which counts MPs from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as members (taking the Financial Times at their word when they claim that two DUP MPs are formally members). At the time of writing the Independent Group, by contrast, is an exclusively English affair.
If that weren’t enough to dismiss the charge of English nationalism, the ERG’s fight against the backstop is conclusive proof. There is simply no reason for actual “English nationalists” to care about the creation of new barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The ERG may be hard Brexiteers, but “hard Brexit for the mainland” has been the path of least resistance ever since the Government dug itself into a hole over the backstop. Indeed, actual English nationalists could have found willing allies in Plaid Cymru and the SNP for a Brexit which baked new divisions into the United Kingdom.
Yet, as noted above, the only people sharing division lobbies with the separatists are the Remainers – and it is they too who seem most willing to embrace constitutional measures which undermine the Union, such as the Government’s capitulation on post-Brexit devolved powers.
Given that there is undoubtedly a strain of English nationalism on the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, the fact that their principle vehicle has adopted such an unremittingly unionist position and rekindled the old working relationship between mainland Toryism and Ulster unionism – even though it puts at some risk a prize decades in the winning – is perhaps surprising. But it is, or rather ought to be, undeniable. Neither the stated aims, nor the actual conduct, nor the membership of the ERG suggest that English nationalists are in charge.
As for one faction, so too for the wider movement. By all means examine the role that Englishness played in driving the Brexit vote – it certainly seems to at least correlate with voters’ attitudes towards the European Union. But just because English nationalists are Brexiteers, it doesn’t follow that Brexiteers are English nationalists.
It ought to be a basic point of political civility that, barring direct evidence to the contrary, we take our opponents at their word as to their motivations even as we bitterly dispute their objectives and their analysis. The ERG are British, in word and deed, and should be praised or damned on that basis.
Henry Hill is assistant editor of ConservativeHome.