The revolt of the country: Brexit, history, and English nationhood

by Helen Thompson

For a country said to be obsessed with its past, Britain has a politics in which there is often little understanding of the legacy of history. In significant part this historical confusion that pervades the discourse of British politics arises from the complexities of the United Kingdom’s formation as a multi-national state, not least the place of English nationhood in a Union in which England dominates.

Having long looked politically insignificant, the idea of English nationhood has resurfaced in the past few years not least in relation to Brexit. Some Brexiteers, like Daniel Hannan, have claimed the English-speaking people as the basis of an international Anglo-sphere that can now be recreated freed from British subordination to the European Union. By contrast, some Remainers and indeed critics of Hannan, see Brexit as an act of English vandalism whereby England is breaking up the British state and isolating Britain from the European continent to pursue an English fantasy of imperial nostalgia. Yet these historical narratives in which with acclamation or damnation English nationhood is equated with a global or imperial version of Britain miss just why the political history of English national identity is actually so potent to the politics around Brexit.

To use eighteenth century parlance, the power of the historical language of English nationhood in relation to Britain’s impending exit from the European Union comes from the political relationship of the Court that exercises power in London to the Country in England it rules. Although the idea of English nationhood was politically created at the Court of Wessex in the wake of the Norse invasions, after 1066 this idea of English nationhood came to rest on an experience of alienation from power, or, put differently, the Country’s sense of estrangement from a culturally- and politically-French Court. The very defeat of the English nation-state at the hands of the Normans and the subsequent annihilation in the legal and literary culture of the old English language - a language which in itself was already saturated in the language of loss - ensured that the medieval claim to Englishness became a cultural and political language of resistance to a Crown that was frequently much more interested in continental affairs and crusading at the behest of the Papacy than the domestic governance of the realm. In this sense, English national identity was not a readily exportable notion to settlement and conquest in North America or commercial empire in Asia and Africa. It was though - at least in principle - open to anyone who came to the country, articulated as it was through a language defined by the domestic assimilation of conflicting cultural inheritances from both the pre- and post-Conquest periods.

When in the later medieval and Tudor period the Court itself claimed the language of English nationhood to legitimate the Crown’s power, the older subversive version of English nationhood was diluted not destroyed. Even as late as the 18th century, five centuries after a reworked English tongue had re-emerged as the national language of culture and politics, there was still political capital to be made in appealing to the argument that those with power in London were betraying English liberties for overseas expansion and personal enrichment. Whilst in the politics of the Court Britannia ruled, Victorian England became culturally obsessed with the pre-imperial, pre-union and pre-Reformation past in which English identity had been created and reinvented out of the multiplicity of different civilisational influences at work by the early sixteenth century. In this vein, the premier literary scribe of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens, turned his name into a national sensation with monthly episodes of the Pickwick Papers, recounting a journey around old England complete with a tale re-imagined from the 12th century Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth.

For a long time a demarcation between the cultural strength and concurrent political weakness of old English nationhood held, although the potential for confusion, and indeed English arrogance towards the rest of the United Kingdom, was perfectly symbolized when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt from 1840 in homage to the English gothic cathedrals and not in the Britannic neo-classical style of the previous century. But the end of empire and the subsequent turn by the British governing class to the EU have ultimately proved just as politically restorative to old English nationhood as they have to Scottish. Through the travails of EU membership, the British governing class re-opened itself to the charge of sacrificing English liberties to a continentally-driven politics from which the Court benefited and the Country suffered. “Take back control” was such a potent message precisely because English identity has so often been premised on that very political imperative. Indeed, the re-emergence of English as the language of the kingdom of England after 1066 - a development encapsulated by the scene in which at a moment of English national triumph Shakespeare’s Henry V cannot speak French well enough to propose to the French King’s daughter despite claiming the French crown on the grounds of his French inheritance – was the past realisation of a cumulative endeavour to realise the same end.

Of course, the very history of English national identity articulated as a critique of Court power means there is no reason to suppose that the present political victory of the old Country version of English nationhood must last. The attempt to rework the British state to accommodate the sentiments and interests around English nationhood rests thus far on the judgement of Theresa May. Whatever the present electoral strength of her party, the Prime Minister has embarked upon a radical path without perhaps quite understanding just what a historical shift in the statecraft of ruling the Union of the United Kingdom her approach represents. She appears to believe she will not have to choose between accepting the effective repudiation by the Country in England of the ancien Court’s embrace of the EU, her faith in the durability of the multi-national Union in which other political dynamics have similarly strongly historical resonance, and the capacity of Britain to exercise influence in the world. But nothing in the complexity of the history of the exercise of power by what became the British state or the strange place of English nationhood in relation to that power would suggest that a government in London can successfully reconcile these commitments without extraordinary difficulty.


About the Author

Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and a regular panelist on the Talking Politics podcast. She also tweets @HelenHet20.