ON the eve of the Second World War a Labour MP, Arthur Greenwood, stepped up to the despatch box in the House of Commons. He appeared unnerved by a shout of encouragement from the Conservative side of the House. The Tory backbencher Leo Amery was sickened by the appeasement policy pursued by his own prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Amery yelled out: “Speak for England, Arthur!” and Arthur did.

He argued for the necessity of war with Hitler, helping pull the country together. But when Arthur spoke for England, he also spoke for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the British Empire and its dominions. But who speaks now? When the prime minister or leader of the opposition rises in the House of Commons, do they really speak for the United Kingdom of the 21st century? What does that even mean?

Here’s a Times front page from January 2020 which gives a flavour of our Great British confusion: “Iranian protesters burnt the union jack outside the British embassy in Tehran last night as the diplomatic crisis over the arrest of the UK ambassador grew. A crowd of hardline religion students and regime supporters chanted “Death to England”.

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The Iranian mob wants death to England, or maybe Britain, Great Britain or the UK. For most of us, most of the time, such distinctions never mattered all that much. They do now. The tectonic plates of the once United Kingdom are shifting. This month on a (UK) national radio programme I was invited to talk about my new book, How Britain Ends. Nations are sometimes described as ‘imagined communities,’ and I wrote the book because the United Kingdom is suffering from an acute failure of imagination.

Historically the UK has been a remarkable success, reinventing itself after conflict or crises every century since its foundation in 1603 – in 1707, 1801 and 1922. Another reinvention is long overdue, but Unionists have failed to re-imagine what it is about this Union which is so precious that it can be transformed for the 21st century, and nationalists will always have to grapple with what “independence” can mean in an increasingly inter-dependent world.

But on the radio show the presenter immediately fell into precisely the same confusion as the Iranian mob. I was introduced as the author of a new book supposedly called “How England Ends”. What? England? I started to giggle.

The National:

“The book is actually called How Britain Ends,” I said, trying a feeble joke, “because of course, There Will Always Be An England”.

We chatted amicably for half an hour and the presenter ended by thanking me yet again for writing “How England Ends”. England.

Well, maybe there was some perverse logic here. What kind of England do English people actually want? Scots, Irish and Welsh people have for decades considered their options. In England there are signs of growing English nationalism, but no clarity about what it means, beyond vacuous wittering about “taking back control,” among people who never truly had much control anyway. And whatever Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland decides, England will always be our neighbour, most important trading partner, and, one must hope, friend.

But England is also, as the Scottish broadcaster and author Ludovic Kennedy put it, “the elephant in the bed” of the Union, and the elephant is restless.

I’ve been Scottish and British and ­European for as long as I remember. I’ve never had to choose between these multiple layers of identity. I’m also a Londoner, because – as Scots discovered ever since James VI went south in 1603 – that’s where the money is.

England is 84% of the UK’s population, a really big elephant. But when I returned from being a foreign correspondent and spent much more time travelling from Shetland to Cornwall, Belfast and Cardiff to Kent, it was obvious things were changing.

READ MORE: Former BBC Newsnight host Gavin Esler says Union seems destined to break up

Brexit was one result, with England determined to quit the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland equally determined to stay. It was like an old joke. An Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman go to the pub. The Englishman wants to go home – so everyone has to leave. It slowly occurred to me that for four centuries the United Kingdom had survived Scottish, Welsh and even violent Irish nationalism, but may not survive the rise of English nationalism. And beyond the rather sad slogans that “we hold all the cards” and “they need us more than we need them” the puzzle remained. What do the people of England really want?

BORIS Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. He performed the usual ritual of announcing he was a “One Nation” Conservative. I happened to be in Edinburgh at the time and a friend (who voted “No” to independence in 2014) quipped that Johnson was indeed a “One Nation” Conservative, and that the “One Nation” was England. My friend is now likely to vote “Yes” in Indyref2.

Then, in October 2019, I was in ­Belfast just after Boris Johnson met his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, at the ­Wirral. Ulster Unionists told me they were shocked that 100 years of ­Unionism had, as one put it, been thrown under the wheels of the Brexit bus. Johnson had ludicrously claimed the Irish border was no more a problem than the border between Camden and Westminster. Now he agreed to put a customs border in the Irish Sea, bodging trade with the rest of the UK and undermining the union more convincingly than 30 years of IRA terrorism.

The National: RIGHT-TO-BUY: Margaret Thatcher

Unionists reminded me Mrs Thatcher had insisted Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”, whereas Johnson treated it as if it were “as British as France”.

The historian Linda Colley said ­“Britishness” was defined by three ­characteristics – Protestantism, ­Empire and War. These three pillars of the ­Union are still celebrated in Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland by the ­marching bands of the Orange Order, but for most people on these islands those three pillars have crumbled. In the 21st century ideas of “Britishness” are being replaced by firmer attachments to other, older and competing identities, including ­“Englishness”.

In one striking 2019 poll organised by the Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft, three quarters of English Conservative voters prioritised leaving the European Union over the unity of the United Kingdom. In the 2016 Brexit vote these English Conservatives were lying back and thinking of England, not of the UK. They were so desperate to leave the EU – an arrangement which had lasted almost 50 years – that they were prepared to break up that other Union, the United Kingdom, which had lasted four centuries.

In January 2012, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a study called The dog that finally barked: England as an emerging political community. The report argued “that an emerging English political identity may over time come to challenge the institutions and practices of the UK more profoundly than anything happening in the so-called Celtic fringe, even Scottish independence”.

In their follow-up report, England & Its Two Unions, the IPPR examined the relationship between feelings of Englishness and sentiment towards the United Kingdom and the European Union. This came after highly popular events that might have improved British national cohesion – the Olympics and a Royal wedding.

The IPPR concluded: “This new survey, conducted in November 2012, confirms that more people in England continue to identify more strongly as English than British: there was no discernible ‘British bounce’ following the public flag-waving events of 2012.

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“Those who do identify more strongly as English also hold stronger feelings of discontentment with England’s unions. That is, they are dissatisfied with the constitutional status quo within the UK, which is seen to favour Scotland and under-represent England’s interests, and with England’s place in Europe: English people – much more than any other regional population in Europe – see the European parliament as being highly influential.

“By this analysis, Euroscepticism appears more strongly to be an English concern than a British concern…. According to people’s political preferences, there is a strong relationship between identifying as English, feeling discontentment with the constitutional status quo and supporting Ukip – by this evidence, Ukip is much less the UK independence party than it is an English nationalist party. Although it has been reluctant to play the ‘English card’, doing so could strengthen its appeal to voters in England, with potentially far-reaching political implications.”

The “English nationalist party” UKip, and its successor, the Brexit party, have gone into the dustbin of history. That’s because their English nationalist voters have found a new home, in the Conservative and formerly “Unionist” party reinvented by Boris Johnson. Even so, some pretend “English nationalism” does not exist.

The English historian David Edgerton wryly suggests that English people often regard nationalism as an affliction suffered by other people. He says that “nationalism in British parlance was the doctrine which encapsulated the dubious claims of natives, whether Indian, African, Irish, Scottish, Welsh”.

The English are exceptional in not being burdened with such “dubious claims,” although as Edgerton implies, denying their own nationalism is itself a very English way of being nationalistic.

THE IPPR reports, meanwhile, proved prophetic. The most recent UK census (in 2011) showed the great strength of English national – as opposed to British national – sentiment. Some 60% of the English population identified themselves as English rather than the option of declaring themselves British. Only 29% chose the British option.

Yet this rise of English identity was remarked upon by few English political commentators, perhaps because most prominent commentators are based in London, where identification with English identity was least obvious. In the capital only about a third of respondents (37%) identified themselves as exclusively English whereas the proportion was much higher in the north east (70%) the north west, east Midlands and Yorkshire (66%.)

This geographical division within England over the rising strength of an English, and the declining strength of a British, identity was to have political consequences, most obviously by mirroring results in the Brexit vote five years later. In 2016 London – like Scotland – voted overwhelmingly to Remain, while much of the rest of England, especially smaller towns and rural areas in the north and midlands, voted to Leave.

The rise in “Englishness” appears in part to be a reaction against the Welsh assembly and an increasingly assertive Scottish parliament.

The National:

Back in 1999, when the Scottish parliament was founded but before it could make an impact, a clear majority of English people – 62% – told the IPPR that they agreed with the status quo, namely that “England should be governed as it is now with laws made by the UK parliament”. But by 2008 all that had changed. Support for the status quo in England dropped to about half, 51%. By 2012, as the Scottish parliament really began to assert itself and preparations were being made for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, support in England for the status quo dropped down to just 21%.

It is stunning to note that by 2014 as few as one in five English voters believed that the way they were being governed was acceptable to them. This is a demonstration of what has often been called “a democratic deficit”. Loss of confidence in the British system of government affected Scotland too, but there was a major difference. English nationalist sentiment blamed Brussels for imposing laws and rules against “our” will, while Scottish nationalist sentiment blamed London and Westminster.

The English Question became entangled with the Scottish Question, but the people affected by each were demanding very different solutions.

Nevertheless, some see reasons for England to be cheerful about the end of the United Kingdom as currently constructed. David Edgerton, writing in The New York Times (January 2020) puts it this way: “Freed from the grip of the decayed British nation and British state, England could finally be done with its delusions of grandeur. Fanciful beliefs about British importance in the world would crumble. England would be only around the eighth-largest economy in the world. And it would probably have to give up its nuclear weapons — the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine base is in Scotland. England need not be, as many fear, a rump United Kingdom, parochial, perhaps even irredentist. Less cocksure and more understanding of its real place in the world, it may soon rethink its hostility to the European Union.”

READ MORE: Louis de Bernieres claims England would be glad to see Scottish independence

Writing in the Financial Times the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres takes a different tack: “The logic of Brexit should take us further. It has been increasingly obvious to me and fellow Leavers for years that the English would be better off on their own.

“It seems ever more obvious that Ireland can be reunified because all the very good reasons for the North resisting this have gone; the Republic is no longer a corrupt, backward country, it is an energetic vibrant place where anyone would love to live, including me. We are an important trading partner; if Ireland were being strictly rational it would also leave the EU and opt for an Anglo-Irish economic zone. England has no good reason to want to cling on to Northern Ireland or to Scotland either.

“The English attachment to Scotland is a sentimental one, but the Scots have fallen out of love with us, and inevitably the English will sooner or later have had enough of the grandstanding of the nationalists. The English have noticed that their own nationalism is the only one that is routinely denigrated and despised, and that also grates. The English have developed their own ‘cultural cringe’.”

While Edgerton is optimistic, de Bernieres is full of self-pity and indulges in one of those patronising jabs at Irish people who, he claims, are not “being strictly rational”. This is an ancient English trope about Ireland. George Bernard Shaw brilliantly satirised it a hundred years ago in his play John Bull’s Other Island, but unfortunately it still permeates English nationalist “thinking”.

The National:

British diplomats should suggest to Boris Johnson that he avoids such condescension about Irish supposed “irrationality” when he meets Joe Biden.

SO where does all this leave us? Well, it depends who you mean by “us.” The United Kingdom could reinvent itself once more, probably along federal lines. More devolution in a federal UK is one suggestion I make in the book, although it may be too late. Scotland and Northern Ireland before the decade is out may decide to go their own way.

And England? Whatever happens, England needs thoroughly to reinvent the sclerotic, rotten Westminster system. It’s fit only for the era of the horse and cart which gave it birth. Middle England needs to stop being Muddle England fretting about the world of “Rule, Britannia.” And all of us need to focus on the current Union as a marriage going sour towards what the Irish writer Peter Geoghegan calls a “Zombie union”. No one is truly happy. The question is whether anyone has the will to leave.

Gavin Esler is the author of How Britain Ends, published by Head of Zeus