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The myth of English nationalism

Saint George and the Dragon by Rubens (c 1605-1607)

It’s St George’s Day on Sunday, says Bagehot in The Economist, and as ever, it will pass with little fanfare. There will be no national celebration; no bank holiday. Outbreaks of Morris dancing will be “mercifully rare”. But if the intelligentsia are to be believed, that’s all changing. Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, says Britain is experiencing a “reawakening of English national consciousness”. The academics Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones argue that Englishness is the “motor force” behind ructions in recent British politics. It is largely taken as read that English pride was one of the main drivers of Brexit.

But “if English nationalism is on the march, no one has told the English”. Just 22% of British people identify as English, a proportion that has “barely budged” in two decades. A spike in 2011 turned out to be the result of a “botched survey” – “English” happened to be above “British” in the list of options that year. A law enabling English MPs to vet legislation affecting only England was quietly scrapped in 2021. “Few noticed; fewer cared.” In truth, “Englishness has a weak hold on Britain”. This is partly because it’s a tricky concept to define. Even George Orwell struggled: his paeans to “queues outside the labour exchanges” and “reverence for law” sound like something Alan Partridge would say. But the main reason English nationalism doesn’t really exist is because “there is no need for it”. Nationalism flourishes when people feel thwarted. “What England wants, England gets.”