England, as we know, is a nation but not a state. Such a statement can imply different things, however. I was struck by this the other day when I was researching a post on the campaigns being mounted in support of Internet Top Level Domains (TLDs) for ‘sub-national’ territories such as cities (e.g. .ldn for London) or ‘regions’ with a distinct national cultural-ethnic identity (such as Catalonia, Brittany or Cornwall). Another blog I looked at in connection with this research referred to these regions as ‘stateless nations’; and Scotland (.sco) and Wales (.cym) were viewed as being in the same category. Well, I thought, if Scotland and Wales are described as ‘stateless nations’, then England (.eng) – which the blog did not refer to – must be the stateless nation par excellence, as it is larger than all of the above-mentioned ‘nations’ put together but has even less official status as a nation than either Scotland or Wales, and less political autonomy than Catalonia.
But in another way, is it appropriate to place England in the same category as Catalonia or Cornwall; or even to assert that Scotland and Wales are stateless nations in quite the same way as these other entities? There is a difference between the ‘constituent countries’ of the UK, as they’re officially known, and these ‘regions’. The difference, precisely, is that England, Scotland and Wales have always preserved official recognition as nations even within the British state; whereas, for centuries, territories such as Catalonia, Brittany or Cornwall have not enjoyed such a formal status, at least not without dispute.
In other words, Catalonia and Cornwall are ‘nations’ primarily in the cultural-ethnic sense: the people, or a significant proportion of them, in those ‘regions’ feel and believe they are a distinct nation. That nationhood is identified most closely with their distinctive languages, cultural traditions, ethnicity and common history, which can include a history of struggle to resist total assimilation into the state of which they are a part.
By contrast, England, Scotland and Wales – while being also nations in the cultural-ethnic sense I’ve just defined – are nations in a different, formal sense. Even prior to devolution, England and Wales, on the one hand, and Scotland, on the other, retained separate legal and education systems. One consequence was that they continued to be recognised as distinct national entities, even though the political system and state institutions through which they were governed were indistinct. And whereas they had the same legal and educational systems, England and Wales were also officially acknowledged as distinct nations in a political and administrative sense, and not merely as culturally-ethnically distinct ‘regional’ entities within a larger nation that encompassed them.
So England may well be a nation but not a state; but it is also a nation within a state – one that enjoyed and, to an extent, still enjoys official nation status, if not nation-statehood. We’re familiar with the history: England (which at that time subsumed Wales) was a nation-state or, in the terms of the day, a distinct, united and independent kingdom. After the Union with Scotland in 1707, England essentially retained the same apparatus of statehood and, in this sense, Great Britain represented the continuing English state. The difference, of course, was that this state was shared with, and extended to encompass, Scotland. Accordingly, the name of the state was changed to Great Britain in recognition of its territorial extent and the fact that, nominally, England and Scotland were equal partners in a shared polity; and that therefore the new state could not simply be referred to as ‘England’, which would imply that England had merely taken over Scotland. While the political reality may well have been a take-over of this sort, the choice of the name Great Britain did in fact also correspond to a truth: that England and Scotland had in fact not been integrated into a single nation through the Union but remained distinct nations in both the cultural-ethnic and legal-institutional senses described above. Great Britain, and the United Kingdom that succeeded it as a result of the Union with Ireland in 1801, was never anything more than a political union; and the nations of Britain remained as such.
What began to happen with the devolution of Scotland and Wales in 1998 was the unravelling of that political union. As so often happens, the politicians responsible got it all upside down. They thought that the changes they were introducing were merely political and would not in themselves undermine the Union, because – as they thought – the ‘common bonds’ of nationhood uniting the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales were so strong that a separation into three distinct nation states would be unthinkable to all but a fanatical nationalist minority. On the contrary, it was the political union between the three nations – the unitary institutions of the UK – that held the whole thing together: it was this union that meant that the distinct national identities and ambitions of England, Scotland and Wales were set aside because the system of governance they shared was perceived as having worked over centuries, and was basically fair, democratic and free. In other words, the political union held national(ist) ambitions in check; but once separate national political institutions were accorded to Scotland and Wales, they became the focus and instrument for expressing those distinct national identities, aspirations and political goals.
In a sense, though I disagree with the analysis, there is a simple logic behind the claim that is often made by establishment politicians that once England is granted its own parliament, this would mean the end of the United Kingdom. So long as England doesn’t jump the sinking British ship, there is a chance of keeping Scotland and Wales on board, i.e. committed to a common political undertaking and project: the British state. However, if England refocuses its politics around itself as a nation – as opposed to focusing it on Britain – then instead of three nations with unitary political institutions, you have three nations with their own national political institutions. And the ultimate logic, so the argument goes, is three separate nation states. (I disagree because it’s possible to imagine a federal system in which each nation would govern its own internal affairs but pool their sovereignty to deal with matters of common strategic, international interest.)
But the irony of such a conception of the situation is that it makes Britain re-emerge overtly as the English state that it has always been in all but name. This is because it’s England – its commitment and its willingness to put the perpetuation of the Union above its own ‘self-interest’, if necessary – that holds the whole thing together: no England, no Union. As Scotland and Wales separate themselves off both politically and emotionally from the Union (i.e. in terms of their own commitment to the Union that they were previously willing to regard as more important than ‘selfish’ national goals), what is left of the United Kingdom, as a unitary polity, is increasingly only England. This emerged in a rather telling way in the government’s Draft Legislative Programme for 2008/9, presented to Parliament in May 2008, which formed the basis for a previous post. The document gamely attempts to clarify the ‘territorial extent’ of the bills proposed. Indeed, different parts of some bills apply to a bewildering combination of the UK nations: England and Wales; England, Wales and N. Ireland; all of the UK, etc. This is of course because government responsibilities in the areas covered by the bills have been devolved in varying degrees to Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. However, the one common denominator is that every part of every bill applies to England. In other words, England is now the only UK nation to which UK governance applies in a fully unitary fashion; the other nations having disengaged themselves to a varying extent from that unitary system. As much as to say that England is the United Kingdom; and the other nations are now only semi-united politically with England in that kingdom.
So England was a united kingdom before the 1707 Act of Union; and now it is the United Kingdom: the only truly united and unifying part of a state that the countries with which it was formerly united are increasingly walking away from. So it’s not so much a case of England deciding to turn its back on the Union and create its own new, separate English institutions; but rather that, as the other nations turn their back on the Union, the UK institutions re-emerge as what they always were at heart: those of England. Which is not to say that, if Scotland votes for independence in 2010, say, we should simply carry on with the same old political institutions and constitutional settlement that we have now in a rump-UK minus Scotland. Indeed not: this would be the opportunity for England to recast its fundamental national institutions anew and re-invent a proud, English democracy serving English needs and priorities in this challenging period of world history.
But the point is, whether a new English parliament in name as well as deed emerges as a result of Scottish secession from the Union (most likely), or through an equalisation of the present asymmetrical devolution settlement such as through a federation (unlikely but the only way to save common British institutions and statehood of any sort), this parliament will be the expression of a nation – England – that has always maintained its existence as a formal, political and juridical, nation, and not just a nation defined in cultural and ethnic terms. In fact, those who would seek to limit their definition and understanding of England and the English to such cultural and / or ethnic terms are actually contributing to the marginalisation of England within the British state and are making the possibility of English self-governance more, not less, remote. This is because, if the English are a nation only or primarily in the cultural-ethnic sense, then it can be argued that they have no special claim to be marked out from any other cultural or ethnic group within the British state by having their own parliament and institutions. England will secure recognition for itself as a nation with democratic rights only if it claims for itself the status of a formal – political and juridical – nation; and if it forces the British state to accept it as such. So, in a sense, in order to be acknowledged in the future as a nation with official status as a state or part of a state, England must be accepted as having always been such a nation – a polity, kingdom, and civic nation, in short – and that the British phase of its history was one where its civic identity was subsumed into Britain; but its national identity was unchanged.
England is indeed a nation with a culture, traditions, history and ethnic mix that is all its own, and of which it can be proud. But it is so much more than that: it’s a political and legal entity with a proud past, submerged present, and promising future. We’re England – not Catalonia or Brittany. And not Britain.