It is funny how, when supporters of the campaign to remain in the EU seek terms with which to criticise the supposedly narrow, nationalistic focus of the Leave campaign, they resort to the dismissive language of ‘Little England’, to which a UK remaining part of the EU is deemed by contrast to be a ‘Great Britain’. On Tuesday of last week, Prime Minister Cameron made this very contrast in the head-to-head with Nigel Farage on ITV.
Similarly, on Thursday of last week, in the same channel’s debate between three politicians on either side of the argument, one of the Leave campaigners Amber Rudd also dismissed the ‘Little Englander’ mentality of the Leave side – only to then tie herself up in knots as she referred to the country post a Remain vote as “England”, to which she then had to hastily add “Scotland” and “Wales” given the presence on her side of the studio of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon! It is as if there is a core of traditional national feeling and identity within ‘Britain’ that is instinctively designated – and usually disparaged – as ‘English’.
The EU referendum is indeed a battle between two competing British identities: a national (and at core English) Britain versus an international Britain (European, multi-national and multi-ethnic). The debates around governance, control of migration and even trade ultimately centre on questions of identity. Is your Britain essentially a projection and extension of an English identity rooted politically in the historic English traditions of Church, monarchy, Parliament and common law? Or is it a ‘modern’ Britain that no longer sees itself as having English roots but views itself as essentially European, grounded in the Western liberal-humanist-rationalist tradition, and as offering a civic identity that transcends ‘narrow’ national identities, ethnicities and creeds? Both of these latter aspects of the modern Britishness are also encapsulated in the magic term ‘British values’.
The table below compares the longer-term future for the governance of England and Britain under the scenario of either a Leave or Remain vote. My assumption is that, following a Leave vote, the UK would necessarily be thrown back on to its historically English constitution and forms of governance, and that ultimately Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly even Wales might eventually split off, leaving the English form of government to apply in fact to England alone. Following a Remain vote, on the other hand, the UK – and with it England – could increasingly be absorbed into the process of European political union, creating pressure to abolish the English constitution (and with it, effectively, England) altogether.
|· Reassertion of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and of Parliament as the seat of English government||· Transfer of further ‘international’ governmental powers (e.g. borders, security, military, foreign policy, pan-European matters) to the EU, with transfer of Parliament’s national (i.e. English) powers down to ‘regions’ and cities, resulting in a hollowing out of the English-national layer of government|
|· The Church of England remains as the established Church and official religion of the land||· As government is increasingly viewed as having a purely secular-humanist character (in keeping with the EU Treaties and practice), the pressure becomes irresistible to disestablish the Church – meaning the UK loses a foundational element of its grounding in the history of England as a Christian nation|
|· The constitutional monarchy is preserved, safeguarding a line of succession that reaches back into England’s deepest history. The monarch remains the temporal head of the Church of England||· As the Church has been disestablished, and as politics has shifted away from Parliament up to Brussels and down to ‘the regions’, the monarchy is seen as increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. Eventually, as an elected EU presidency is established, and the European Parliament acquires genuine powers of legislation and scrutiny, the UK decides to replace the monarchy with an elected – and itself largely ceremonial – president|
|· The supremacy of English and UK law is re-established, based around parliamentary statute and common law, with the Supreme Court in London as the ultimate instance in the justice system||· The areas of application of EU law and regulation are increasingly extended, and a more integrated EU justice and policing system is developed. The English legal and justice system are slowly subsumed into the EU’s Civic and Roman Law-based system, and the European Court of Justice grows in power as the ultimate instance|
|· A new Scottish independence referendum is held and is won by the nationalists. Brexit also catalyses a project to unify Ireland, with enough moderate unionists supporting this as a way to get Northern Ireland back into the EU (with EU protections for Protestant-minority rights) to ensure a majority in favour. Brexit also gives Plaid Cymru in Wales a massive boost, with traditional Labour supporters now seeing independence as the best means to get Wales back into the EU and free her from English dominance. If Wales does opt for independence, the English constitution now applies to England alone. (That does not mean it cannot and is not reformed and modernised over time – but then it is England’s constitution, not that of a polity that denies nation status to England.)||· The redistribution of power to the EU and the English ‘regions’, along with the other changes outlined above, are consolidated in a new ‘British Constitution’, establishing a new ‘Republic of Britain’. This recognises Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall as historic ‘nations’ with parliaments or assemblies to manage their own regional affairs (these areas also largely correspond to European ‘regions’). England, however, ceases to exist as either a historic or a present-day political nation, and is broken up into its constituent Euro-regions. There is no Parliament dealing with exclusively English matters, as ‘English’ matters are now regulated by the regional assemblies. ‘England’ is also no longer officially a Christian nation, as the Church of England has been disestablished. No more ‘Kingdom of England’, either, since no king. No more English law, since that is incorporated into European law. As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have achieved much of what they wanted from the EU (a ‘progressive’ politics and nullification of a once-dominant England), demands for independence and Irish unification fall away. ‘Britain’ becomes the civic nation to which all former constituent UK nations and British citizens originating from across the world all belong, without any distinction between them. The unity of the once-UK has been preserved, but at the price of England’s abolition.|
I say that this is a battle for the ‘soul’ of Britain, as well as a battle between different identities and governance models, because what is at stake is whether we are ultimately a Christian nation (England – or Anglo-Britain insofar as the other nations of the UK are governed through the same historically English constitutional system) or whether we are part of a merely secular, international political union (the EU).
This is also what is at the heart of the discussion around sovereignty. Do we wish to be part of a polity in which sovereignty ultimately derives from divine sovereignty (political power exercised in obedience to the divine will via the God-given authority of the monarch as instantiated in parliamentary sovereignty), with the principles of individual freedom and conscience also deriving from the idea of the sovereign will answerable ultimately to God alone, over and above earthly political authority? Or do we wish to be part of a polity where authority is vested in a ‘rational’ law-making body (the Commission) acting in accordance with a liberal-humanist set of principles (the Treaties), and whose decisions and regulations are accepted by the collectivity with little or no dissent, because the collectivity (the ‘Union’ in an abstract sense) fundamentally subscribes to the principles and objectives that are embodied in the laws?
Fundamentally, this isn’t even an issue of one system being more or less democratic than the other. Both systems have their critics. On the one hand, many Remainers criticise the inadequately democratic character of the Anglo-British system, because of the very ‘absolute’ (and ultimately, divine) authority on which parliamentary sovereignty rests. The objection on this fundamental point is expressed in terms of criticism of aspects such as: the fact that sovereignty is indeed vested in Parliament rather than the people; the existence of a hereditary monarchy; the unelected House of Lords, with its historic origins in an aristocratic class system underpinned by monarchy; the established nature and privileges of the Church of England, including the fact that its diocesan bishops are guaranteed seats in the said House of Lords; and the elective dictatorship that is constituted by governments elected without a popular majority, owing to the disproportional voting system, but whose authority rests – precisely – on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as opposed to the ‘popular will’.
By contrast, Leavers regard the fundamental principles of EU governance as suspect in that basing power on an elite, ‘rational’ authority (the Commission), unchecked by either an appeal to a ‘higher power’ (God and moral conscience) or popular mandate, is seen as laying the foundations of dictatorship and autocracy.
A stark choice indeed confronts us on 23 June: a Britain that retains its deep roots in the historic Christian kingdom of England and in English identity (albeit often popularly conflated with ‘British’ identity itself); or a modern Britain containing no fundamental connection with England or Englishness – but instead being multi-national, secular and part of a pan-European governance system.
It’s not just in or out, remain or leave: it’s whether England itself remains, or whether we leave England behind.