Winston Churchill was eloquently stumped by Russia, but the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” could be his own country. England is unknowable. It evades definition and any book about the nation becomes a study in ambiguity, including Robert Tombs’s recent The English and Their History, a work of rare class that we will turn to again and again in the coming years.
For the most pertinent of England’s ambiguities is about to be tested. How unionist are the English, really? After the general election on May 7, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will probably be the third force in parliament. It promises to bring down a Conservative minority government — even one with a plurality of seats and popular votes — and tug a Labour government to the left. The prime minister of the day will stand or fall on the decisions of a party with about 4 per cent of votes cast in the UK and a founding mission to abolish that country.
According to constitutional rules and convention, this is entirely permissible. But the legal test is not the same as the smell test. A political arrangement can be lawful and sensationally unpopular at the same time. In a funny way, all three parties show they know this.
The Tories are talking up Labour-SNP collaboration to rouse English voters. The SNP is doing the same: Having lost a referendum on Scottish secession last year, the quickest route to independence runs through England. If the UK’s largest nation becomes exasperated with the union, the game is up.
Labour’s behaviour is the most telling, though. The party deplores Conservative attempts to pit Englishman against Scot, and sully the legitimacy of any government that hinges on the nationalists.
But if Labour means what it says, why is it ruling out a coalition or formal arrangement with the SNP? In a world where the constitution is all, Labour must insist there is no vice in an accommodation with the SNP, just as there is nothing wrong with governing alongside the Liberal Democrats.
Instead, Labour forswears the idea in principle, leaving open only the prospect of ruling alone (or with the Lib Dems) and daring the nationalists to fell them. This rather acknowledges the smell test: There is such a thing as political propriety — or good form, as the English may put it — and it is distinct from constitutional law. The question is whether even the loose arrangement envisaged by Labour would lack propriety too.
To judge by their behaviour, all three parties have the same hunch about the English — that their commitment to the union is as flaky and fair-weather as their commitment to God. In the most English epigram of all time, Prime Minister David Cameron once likened his Anglicanism to radio reception in the Chilterns: “It sort of comes and goes”, the prime minister said. The same might be true of English unionism, a thin patina formed of habit and a lazy assumption that the UK will always be run by the component that supplies 85 per cent of its people.
Subtle and elusive
If that assumption is confounded, if MPs from another jurisdiction topple governments and skew laws to the left of the English centre, that wispy film of unionism could dissolve quickly. Professor Tombs reminds us that England was a sovereign nation for much longer than it has been part of the UK. Its identity is subtle and elusive — but it exists.
Unionists pretend otherwise, but their cause is itself a kind of nationalism: Its premise is that the British are a people. And while most unionists are temperate, some show a hectoring impatience with those on the English Right who are not willing to submit their interests and ideology to the transcendent cause of the UK, forever. They say Cameron puts the union in peril by seeking English votes for English laws in Parliament and invoking the SNP as a wedge issue to save his electoral hide. But the prime minister did not confect a problem out of nothing. The problem exists. There are constitutional inequities in the union born of devolution. Many warned of these at the time. They were shouted down for their trouble.
And if the UK can be mortally wounded by a five-week campaign run by a hopelessly unpopular party, is it so robust anyway? What should trouble unionists most about Tory efforts to mobilise the English is that the effort required is so minimal.
“Voters start ranting about the SNP unprompted,” testifies one startled Conservative. The grievances are inchoate — a hunch that people “up there” are taking liberties with “our” tax revenues. But they are more likely to harden than to go away. Unionism must take an interest in England before England loses interest in unionism.
— Financial Times