Time for Nick Clegg to ditch the “Great Britain not Little England” line

by Stephen Tall on March 30, 2014

england-flag“Great Britain not little England” – it was a line Nick Clegg used in his recent Spring conference speech, setting up the new political dividing lines between those who are optimistic, outward-looking, progressive pro-Europeans and those who are gloomy, isolationst, reactionary anti-Europeans.

It’s a line he used again in this week’s Nick v Nigel debate. “Great Britain, not Little England” was the subject line, too, of the party’s immediate post-debate email to supporters.

Clearly it’s a line the party believes encapsulates the main fault-line in British politics right now. But is it the right line to push? And is it a good, liberal line?

Here are 3 reasons why Lib Dems should pause before continuing to set up the dividing line between Great Britain and Little England…

They’re drawn from a report published last summer by the think-tank IPPR, England and its two unions: The anatomy of a nation and its discontents*. This takes a long hard look at national self-identity and its political implications.

A couple of its top-line conclusions are that a stronger sense of English national identity is increasingly asserting itself. And that, though ‘Britishness’ is more important to black and minority ethnic citizens, among ALL citizens there are significant concerns about the UK’s existing power structures (eg, perceptions that the EU is too powerful, that Scotland gets a better deal at the rest of the UK’s expense).

But Englishness is not necessarily the same as Little Englander. Take a look at this table showing voting intention in an EU referendum by national self-identity:

english british - eu remain 2012

Unsurprisingly, support for leaving the EU is much higher among those who self-identify as only English or more English than British. Opinion is more divided among those who see themselves as equally English and British. and those who prioritise their Britishness over their Englishness are more likely to want the UK to remain in the EU.

You could say this shows Nick Clegg’s point is essentially right: Englishness is more associated with being anti-EU. However, what this table also shows is that there’s nothing incompatible with self-identifying as English and also wanting the UK to remain within the EU – exactly as 1-in-6 of those who say they’re English-not-British wish to do.

In other words, there is a real risk that in setting up dividing lines (“Great Britain not Little England”) we fail to reach out to those who are open to our arguments.

Let’s look at another table, this one showing the preferences by party voting support for how laws that apply to those of us living in England should be made:

english british - govt pref 2012

Those who support the status quo of the UK’s existing ‘constitutional settlement’ are a minority. From a Lib Dem perspective what’s striking is the degree of support (38%) among the party’s voters for ‘English votes for English laws’ (ie, only English MPs able to vote on matters that affect only to England). An English parliament is supported by 1-in-5 Lib Dem voters.

Two caveats here. First, the sample size of Lib Dems in the poll is pretty small (178). Secondly, other options (such as further devolved power to local councils) weren’t offered. Those caveats inserted, I think it’d be unwise to swat away these findings too glibly. It’s not very surprising that a growing sense of English self-identity is also reflected, across voters of all parties, in a wish for greater self-determination.

Here’s my third and final table, showing responses to the question ‘Which political party best stands up for the interests of England?’

english british - party pref 2013

This needs little explanation: Ukip is seen as the party most likely to stick up for the interests of England by 21% of voters. Just 6 per cent think the Lib Dems do.

Though many of their policies are quite different, including notably on the EU, Ukip is increasingly performing a similar function in England as the SNP does in Scotland – as a repository for voters wanting a party they can identify with nationally and culturally. The question for the major parties, including the Lib Dems, is simple: how do we respond to this growing sense of English identity?

Here’s how the IPPR’s report concludes:

For some, Englishness seems to be regarded as a dark and chauvinistic force, best kept under wraps. The evident association of English discontentment with the right-wing populism of Ukip may well reinforce that concern. In particular, progressives may be reluctant to engage with the emerging English agenda for fear of legitimising what they see as the grievances of ‘little Englanders’.

This, we believe, would be a serious error. The issue is not going to go away. This is not merely because of the public attitudes identified in this report – although they constitute sufficient cause in their own right – but also because the continuing processes of renegotiation of the terms of union in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will ensure that England, by default, becomes ever more clearly delineated as a distinct political arena. Any decision to ignore English discontentment for fear of guilt by association with right-wing populism is only likely to further feed such discontentment – and perhaps encourage it to develop more toxic undertones, if the perception grows that
the political class is simply ignoring issues of real concern to people. …

There is no reason to believe that recognising England as a political community and giving it a voice must be inevitably linked to the more inward-looking and defensive agendas pursued on the political right.

I realise that what Nick Clegg refers to as ‘Little England’ is a catch-all term for the right’s “inward-looking and defensive agenda”. But, to many voters listening, it will more likely appear that their identity is simply being belittled by one of those Westminster elite politicians they feel so detached from. It’s the kind of language that fuels populists like Nigel Farage.

We shouldn’t be encouraging the artificial divide between Englishness and Britishness. It is perfectly possible for citizens to feel both, either or neither and still to be open to persuasion on arguments about the UK’s membership of the European Union. And we certainly shouldn’t be ceding how Englishness is self-defined to the likes of Ukip or the rest of the right.

Liberalism is about recognising individuality and promoting community – whether at family, village, town, city, county, national or international level. There’s nothing wrong with believing in Great Britain. But there’s nothing wrong with believing in England being Great either.

* My thanks to Sunder Katwala at British Future for pointing out this report to me.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.