BOOK REVIEW

How Britain Ends – English Nationalism and the rebirth of Four Nations

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

How to Stop English Nationalism Breaking Up the United Kingdom

In “How Britain Ends” Gavin Esler, the Chancellor of the University of Kent, Canterbury, and the former BBC2 Newsnight presenter, has written an important book on our challenging political situation. He writes a clear, stimulating description of our position following our departure from the European Union. He argues that it threatens the continuation of Britain and he suggests ways of preventing its break-up.

Brexit has put enormous strains on our politics and we are a deeply divided nation. In the 2016 Referendum, on a turnout of 72% of the electorate, a small majority (52%) voted for this enormous change to our political structure. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London voted to remain in the EU, England and Wales voted to leave. The feeling in 2016 against our membership of the EU was not British, it was English.

English Nationalism Is the Threat

English nationalism has been the driving force behind this upheaval. Because of Scottish and Northern Irish opposition to Brexit, this threatens the continued existence of Britain.

The increased devolution of political powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during the past 20 years (but not to England outside London) has not satisfied local opinion and it has produced a strong backlash among English nationalists. The extent to which England, particularly London and the south-east of England, have increasingly subsidised these devolved areas, has fuelled English nationalist concern.

Esler reminds us how Britain emerged over four centuries, brought about  by England’s increasing power. Each stage of the process created a peculiar union, dominated by England economically and politically. In recent years a gradual federalising of the structure of government has occurred. Devolution has passed powers down to levels closer to the people. 

The Democratic Deficit: FPTP, HoL and the Absence of a Codified Constitution

Esler pays particular attention to the defects in our constitution and the democratic deficit which has emerged. The First Past The Post system of electing MPs, rather than a proportional system such as a Single Transferable Vote, has produced extraordinary anomalies. In the December 2019 General

Election the parties supporting Brexit received 1.9m fewer votes than the parties opposed to Brexit. And yet the supporters of Brexit won a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. In the 2015 General Election UKIP had received 4.1m votes and yet won only one seat. These results are not defensible. 

Esler considers that the unelected Upper House and the absence of a codified written constitution further increase the democratic deficit. These features were frequently debated in the 1980s in the Charter ’88 papers. In fact almost all our Governments during the past two centuries have revealed a democratic deficit.

After every Election, the Government formed has been supported only by a minority of the electorate. These features increased the violence of the furious arguments during Brexit. The continuation of this democratic deficit undermines the strength of Britain and threatens its existence. 

Devolution Deficit

Esler argues that sovereign independence of the four parts making up the UK is neither desirable nor inevitable. So many strong links would continue, both personally and institutionally. He suggests that the Speaker of the House of Commons call a Conference of all parties to debate and agree the major reforms needed to our constitution, covering reform of the electoral system, of the Upper House, of devolution and creating a codified, written constitution.

He also calls for “Home Rule All Round”, which Liberal reformers at the start of the last century advocated to bring government closer to the electorate, which is needed even more now than then.

Obvious problems exist, including the present government’s determination to bring about its Brexit revolution, the ending of the border in the Irish Sea, and the monarch’s authority in Northern Ireland (which will in time surely merge with the Irish Republic).

But the prize of avoiding the ending of Britain and the probable resulting violence would be great. Esler’s book should be read by all MPs and peers, civil servants and all who respect and value the many virtues of Britain.


How Britain Ends – English Nationalism and the rebirth of Four Nations by Gavin Esler; published by Head of Zeus, London,  £14.99