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SME4Labour Online Talk: “How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations”

SME4Labour Online Talk: “How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations” with Gavin Esler and David Evans, chaired by Emily Wallace

When: Monday, 1 March 2021

              19:00 GMT

Emily Wallace, a well-known Labour activist and a public affairs and communications consultant, chaired the panel and introduced the speakers. The speakers were broadcaster and writer Gavin Esler and general secretary of the Labour Party David Evans.

Esler started the discussion by highlighting some of the issues and key themes that his new book, How Britain Ends:English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, covers. He mentioned that England constituted 84 per cent of the UK’s population and what Scotland or Northern Ireland and Wales does impact the UK but not as much as what England does.

He said he wrote the book as a challenge to two groups of people. First, it was a challenge to the unionists – not the Ulster Unionists – but anyone who wishes to keep the UK together. He argued that the Conservative and Unionist Party is no longer conservative because, after Brexit, it does not know where it is going. It is no longer unionist either. The challenge for the unionists, he said, was to define what it means to be British? What does it mean to be a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? In the past, he said, it meant Protestantism, empire, and war, which brought the UK together. In the past, it was the common enemies that kept the UK together, but what keeps it together now?

The second challenge is to the nationalists and to say to them what would an independent Scotland look like in an interdependent world? What would an independent Northern Ireland look like? And, where would Wales fit in? These two challenges were his primary motivations, but two additional small reasons were behind writing the book. Esler mentioned that in August 2019, he was at Edinburg Book Festival. He noted that he grew up in Edinburgh, a small-c conservative city that voted ‘no’ in the independence referendum in 2014. When Esler talked to his friends in Edinburgh in 2019, many told him that they were ‘sickened’ because they voted to stay in the EU, and they thought the only way to do that was to remain in the UK. They felt betrayed by Brexit, and Esler thinks those ‘remain’ voters in Scotland are the key to the future because if the Scottish National Party is attractive to them, then Scotland may vote for independence.

The second thing that Esler mentioned happened in Belfast in October 2019, a day or two days before Leo Varadkar met Boris Johnson. Then Boris Johnson said, ‘the border in Ireland is no different than the border between Islington and Westminster’. But soon after, he put the customs border in the Irish Sea. There were two things that people told Esler that stuck with him. One, people in Scotland and Northern Ireland said to him that Boris Johnson was a one-nation conservative but that one nation was England, not the UK. Two, the people in Northern Ireland told him that Mrs Thatcher described Northern Ireland ‘as British as Finchley’, but Boris Johnson made it, in custom terms, as British as France. Esler believes that the move to appease English nationalism expressed through Brexit has upset the union, and the tectonic plates of the UK are shifting.

Wallace asked about the Scottish devolution and whether it has been a spur for English nationalism.

Esler said the English people do not believe they are nationalists, and they have not thought about English nationalism as much as Scots or Irish have of their nationalisms. Esler said devolution had created four democratic systems in the UK. The feeling in England that Westminster does not represent them has been growing. Things have changed in the UK, and how people view themselves has changed, and now most English people say that they are English rather than British.

Wallace then asked Evans a question about what we should do regarding these issues. Evans described himself as an ‘oily rag’ rather than a politician, and said his job was ‘to run the Labour Party and supply it with the best election machine to help win power’.

Evans said nationalism/populism is the greatest challenge facing the Labour Party because a massive chunk of Labour’s electoral coalition abandoned it in the last election. It is a long process in the making, perhaps over the previous two decades or so. So, to blame the previous Labour leadership ‘would be simplifying it to Trumpesque proportions’. Evans said that devolution is part of the solution for Labour to build trust with voters. He emphasised that the Labour government’s devolution was a proud moment because it gave people potential for empowerment. He believes Labour needs to build a new devolution legacy and deliver a new settlement for the UK nations and English regions. Politics needs to be taken closer to the people. Evans mentioned John Prescott’s attempt to introduce a regional devolution in England and said he was close to that initiative, but it didn’t work. He said that should not mean we abandon the need to take politics closer to the people. There is a need to deliver real and lasting economic and political devolution. He believes Keir Starmer’s announcement of the constitutional convention is an opportunity to engage with the conversation.

He discussed patriotism and mentioned that Labour is incredibly uncomfortable talking about Englishness. However, the vast majority of the people Labour wants to win back are not uneasy about Englishness. He said he is from Chester, a border city, and he is of Welsh heritage. He remarked that people from Chester were profoundly patriotic and would wrap themselves in English flags, but one-third of Labour support comes from Wales. Labour voting people have no problems in wrapping themselves in St George’s flags. In the 1986 European Cup, he mentioned that England supporters all wore Union Jacks, not St George’s crosses. Something has happened in the meantime to sharpen that identity. Labour needs to reconnect with the voters and discuss what their voters’ Englishness mean? It is about how they feel connected, rooted and see their identity. It is about what is important to them.

The event continued with questions from the audience.

Speakers’ biographies

Gavin Esler is an award winning broadcaster and podcaster, journalist and writer. He is the holder of a Royal Television Society award, a Sony Gold (radio) award, and two Lovie awards for his podcast series about Vladimir Putin, The Big Steal. He is author of five novels (Loyalties, Deep Blue, The Blood Brother, A Scandalous Man and Power Play) and four non-fiction books (The United States of Anger, Lessons from the Top, Brexit Without the Bullshit and How Britain Ends.)

Lessons from the Top was inspired by Gavin’s own conversations and interviews with numerous heads of state & world leaders. These include Bill Clinton, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and many other accomplished communicators ranging from Dolly Parton and Angelina Jolie to leaders of terrorist groups. The book examines how successful leaders tell stories to educate, persuade and bring about change. Gavin is often invited to discuss these lessons with business, military and public sector leaders.
In his most recent book How Britain Ends (February 2021) Gavin explores the possibility of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland reinventing itself or, as the title suggests, coming to an end. The book examines what “being British” might mean in the 21st century – if anything – and whether the UK, which has reinvented itself every century since 1603, can begin a further restructuring for the 21st century. The challenge to unionists is to find new structures to keep the United Kingdom together. The challenge to nationalists is to ask themselves what “independence” really means in an increasingly inter-dependent world. Drawing on Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English literature and culture, Gavin asks whether a federal structure could in the end save the union or whether what he calls “the elephant in the bed” – England itself – may itself ensure that the competing nationalisms on these islands mean the United Kingdom is inevitably coming to an end.

David Evans is the General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Prior to his appointment as General Secretary in May last year, David was the founder and Director of the Campaign Company – a research consultancy specialising in behavioural insight  for national and local government, health trusts and charities.

David has a long history with the Labour Party. He previously served as Regional Director of Labour North West and Assistant General Secretary to the Party between 1998 and 2001, and he played a key role in both the 1997 and 2001 General Election victories. He also served as a councillor in Croydon.

David is a lifelong supporter of Chester FC – having served as an elected director of the supporter run club.  He lives in South London with wife, Aline (who he met when he was Secretary, and she was Assistant Secretary of the Labour Party Conference Arrangements Committee) and two French Bulldogs.

Emily Wallace

Emily is a  well known Labour activist, and founding Partner of Inflect Partners, a new public affairs and  communications consultancy launched in December 2020. She is a long term supporter of SME for Labour and of the need for the Labour Party to be a champion for small business.

Emily is a Patron of the Women in Westminster:100 launched in 2020, was listed in the Policy Mogul top ten inspirational women in public affairs in 2019, Shortlisted for a Women in Public Life award in 2013 and was the winner of the coveted Public Affairs News Consultant of year in 2013.