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It’s a paradox. England and the English are ever present in our culture and politics. They shaped the momentous decision of Brexit. Yet England – as England – is barely mentioned in our national political debate. If English identity is discussed, it is to be disparaged and abused as nationalist, proto-imperialist or racist.

Brexit has revealed a deeply divided nation, but England’s divisions were not created by Brexit. We’ve been growing apart for years; along fault lines of geography, age, class, wealth, education and race. We are not one single nation, united by a broadly similar experience of life and a shared view of the world.

We experience the world differently and see the world differently. We have come to believe in different things, to hold different values, to live in different places, with different experiences and expectations. But if we have been growing apart for years, we should drop any pretence that things will simply return to normal if or when we put Brexit behind us. Unresolved, our divisions will disrupt politics for the foreseeable future and on issues unrelated to Europe.

The political forces that academics Professors Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell call ‘national populism’ have disrupted politics across Europe, including in countries where EU membership has not been a central issue. Hope Not Hate polling says that 68% say no political party speaks for them. Meanwhile, 55% think the political system is broken. And, just as a reminder that the left-right divide has not gone away, 76% think politicians put the interests of big business before theirs.

Feeling marginalised, not having a voice, sensing your identity is under threat: all of these sentiments are pregnant with disruptive political potential.

But why talk about England?

England outside London voted Leave. Those who identify as English were most likely to vote Leave. Voters with the same demographics voted Remain in Scotland and Leave in England. The social divisions are widest in England. Many liberal and non-English commentators blame the English and English nationalism for Brexit. Leavers say they wanted sovereignty; but where does that sovereignty lie?

Fundamentally, England is a divided nation, and a divided nation lacks the shared values and aspirations that can deliver for the common good. Yet the UK government – the Government of England – and the Official Opposition, the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Change UK all barely acknowledge England at all.

This refusal to acknowledge England as a political nation comes from the unfinished journey England and the Union are making from a Britain at the heart of Empire to the haphazard construction of a post-imperial state.

This legacy is what I call the ‘presumption of unionism’: a hangover from the unitary imperial state that says that the way our constitution is currently ordered is the only way that it can be ordered. Deep in political consciousness is the idea that the UK should govern England from London; that the national identity of England should be British; that to question the constitution, governance and identity of England is a distraction from ‘the things that people really care about’; and that the maintenance of the Union depends on England being denied its nationhood.

England is a nation of multiple identities. For most people, English and British identities are intertwined, but they have different meanings, and we combine them differently. As we track across our mixed identities from ‘English not British’ through ‘equally English and British’ to ‘British not English’, the overall picture is clear.

Towards the English end of the spectrum we find people who are more rooted in a locality – a town, county or region. This, incidentally, explains the multifarious nature of Englishness; why English people will often also stress that they are from Yorkshire, Devon or Birmingham. It is not a monochrome identity, but a shared national identity built on local roots. The more English have the strongest sense of distinct English political interests, are patriotic and associate their identity with positive characteristics.

At the British end we find people who are less rooted in any part of England, more likely to be European, and are less patriotic, have less pride in their identity and are more likely to reject Englishness completely.

The ‘more British’ are in the cities and the ‘more English’ in smaller communities. English identity is emphasised by those least happy with the economic and social change of the last decades.

This is reflected in the politics of our different identities. The people who most emphasise their English identity are not, generally, the people who are in power in England. They live in the ‘wrong’ places, they’ve had the ‘wrong’ education, they are, largely, the ‘wrong’ class, and they hold socially conservative rather than liberal metropolitan values. These are not, by and large, the people we find in powerful positions in corporate business, politics, the media or academia.

It is Britishness – an outlook widely shared amongst the political class – that is all too often the badge of power.

There is no evidence that English leave voters support the ‘greater British’ unionism conjured up by Anglo-centric Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, nor the proto-imperialism imagined by those who blame ‘English nationalism’ for Brexit. Indeed, there is no political nationalism of any significance. These English Leave voters would rather turn their back on the Union, let alone demand a new empire, to get England a fair deal.

Of course, many Leavers will have clung to ideas of England standing alone; these ideas of the nation have been inculcated in stories from the Armada to Dunkirk. Historic myths can be genuinely inspiring. But, as poor history, they can also be a poor guide to our real nature, and a hindrance to engaging with a changing world. Denied any national forum, and national debate about its own identity, England, alone of the nations of the UK, has had no chance to question whether these stories work so well for us today; no opportunity to reimagine itself as a modern twenty-first century nation.

England’s role in Brexit was to grasp the chance to express these suppressed demands for identity and sovereignty. It was the England that wants its own parliament, does not feel well represented, and wants fair funding that was most attracted by ‘take back control’. It was the same people who in 2015 feared SNP influence on a hung parliament and gave Cameron his majority.

Brexit – however disruptive – was a demand to be heard and that’s why it should light the fuse for England’s democratic moment.

John Denham is Professor of Knowledge Exchange at the University of Winchester. He was previously Communities Secretary and Business Secretary in the last Labour Government. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.