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

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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37 Comments

  • I think the whole emphasis on the EU is wrong-headed. Yes, the party should put forward a principled pro-European line, and that will play its part in making it more attractive. But at the moment it’s in danger of almost defining itself as the Euro-enthusiast party. That enthusiasm is not shared by its current supporters (only about two thirds of whom are even sure they want to stay in the EU). And the number of supporters of other parties who are so enthusiastic about Europe and view the issue as so important that they will switch their vote purely on that basis must be small. Certainly the latest YouGov Euro poll shows no improvement at all in the party’s rating, after all the news coverage last week.

    Europe is not the primary issue in most people’s minds. The LIb Dems need to focus on the issues that are important to people. Concentrating on Europe will only encourage people to think of them as a minor single-issue party – the Euro-enthusiast mirror-image of UKIP, perhaps.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Mar '14 - 12:12pm

    I agree. I believe in a federal Europe, but the current approach and lines such as “little England” looks like talking the country down, whilst Farage is talking it up.

    I really think Nick can win the next debate if he changes some things. Farage seems a bit reckless and negative.

  • Sorry what is the major fault line? Whether we are open or closed to the world? So the great economic debate of the last century is over and the market has won? In spite of everything that’s happened in the last 25 years, like New Labour the New Lib Dems believe in market fundamentalism. It’s so sad when you hear even former director’s of the CBI calling for a change in economic thinking and even the IMF is warning about inequality that a formerly progressive party is stuck in the Blair era.

  • jedibeeftrix 30th Mar '14 - 1:06pm

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

    Agreed, but not because I hold any amgbition for Britain to become a federal part of europe. I clearly do not.

    No, it is because the “little England” denigrates the identity of the vast majority of electorate, which for a political party is sheer idiocy.

    I say this as a person whose identity is almost entirely British, regardless of where I happened to be born or live.

  • I agree too. Nick Clegg should be wary of disparaging Englishness in any of its forms, “little” or otherwise, particularly given his own mixed heritage and background as a Eurocrat. It does not wear well with many to whom their English identity is important. He wouldn’t dare disparage the Yes campaign in Scotland in the same way, so why is it OK to do so with the English.

    He also needs to find some answers to some of the questions posed by Nigel Farage rather than dodging them. This is a much harder task than he took on last time, which was simply to put forward his own pre-rehearsed arguments.

    On the other hand, he should pose some serious questions to Farage. For example:

    1) You talk about “red tape”. So whose workplace rights or environmental protections do you want to shred if you remove this so-called red tape. Does he want to return to the Britain of dirty beaches and workplace accidents, for example?

    2) How does he propose to deal with the fact that we’ll have to follow rules from Brussels anyway if we are going to export to the EU, without any way of influencing them?

    3) How is UKIP going to defend the environment and deal with climate change without working with our European partners on matters like carbon emissions. Or does UKIP not care about the environment at all?

    4) How is UKIP going to deal with the vast proliferation of bilateral treaties Britain is going to have to negotiate (often on disadvantageous terms with larger partners)?

    5) Why is he siding with Putin over Ukraine? Farage deserves to be taken to task over his outburst last time.

  • I am just fed up with Nick and others referring to this country as “Great Britain” and, in the case of Nick, as an “island”. The name of our country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. By referring only to Great Britain, Nick is excluding/marginalising all the people in Northern Ireland, many of whom lost relatives and friends and/or were injured in the struggle to settle Northern Ireland’s future as part of the United Kingdom. He is also excluding people in the scores of islands which are contained within our country, other than Great Britain.

  • I think Frank Booth is correct in focusing on the economic issues. Inequality is fuelling historic grievances and separatism is Europe. It is not just Scottish Independence and the West Lothian question.. Catalonia is holding a referendum on Independence from Spain, a long ambition of the Basque country as well. Sardinia and even Venice want to break free of Italian state control. The Flanders separatist movement is alive and well in Belgium.

    It is important to recognise the underlying causes of disunity and regional frustrations across Europe and within states, giving equal attention to solidarity in economic recovery, dealing with inequality and subsidiarity/self-determination.

  • From some of these aggrieved English sentiments, you’d think there was political space for an English Independence Party. Free England from the trammels of Great Britain!
    What’s missing, however, is that part of the English national identity is having someone else (someone not English) to rule over or to massacre — the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the Manx, the Cornish, the French, the Empire. Without that, what is “Englishness”?

  • I took Nick Clegg to mean that GB (UK actually) has the opportunity to be in the driving seat in Europe and be able to shape the EU from the front, but this is an opportunity that has been eschewed as a result of an inward and backward looking mentality that Farage personifies.

    While the UK continues to pussyfoot around the periphery carping from the sidelines, it will never pull its weight in the EU and will fade further on the world stage.

    I would like to see Nick Clegg draw attention to the work of MEPs and highlight how ineffectual UKIPers are as democratically elected representatives.

  • @ David1

    “What’s missing, however, is that part of the English national identity is having someone else (someone not English) to rule over or to massacre — the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the Manx, the Cornish, the French, the Empire. Without that, what is “Englishness”?”

    What an outrageous statement that either betrays self-loathing (if you’re English) or ignorant xenophobia.

    How about talking about our major contributions to language, literature and other art forms, government, science, social progress? Ridiculously ahistorical as well, given that Scots and the French were among the most avid imperialists in their time and in fact the French still show much more of a tendency in that direction even nowadays.

    Shakespeare, Brunel, Darwin, Keynes, Austen, Dickens, Turing, Newton, Mill, Berners-Lee. All written out of the plot and erased from past and present in your narrow, distorted little history book.

  • Little England has ditched Nick Clegg. Nuff said.

  • Paul in Twickenham 30th Mar '14 - 4:10pm

    The strategy of offering an optimistic, inclusive and Liberal vision to contrast with Farage’s appeal to fear of “the other” is undermined by the blunder of speaking in crass soundbites. Unfortunately Mr Clegg relishes these trite, ritualised clichés based on polarised alternatives : “coke not pepsi” etc etc

    The only time that Mr Clegg sounded authentic during that debate was when he spoke about equal marriage and you will have noted the strong reaction of the audience to that sincerity. The rest was a mishmash of half-baked statistics and implausible assertions of economic apocalypse if the UK leaves the EU. Mr Farage by contrast sounded entirely authentic. I disagreed with a great deal of what he said but don’t doubt his sincerity.

    Cut the rhetorical devices nonsense (no more “this not that”), get your facts lined up where no one can dispute them (eg don’t repeat that 3 million jobs line), don’t assert things that people feel to be untrue ( eg the new jobs or laws claims) and talk with sincerity about our past, present and future. I suggest listening to Billy Bragg’s “England half-English”.

  • @Paul in Twickenham

    I agree with everything you say apart from the bit about listening to Billy Bragg.

  • Philip Rolle 30th Mar '14 - 5:01pm

    These debates will be damaging to Nick Clegg because people think: ” We’ll never get a referendum from him; he’s too pro-EU.”

  • It looks like I might disagree with RC on music along with a lot else. I first met Bliiy Bragg at a weekend conference on the monarchy in’1992 (it was sponsored by The Times). I have listened to him ever since. I do not always agree with him but it is always worth spending the time to listen to him. He was one of a number of high profile Labour Party supporters who at more than one general election urged people in some constituencies to vote Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out. In constituencies such as Kingston + Surbiton where we had a majority of just 56 in 1997 it is probably no exaggeration to say that this intervention helped win us the seat.
    Incidentally it was at the same conference in 1992 that I first met a very young Alex Wilcock, I have always listened to him since as well.
    I have only met Clegg a couple of times and I expect he has forgotten both occasions. Needless to say I am like 90% of the population who no longer listen to very much that is said by Clegg.

  • Chris Manners 30th Mar '14 - 6:51pm

    ” In constituencies such as Kingston + Surbiton where we had a majority of just 56 in 1997 it is probably no exaggeration to say that this intervention helped win us the seat.”

    I’m putting up a wanted poster of you and Billy Bragg.

  • It is always nice to feel wanted.

  • Paul In Twickenham 30th Mar '14 - 7:14pm

    @RC – not knowing your musical tastes (mine range from Eurovision to Wagner and almost no points – or is that “nul points” – in between) let me try a different analogy: in his effort to give simple messages Mr Clegg risks reducing the many resonant, interconnected arguments in favour of progressive, outward looking politics to cliché: rather like reducing Beethoven’s 5th symphony to ” da da da dum”.

  • Richard Church 30th Mar '14 - 7:34pm

    People here are missing the point of the phrase ‘Little Englander’ and ignoring 50% of its content, the word ‘little’. Little Englanders are not the English. Little Englanders, not most English people, look inwards to their narrowminded, parochial concerns, they are small minded nationalists. UKIP and the Tories encapsulate Little England values; an ignorance of internationalism, opposition to third world aid, anti Europe and often anti Scottish and Welsh too.

    I’m an Englishman (Well, 100% of my ancestors going back 200 years were born in England, before that there’s some Hugenot and a little Irish), but like many other English men and women I hate Little England values. I love English culture and the great things it has contributed to the world. I love too diverisity of our islands and our continent. I want to be an Englishman who is part of Great Britain and Europe. Great Britain not Little England sums me up fine.

  • Jenny Barnes 31st Mar '14 - 8:45am

    “like reducing Beethoven’s 5th symphony to ” da da da dum”.”

    “da da da dum…..nah. I’ll just stick to what I know thanks. Throwing people out of airlocks, mostly”

  • ‘Great Britain’ and ‘Little England’ are shorthand for a confident outward looking approach on the one hand and an insular protective approach on the other. Nick Clegg is right to use them and to believe that they will be understood by the electorate.

  • Peter Tyzack 31st Mar '14 - 10:47am

    So right Simon, Richard Church seems to be the only one to have grasped this. If Nick’s poignant phrase can be so misunderstood by the collective wisdom above then the clear answer is that the theme doesn’t need to be dropped but to be developed.
    Nick should next show how he believes in a United Kingdom, which recognises the differences of its states and regions and how we as a party are strong believers in working together whilst recognising our rich variations. A federal united kingdom with powers devolved/returned to it’s communities states and regions; with a reformed UK Govt in Westminster and the existing regional structures locally controlled, instead of directed by Whitehall… ie LibDem policy.

  • Peter Chivall 31st Mar '14 - 10:49am

    Stephen Tall is correct in his rejection of the use of “Little Englander” as unwise in the context of the current debate on Scottish Independence and the upcoming European elections. I like most Liberal Democrats detest the small-minded ignorance of the flag-waving Mail and Express readers whose only knowledge of this country’s wonderful musical heritage is the items in Part II of the ‘Last Night of the Proms’.
    What the Leadership should be thinking seriously about is the evidence in the IPPR study quoted at length by Stephen Tall – that essentially anti-EU rhetoric represents a mountain of resentment at Westminster/ Whitehall Government – and that we LibDems are now part of that Westminster Village Parish Council phenomenon. As Ian Swales, our MP for Redcar put it, talking of London-based press and civil servants; “their geography gets a little hazy once you get north of the M25.”
    The Scottish independence debate should have been an opportunity for the Party to define a national future for England, with it’s own Parliament representing the only identity common to both Berwick-on-Tweed and Bournemouth, Lowestoft and Lancaster. They could have used that debate to lead the moves for a fully democratic Parliament, elected by PR and based at least 100miles north of London, a Parliament that could have a duty to promote devolution to a properly tax-funded functioning regional and local government.
    Instead they flunked it. The report and Motion which came to the York Conference could have been written by any Whitehall mandarin, with county and other authorities effectively petitioning their Lords and masters in Westminster to allow them some measure of devolution along the lines of the City Deals (worthwhile in themselves, but only allowing what any other country allows its local government), but anxious to deny at all costs the political expression of that common identity, for fear that the civilised ‘Jerusalem’ of Twickenham will be drowned out by the ‘plebs’ chanting of ‘Ingerland’ at Wembley.
    The Motion at York was a lost opportunity to define a future for our Party in England and to put the failure to defend regional administration against centralism and the debacles of AV and Lords Reform behind us and lead sensible, loyal reform against an immobile and visibly incompetent Establishment. Our Party has chosen the wrong side in this debate and, with the possible exception of our 57 redoubts, will pay a heavy price for it in 2015.

  • Why is it wrong to say you are English but not to say you are Welsh, Irish or Scottish? The comment about the English by David-1 is typical anti English and he forgets that many English were also treated appallingly. Say that about anyone else and what would happen? I have ancestors who worked as chain makers, miners and on the land who lived in extreme poverty with harsh working conditions. It was only the relative recent rise of the Trade Unions that helped us and why their influence is being destroyed. Look at the suffering of the working class. It was the ruling class that trod on everyone in the world and at home, something akin to what is happening now.

  • Peter Chivall
    I do not agree with everything you say here but I particularly like the way you say it.
    Like Billy Bragg, I used to want to plant bombs at the Last night of the Proms.
    I especially liked your reference to — Ian Swales’ observation on London-based press and civil servants; that “their geography gets a little hazy once you get north of the M25
    For most of my working life I was surrounded by such people. Mostly nice, well intentioned and many highly intelligent. But their background of home counties middle class comfort, fee paying school, Oxbridge, and then civil service fast stream did not equip them to understand real life outside their own orbit. Unfortunately Nick Clegg, David Laws etc exhibit the same basic faults and ignorance. There is nothing more cringe-worthy than Nick Clegg talking about “his” city of Sheffield.

    Having said that I disagree with you about rugby fans at Twickenham. They may be over privileged, high salaried etc but I do not find the behaviour of rugby fans in any way more civilised or superior to that of football fans. I much prefer the self-mockery and good humour of people singing ” Ing-er-land ” safe in the knowledge that their team is unlikely to get beyond the first stages of the world cup.

    Every week Premier League football fans cheer on their own club which is more often than not made up of a United Nations of players. I am delighted to support a team with football geniuses from Bosnia, the Ivory Coast, Argentina, Spain, France, Brazil, and even a few from England. Looking beyond the M25 does notes strict us to just looking in one direction.

  • Apologies — that last sentence should read —
    Looking beyond the M25 does not restrict us to just looking in one direction.

    For some reason my IPad likes to garble what I write.

  • Nick Collins 31st Mar '14 - 12:43pm

    @ Peter Chivall & John Tilley”: has “Jerusalem” spread to Twickenham? I thought it was just sung at cricket matches (not that many of the fans actually sing it); don’t rugby fans prefer “Sweet Chariot”?

  • Simon Banks 31st Mar '14 - 5:26pm

    I think the “Party of In” line is the best for Liberal Democrats in the forthcoming Euro election for various reasons, but I agree that the Britain/England part of Nick’s catchphrase sends unhelpful vibes to the English, though the Scottish implications will be quite different.

    On a longer term basis, we do need to think about a Liberal definition of Englishness just as the traditional English flag has been rescued from the racists by England football supporters of all races. Englishness includes Magna Carta and a belief in liberty, opposing tyranny and defending political rights (strongly associated with being English even in the minds of King John’s barons and even more in the minds of Levellers and other Civil War radicals). That is not of course to suggest for a moment that the Scottish and Welsh people don’t have noble traditions that overlap considerably with these.

  • John Tilley – “I do not find the behaviour of rugby fans in any way more civilised or superior to that of football fans”

    Then I suggest you visit the Shed, and compare and contrast.

  • Shirley Campbell 2nd Apr '14 - 11:06am

    ” The name of our country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

    Yes, we know that Paul; however, many staunch supporters of republicanism recoil at being considered as citizens, or whatever, of a KINGDOM. It grates on me when I have to scroll down to the bottom of a list and identify myself as a citizen, or whatever, of a KINGDOM. The term “United Kingdom” needs to be revised and the monarchy needs to be served its redundancy notice.

  • It seems to me that if you are English you are not permitted to be xenophobic about anyone except the English. We have a long tradition of ironic self deprecation but I think the Global Bolsheviks that have slithered into the hallowed halls of Westminster are not only exceeding the bounds of tradition but are overdue another, rarely, used tradition of a Peasants revolt.

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