The matter of England

A few days of quiet reading time, in between seasonal socialising, are more welcome than ever after a busy 2018. Later this week I’ll be doing my two usual seasonal posts: the most popular posts of 2018, and a forward look to books of interest being published in the months ahead (always, indeed, one of the most popular posts of the year).

Meanwhile, I’ve been dipping into a new book co-edited by my colleague Michael Kenny, Governing England: English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom, the result of a British Academy research project.

It always used to amuse me that whereas most English people I know described themselves as British, many of the French and Americans I know tended to describe all British people as English, blithely unaware of all the local sensitivities. In my days on the BBC Trust we spent much time debating the right balance between programmes aimed at the whole nation, given the BBC’s role as a national institution with a sense of the responsibility to unify, and those reflecting its constituent parts to relevant audiences. For example, the debate about whether or not Scotland should have a separate main news bulletin with a different editorial agenda went on for years, with the BBC’s management very reluctant (overly reluctant)  to cede the principle. Only certain drama series seemed to manage universality through authentic reflection of a specific time and place – Life on Mars, Last of the Summer Wine, Call the Midwife – although I always thought there was far more scope than the senior managers believed to interest people in other parts of their country. The BBC’s debates paralleled the wider political debates about national identity, of course. Public service in general, and in that context of one of the UK’s most important cultural institutions in particular, makes one super-sensitive to the issues debated in the book.

I’ve dipped into the book & particularly appreciated the two historical chapters, one on the relation between England and Britain, one on English nationalism, and also a chapter by my former Manchester colleagues Rob Ford and Maria Sobolewska on UKIP’s claim to English nationalism. Tony Travers’ chapter on London is interesting too. The essay on Manchester is, unfortunately, rather tendentious and seemingly written without having spoken to anyone involved in its devolution deal (I had a very marginal role in the process). But collections are always a mixed bag.

It’s a pricey book unfortunately (OUP for the British Academy – priced for libraries). Still, I’m sure it will be a must-read for all political scientists preoccupied with our national identity and governance questions, which the Brexit process is bound to affect, however it turns out.

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