From the portrait frame, Henry VIII stares back at us, almost invisible amid a great wash of crimson velvet, laced with gold and furs. The surging foreign trade of England had transformed Tudor-era London, drawing in Flemish artisans and Florentine magnates. The wealth of elite immigrants gave them enormous influence with the king. In one famous case, merchant Francesco de Bardi persuaded the wife of an English rival to move in with him—and then had the husband arrested for refusing to pay her board.
Then, on the eve of May Day in 1517, English rage erupted. “The aliens and strangers eat the bread from poor fatherless children, and take the living from all the artificers, and the intercourse from all merchants,” one preacher thundered. Mobs of thousands attacked the homes of rich immigrant traders and poor immigrant workers.
Five centuries on, English nationalism is again the island’s single most powerful political force. There’s this paradox, though: Three of the nine top contenders to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister—Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid and Nadhim Zahawi—are of Asian origin.
The political case for picking them is almost self-evident. All three have reputation for professional competence, significant support among the party leadership, and would help grow support among traditionally Labour-supporting Asian communities. However, there’s a problem: Race. Though no one is impolite enough to call it by its name.
The rise of English nationalism
Five decades ago, politician Enoch Powell delivered the oration that’s become the foundational text of English nationalism. “Like the Roman,” he told a meeting of Conservative Party members in Birmingham in 1968, “I seem to see the river Tiber foaming with blood.” Immigrants, he claimed, were overrunning the country. Blacks were forcing white residents out of their homes. “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time,” Powell quoted a constituent as saying, “the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
Labour and Conservative governments had both welcomed immigration from 1948 on, understanding that workers were necessary for post-War reconstruction—but by the time of Powell’s speech, society seemed unable to accommodate the tensions.
Edward Heath, later prime minister from 1970-1974, dismissed Powell from the shadow cabinet. The public reaction was illuminating: East End dock workers and Smithfield meat porters rallied in Powell’s support, and of the over 100,000 letters the politician received, only some 800 were critical.
Powell’s speech might have been a racist diatribe—but it spoke to the deeply-embedded anxieties about culture and identity. The politician’s historical imagination, scholar Peter Brooke has noted, was shaped by Partition of India. “In 1946,” Brooke writes, “Powell’s dream was to create the conditions necessary to export self-government from Britain to the empire, namely national unity of sentiment.”
Following Partition, Powell became convinced polities that did not integrate would degenerate into communal warfare—and that was a real threat for him. In Powell’s own constituency, disputes had broken out over demands by Sikh bus drivers that they be allowed to wear beards and turbans. There was a row over a school, where a child was reported to be the only white in her classroom.
Ever since the seventh century, historian RM Lumiansky has suggested, a dim sense of the existence of a distinct English nation shaped England’s political course—finding expression, centuries later, in writers as ideologically diverse as George Orwell and E.P. Thompson. That cultural sensibility would now be weaponised.
The Brexit tide
Fuelled by growing anti-immigrant sentiment—the consequence of the right of free movement within the European Union—new Right-wing parties had laid siege to the Conservative Party, demanding the return of an English sovereignty they claimed had been destroyed. “England seems to be stumbling towards a national independence it has scarcely even discussed, let alone prepared for,” Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole observed. “It is on the brink of one of history’s strangest nationalist revolutions.”
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Conservative and Labour parties had pushed forward economic globalisation, with the City of London at its core. The project secured great prosperity, just as the Tudors had done—but also inequality, and a disruption of the cultural moorings of many communities. The regional character of this crisis was unmistakable. Even in 1975, when Britain voted on whether to stay in the European Economic Community, support in England was more muted than elsewhere. In the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in Europe. England overwhelmingly chose to break with history.
Even before the referendum, Michael Kenny observed that “a new sense of ethnic-majority nationalism may well be one of the forces behind the deepening sense of disenchantment with politics, politicians and the political system, as well as also being a consequence of the latter.”
For the Conservative Party, Europe represented a profound challenge. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher rejected European political integration—but embraced economic union. Thatcher understood that leaving Europe would hurt British finance capital and industry. More importantly, it would deny Britain a voice in shaping the course of continental politics.
The party, however, was now compelled to choose between its economic base—British capitalism—and the populism represented by the Brexit movement.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson proved adroit in using English nationalism to seize control of the party, breaking with the legacy of the patrician Heath and the globalist Thatcher. Johnson, many insiders contend, hoped to lose the referendum, knowing it would lead to economic crisis.
Johnson won an election landslide in 2019—only to face eviction from office because of the predicted economic disaster that followed the loss of the trade relationship with Europe.
The question of race
From the work of Tim Bale, among others, it is clear a significant problem lies ahead for the Conservatives: Having built their political fortunes on immigration and race, can leaders now reverse course? Educated, economically successful, and ideologically aligned with their party on immigration, figures like Sunak and Javid are Englishness embodied. Their race, though, also makes them representative of the very social tensions that led Conservative voters to rebel against the party on Europe.
To protect Britain’s economic competitiveness, the government allowed increased migration from outside the European Union, filling jobs earlier held by Europeans. You don’t need great imagination needed to see that an electorate which did not want Polish or Hungarian workers won’t welcome larger cohorts of Indians or Pakistanis. For many, an Asian prime minister will be one step too far.
English nationalism ought not, of course, be confused with crude racism. The Conservatives long used racism to recruit working-class white voters. Even Thatcher, as the Australian politician Bob Carr famously claimed, had been “an unabashed racist.”
The influence of politicians like Sunak and Javid demonstrates the enormous distance the Conservatives have traversed in recent decades. The party itself has proved surprisingly willing, as Powell might have put it, to hand over the whip to the Black man. Like Henry VIII, the world-view of modern Conservative leadership draws on the ethnically diverse cosmopolitan culture of London—not English villages and small towns.
Scholar Krishan Kumar has observed, in a thoughtful essay, that English intellectuals sometimes cast nationalism as “an alien phenomenon, invented elsewhere and thankfully kept at bay from English shores.” The idea does, he persuasively argues, in fact exist, signified among other things by worship of the monarchy, a particular rural aesthetic, a sense of imperial nostalgia—and by whiteness.
The challenge before British conservatism is to reconcile the culture of its party leadership with the fact of its electoral dependence on English nationalism. To do so will be difficult—even impossible.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.