In a teaching session recently I was asked about the term ‘Little Englander’ – what it means, why it is used and where it comes from. I had to admit that, while it is one of those terms that many historians of British history are familiar with, it remains a label that is not easy to define or pin down. Moreover, it has tended to shift in meaning over time, and has served a variety of polemical and ideological purposes.
I pointed out that the label is quite old and contested, but has clearly made a big comeback in recent times, especially in relation to Britain’s departure from Europe and the resurgence of a very ‘English’ form of nationalism within the United Kingdom. It is mostly used by critics today to capture the essence of what they regard as something profoundly negative and ugly: the new insularity and xenophobia that has emerged in British politics and in much of the rightwing press, especially since the 2016 Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
It has certainly reappeared as a term in political discourse at Westminster. In 2016, the then-Conservative leader David Cameron said he wanted to see ‘a strong Britain in Europe’ rather than UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s ‘little England’. The term has also re-entered common usage in the media. For a number of years now, the UKIP-supporting Daily Express newspaper (owned by the controversial media baron Richard Desmond) has carried regular articles and editorials calling for ‘freedom’ from Europe, and has often employed an image of St. George standing firmly in defence of England’s shoreline against ‘Johnny Foreigner’ and hordes of ‘migrants’. Critics of this type of deeply unhistorical chauvinism have pointed to the irony that England’s patron saint had a ‘foreign’ background himself, and to the ill-informed and highly-selective ‘Little Englander’ outlook of both UKIP and the Express, especially on the topic of migration.
Similarly, on the day after Prime Minister Theresa May finally explained her ‘Brexit’ plans to the UK’s Parliament, there were very mixed responses: while there was plenty of enthusiastic (and predictable) praise from much of the UK’s Eurosceptic right-of-centre press, at the same time various critics pointed out that May’s stance merely confirmed their suspicion that her 12-point ‘plan for Britain’ was designed mainly to appease the ‘Little Englander’ mentality, an outlook held by many of her Conservative backbenchers and, according to polls, significant numbers of the (English) voting public.
And, evidently, parts of the British press remain very keen indeed on the ‘Little Englander’ imagery. Rather than be embarrassed about it in any way, certain newspapers have embraced the associated symbolism with relish. This was typically illustrated on the front-cover of the strongly Eurosceptic Daily Mail newspaper (January 18th), which devoted the whole of its front page to a visually striking cartoon image of Mrs. May standing upright and defiant, with hands on hips: the PM was placed under a Union Jack and positioned on the edge of what was clearly meant to be the White Cliffs of Dover, trampling an EU flag underfoot. The Mail headline next to this also sought to tap into certain historical memories of a previous Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher: ‘Steel of the New Iron Lady’. The Mail has never really recovered from the overthrow of Thatcher by her own party, and appears desperate to portray May as the ‘new Thatcher’, out to save ‘middle England’ (interestingly, when Mrs. Thatcher was still alive, she once responded to one of her MPs who had complained about being labelled a ‘Little Englander’ by saying: ‘There is no such thing as a little Englander, only a big Englander’).
But what was especially depressing to a number of critics was the stark ‘Little Englander’ message employed by the Mail newspaper – the claim that the UK was now ‘free’ from the bossy ‘Eurocrats’ of Brussels, and could now pursue its own course again on the exciting high seas of the wider globe. This kind of message was summed up again in some very ill-judged comments made shortly afterwards by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who warned EU leaders not to give ‘punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape rather in the manner of some World War Two movie…’. Again, a number of commentators on internet discussion forums referred to Johnson’s narrow-minded ‘Little Englander’ language, and – I have to admit – I share their distaste.
So, where did this term ‘Little Englander’ originate? Does it have a ‘history’? It was arguably a product of the Victorian era, but possibly had roots going much further back. Some experts, for example, point to William Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII (1601), where there is a reference to ‘little England’. But most historians seem to agree that the term ‘Little Englander’ – in its more modern sense – was actually invented as a tool of political labelling in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, it was quite a ‘fluid’ term: rather than being a label attached to ‘reactionaries’ (as one might naturally assume), it was initially given by critics to ‘progressives’. It seems to have been first used to describe a section of the UK’s Liberal party, members who were strongly opposed to the further expansion of the British Empire and the ‘scramble’ for more colonies.
This was sometimes applied to the top leaders. The Prime Minister and Liberal leader William Gladstone (1809-1898), for example, was occasionally referred to as a ‘Little Englander’. Similarly, the Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908), who was briefly Prime Minister from 1905 to 1908, was accused by his critics of having ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘Little Englander’ tendencies because he had opposed the Boer War of 1899-1902.
Moving further into the twentieth century, the term ‘Little Englander’ appears to have gone through further transformations and changes in meaning, moving from being a term used to describe ‘timid’ Liberals to becoming a term to criticise ‘zealous’ Conservatives. In the 1920s and 1930s – in so far as it was even used (which was not much) – it increasingly denoted the pro-Empire, ‘Die-hard’ type of Conservative. However, in the dark days of 1940-41, there was further ‘fluidity’ – the term briefly went from being a mainly negative label to something much more positive and unifying. When Britain appeared to stand alone against the might of Nazi-occupied Europe, the imagery of ‘Little England’ was utilised for propaganda purposes by the government – to help boost morale and stir up heroic images of the ‘little man’ patriotically standing up against the ‘big bully’ of Nazi barbarity.
After the War, the term appeared to fall out of fashion for quite some time, and was not really resurrected in any meaningful way until the 1990s. During the Blair governments, with the creation of a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and a devolved government for Northern Ireland, the question of an ‘English’ identity increasingly arose. And, in my reading of things, it is during this period where the term ‘Little Englander’ seems to have been rediscovered and heated up again. In 2000, for example, the annual survey of social attitudes by the UK’s National Centre for Social Research (SCPR) found that there had been a marked increase in the proportion of English people saying they owed allegiance to ‘England’, not Britain. Furthermore, the SCPR survey detected a significant number of such people freely admitting to being racially prejudiced. In addition, they were ‘consistently more inclined to want to shut out the outside world’. Zooming in on the report’s own use of the term, the UK’s quality press quickly labelled these citizens ‘Little Englanders’, and also noted that many of this group thought that Britain should quit the EU altogether. The ‘red-top’ press soon joined in, arguing that such views deserved to be heard.
Sensing the possible dangers in this growth of ‘Englishness’, the Left tried to create its own alternative version, highlighting instead what they saw as the English historical traditions of tolerance and inclusivity, and how these could sit just as comfortably within a British framework of multiculturalism, alongside other forms of identity. In 2011, however, the growing insularity and rejection of a wider world was given a degree of gravitas when it was expressed in a heavily-criticised article by the historian Dominic Sandbrook. Writing in the Daily Mail, which remains one of the UK’s biggest-selling newspapers, Sandbrook attacked the pro-EU ‘metropolitan liberals’ in British society and proclaimed that: ‘We should be proud of being Little Englanders’. He said that he looked forward to the ‘rebirth’ of a newly confident English identity. A number of commentators welcomed Sandbrook’s ‘bold’ and outspoken comments, and his rejection of ‘political correctness’.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that this rather unhappy, intolerant and xenophobic strand of English nationalism, given a new kind of respectability by writers like Sandbrook, has been bubbling away just below the surface for about 20 years now, and broke out into the open in a big way in 2016, largely as a consequence of the Referendum campaign. Yet, rather than directly confront this ‘Little Englander’ tendency, with all the highly negative meanings it has today, many British politicians have instead chosen to pander to it and exploit it.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)