University of Ulster Professor Arthur Aughey turns his attention to the English question in this new study inspired by the ubiquity of the flag of St George across England during the 2002 and 2006 World Cups .
As in his 2001 study of the impact of devolution on the UK, Aughey's approach is to conduct an exhaustive survey of the literature on the subject.
Much of this literature is preoccupied with the 'peculiar lack' of any politically significant sense of English nationality, The most important examples being the work of Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson.
Aughey criticises the 'Nairn Anderson thesis' for attempting to force English identity into conformity with an ideal type of classical nationalism. He nevertheless engages with Anderson's analysis of English exceptionalism, a worldview made up of two related but contradictory parts: England as the exemplary nation that should be emulated by others, and England as the exceptional nation that cannot be emulated.
For Nairn, he argues, England is exceptional only in its political backwardness. He rightly suggests that Nairn's thesis of the break-up of Britain is as much a prescripion as a prediction.
He is on weaker ground when he suggests that 'the English did not fit neatly enough into the political destiny devised for them' by Nairn in the 1970s. If Nairn's thesis might have appeared irrelevant in the Thatcher era, the project of a new democratic English nationalism appears rather more timely in the new millenium, as Aughey acknowledges. If that were not true, it is hard to believe this book would have been written.
The author himself provides plenty of evidence of the growing willingness to embrace a distinct English political identity. On the left, long-standing suspicion of English identity has been challenged by a radical nationalism, drawing on the religious radical tradition of the Seventeenth Century and on the English roots of the American revolution.
Aughey cites 'a widespread assumption that within the United Kingdom one is witnessing a movement of the people against the state' with national groups as the vehicle. On this view, the present moment provides an opportunity to replace 'Britishness (still monarchical, imperialistic, hierarchical, unequal) with a recovered Englishness (already become republican, meritocratic, egalitarian, inclusive, internationalist.)'
For Aughey, this vision is flawed because the left's instinct for inclusiveness means it must impose unrealistic conditions on its embrace of nationalist populism.
Aughey finds a similar suspicion of populism mirrored on the right, but argues that the re-emergence of identity politics is inherently favourable to conservative concerns. He considers a range of conservative thinkers who have embraced versions of English nationalism, including Simon Heffer, David Starkey and Roger Scruton.
The final third of the book considers the various institutional 'locations of Englishness': the English regions, Europe and the UK.
The chapter on the regions provides a particularly searching analysis of why regional government has failed as a solution to the West Lothian question, while noting that unaccountable regional devolution is still very much underway.
The West Lothian question, why Scottish MPs can vote on English matters when English MPs cannot vote on Scottish matters, is a key aspect of the English question. Aughey notes that it was originally formulated by opponents of Scottish devolution precisely because it didn't have an answer.
He quotes with approval, Robert Hazell's dictum that 'The English Question is not an exam question that the English are required to answer,' and can remain unresolved 'for as long as the English want.' If Aughey recognises the fluidity of the situation, he is nevertheless somewhat bemused by the resentment expressed by groups like the Campaign for an English Parliament.
This could be seen as a retreat into traditional British constitutional obfuscation. It is certainly not an attempt to present a alternative positive vision to the Nairn-Anderson thesis.
This is ultimately a conservative book, not only in its conclusion but also in its cultural and political focus. In those areas, it provides a very valuable and stimulating study of the English question.
It perhaps merits a radical response, with a social and economic focus, that would show why that question merits an answer.