Politics

Proud to be English: How we can shape a progressive patriotism


Towards the end of his 1930s masterpiece, English Journey, JB Priestley writes of “memories reaching from West Bromwich to Blackburn, Jarrow to Middlesbrough, darkly crowding in on me”. The suffering witnessed by the author during the Great Depression, he explains, turned him into a Little Englander: “That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love. And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced, staring loud fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world. Patriots to a man. I wish their patriotism would begin at home.”

The writer lived up to the spirit of his prose. The Common Wealth party, in which Priestley was a leading figure, was highly influential in the formation of the postwar welfare state. But it would be very unusual to hear such warm talk about England on today’s left. In Labour circles, the language of nationhood, when used by the English, engenders at best suspicion and more often outright hostility. Brexit, an overwhelmingly English project, only deepened a conviction that rising nationalism in the United Kingdom’s largest country is a much darker affair than its Scottish equivalent. Xenophobia, nostalgia for empire and cultural authoritarianism are judged to be its trademarks.

But if progressives are not, paradoxically, to find themselves on the wrong side of history, it might be time for the left to undertake its own English journey.

English identity has become a fundamental feature of Britain’s politics . The editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, is completing a book entitled Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England. In March, the Oxford University Press will publish an academic study entitled Englishness: the political force shaping Britain. The zeitgeist is moving, and England’s left-leaning politicians need to catch up.

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In Priestley’s time, as far as the English were concerned, England was synonymous with Britain. Big Englanders didn’t need to waste time on clearer definitions. The whole world knew who they were. This fuzziness lasted well into the postwar period. Crowd footage from the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley shows the terraces replete with Union Jacks. For citizens of the overwhelmingly dominant nation in the United Kingdom, pride in England and pride in Britain simply overlapped.

Spectators with Union Jack flags at the World Cup match between England and West Germany at Wembley in London, 1966.
The World Cup match between England and West Germany at Wembley in London, 1966. Photograph: PA

A red, white and blue thread links the nationalism of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to this tradition. But the end of Empire and the rise of globalisation, followed by Scottish and Welsh devolution in the 1990s, chipped away at the foundations of what has been called “Anglo-Britain”. Scottish nationalism and the fallout from Brexit seem likely to bury it for ever. In May, assuming elections go ahead, the SNP is likely to regain an overall majority in Holyrood. Turbo-charged by pro-EU sentiment, popular enthusiasm for IndyRef2 may become irresistible. The Brexit trade deal places Northern Ireland firmly in the EU’s orbit. Even in Wales, there has been a surge in support for independence over the past year. A smaller England, post-imperial, post-EU and possibly post-UK, is taking shape.

Interviewed by Andrew Marr last week, the academic Ailsa Henderson, co-author of Englishness and a director of the Future of England Survey, testified to a frustrated popular desire for politicians to treat “England as England”.

John Denham, the former Labour MP and now director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics, has written that “political Englishness” has been around for 20 years or so. Ignoring it, or disparaging it, contributed to the widespread rejection, in 2016, of a wider European identity. Brexit, at one level at least, was surely the revenge of a repressed or unacknowledged emotional attachment to England, but Labour continues to steer clear of the subject.

In his speech last month on devolution and the future of the United Kingdom, Sir Keir Starmer referred to Scotland on 24 occasions. England was mentioned just four times. The Labour leader pledged to devolve power away from Westminster to council leaders, mayors and regions. But the idea of “England as England” remains too neuralgic to broach.

As the academic and former Labour MP David Marquand wrote in the New Statesman in 2016: “the notion that the English have to decide who they are and who they want to be” is treated either as a “backward-looking fantasy” or “romantically archaic”. The derision heaped on Rebecca Long-Bailey’s somewhat sketchy formula of “progressive patriotism”, floated during last year’s Labour leadership elections, reveals the depth of distrust.

More developed visions of how the left might change its relationship with England are out there waiting to be discussed. The writer and campaigner Anthony Barnett has made a compelling case for an English parliament as part of a remade, federal, equitable and regenerated UK.

“The paradox,” Barnett has written, “is that England has to discard Anglo-Britain and become itself in order for the union to survive.”

Jon Cruddas, the head of the Labour Party’s policy review under Ed Miliband, has argued that Labour, a party with a distinguished 20th-century history of nation-building and bridging social divides, can wrest the idea of Englishness from the right. “The English,” said Cruddas in 2014, “are independent-minded, sometimes conservative in sentiment, but also radical in outlook. But they feel powerless to shape the future of their country.”

Cruddas’s policy review proposed the formation of an English Labour party. Nothing came of it.

Nigel Farage.
English nationalism has most often been associated with right-wing figures such as politician Nigel Farage. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Something needs to give. If the English left never bothers to engage with Englishness, its emotional reality becomes the de facto preserve of the right. Fears of pandering to nativism and legitimising nostalgia for a monocultural past are understandable. Memories of the rise of the National Front in the 1970s, and more recently the English Defence League, are still fresh. But what England is and can become need not be imprisoned within the embittered horizon of white English nationalism.

The recent Small Axe films by Steve McQueen, exploring black experience across generations, were a landmark moment in the narration of the national story, seven decades after the Windrush arrived in Tilbury Docks. Half a century on from that World Cup triumph against West Germany, the England manager, Gareth Southgate, has championed the “modern England” that his diverse, talented team embodies. One of its members, Marcus Rashford, has become a national hero for his contributions off the pitch.

Footballer Marcus Rashford.
Footballer Marcus Rashford has become a national hero in a more diverse, modern England. Photograph: Michael Regan/Reuters

In parts of the left, there is an unattractive blind spot that misses the importance of collective attachment to an inherited landscape, both physical and emotional. That landscape is not immutable but it shapes a sense of belonging and context. For many Leave voters, particularly those who have traditionally voted Labour, the emotional landscape of “England” has offered a way to express communal values neglected during 30 years of excessive individualism, licensed by both left and right.

The SNP in Scotland, steered by Alex Salmond to the left of Labour, understood this, successfully fusing social democratic values with national pride.

Where Scotland led, its large southern neighbour can follow. England has a greater level of inter-regional inequality than any other large, industrialised country. A renewed sense of English nationhood can be part of a politics of social justice, greater de-centralisation of power and a re-set relationship with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But to get there, the left must lose its inhibitions and find a way to talk about building a proud, democratic, inclusive “Little England”.



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