The rise of English prideOriginal
27 Jan 2012
Labour MP John Denham argues that the left has to embrace rising English nationalism and shape it in positive ways.
The rise of English pride is tangible in everyday conversation, on the doorstep, and in the growing the local celebrations of St George's Day. Musicians and writers are exploring English issues more explicitly than has been the case for years. Politicians who have long expressed our British and English identities no longer feel quite so eccentric. Less happily, the EDL and others can make national pride a source of shame.
What’s interesting is not that English identity has risen but why. We all carry identities and loyalties to communities, ethnicities, teams, the nation, or communities around the world. But it is only at certain times that we find one identity a powerful way of describing ourselves and our collective interests. It’s at these times people turn to old identities and refresh them so they serve us in our modern world.
National identities usually strengthen when people feel hard done by. Today’s English identity reflects a growing sense that English people lack a real voice on the things that matter to them, as IPPR’s new report shows clearly. Worse, they feel they are losing out and being treated less fairly than others.
The perception that devolution unfairly favours Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is only part of the picture. Europe (or rather, Europeans) are thought to have more say than we do. It’s no surprise that strongest expressions of Englishness are in those working class communities where profound economic change has been compounded by the impact of large-scale migration.
English identity is rising in reaction to a real sense of powerlessness, insecurity and unfair treatment in a rapidly changing world.
But our modern English identity is far from settled. For some, it is ethnic: a white community with an imagined 1,000 years of common history. Many others are at ease with an inclusive Englishness. Most seem comfortable with both their English and their British identities, a fact English unionists should not lightly set aside.
The left cannot spend its time doing studies of Englishness while others are out there making it. For us, developing and celebrating a national identity is an active exercise. We don’t find our true identity in ever-deeper historical research, but want to make it ourselves. We should draw on radical traditions, but we must blend them with the histories of everyone who wants to feel English, and who recognises that a common identity is best developed through shared experience.
The political response to the new Englishness is a debate that has hardly begun. It’s no coincidence that Conservatives prioritise a formal arrangement – English MPs voting on English matters – which has nothing to say about the future England and its people should enjoy, nor about England’s place within the union, but which might just favour the English national Conservative party that David Cameron leads.
I think we can do better.
The left has the best chance of success if we can tell most compelling story about what it could mean be English in the future. The desire to be heard, to be treated fairly and to have security and opportunity is driving the new Englishness. Empowering people, creating security and tackling unfairness have always been the causes of the left. This is a huge opportunity for us.
The case for progressive politics means very little as an abstract argument about values or specific policies. It only really takes root and comes to life if it’s grounded in a story about how people with a common identity understand their history and their future. So the challenge is to tell a convincing story about what the future could hold for the people of England. To me, that’s a story of the English people within a strong United Kingdom, not as a state adrift or one with only formal and limited connections.
Contrary to the SNP leader’s claim, it is easier to envisage a progressive future for all the nations of the UK by working together to deliver fairness in welfare, effective control and management of migration, an economy that can pay its way in the world, and a strong voice in Europe.
But the progressive unionist case is weakened by any idea that Labour needs the union just so that there's a Labour government in England, whether or not the English themselves want one. There is no winning an argument that relies on the link between English legislation and the Barnett formula. A political dependence on our colleagues from NI, Wales and Scotland hinders rather than helps English Labour’s responsibility to understand how we win an English majority.
We will only win the case for a progressive England with progressive Britain if English Labour's response to the question of Englishness is wholehearted and rounded. English Labour needs to brings an English dimension to our cultural, economic, political and democratic policies.
We should acknowledge our own English identity, letting candidates stand as English Labour alongside our colleagues who stand as Welsh and Scottish Labour. We should talk of the English NHS or English universities, when that is what we mean. We should support Labour local authorities and working with others to promote a modern inclusive vision of Englishness, (and not just on St George’s Day).
For all their simplicity, neither 'English votes on English laws’ nor an English parliament would make much difference to the influence English voters feel they enjoy, because the real problem is the centralisation of the English state. And it’s because England is so centralised – because we think Westminster and Whitehall runs England – that the West Lothian question has such resonance.
Voters are sceptical about dressing up their local council as a voice for the English. They can spot the difference between form and content, as they did in the North East by voting ‘no’ in 2004 on setting up a regional assembly. Their experience of local government’s decline over 30 years doesn’t encourage voters to expect powerful responsive decision-making close to home.
But that could change. There is a strong case that the challenges of health, housing, policing, transport and planning pose such different challenges in different parts of the country that centralised decision-making cannot adequately respond. England’s future story could be one in which the English have far more say on many more things, much closer to home. It would draw on deep roots of our English history and reflect the modern development of our city regions, and go way beyond the fragmentation and contradictions of the Tories' ‘localism’.
But for Labour to tell that story we would ourselves have to stop equating English governance with government from Westminster. In future, much more Westminster English legislation would be enabling than directive.
But for all this, the West Lothian question won’t entirely disappear. Indeed, I’ve no illusions that the more Labour acknowledges an English dimension, the more people will expect some form of English decision-making. The simplest solution, which requires the least change to the devolution settlement, will be to let the elected English members of a democratic House of Lords scrutinise ‘English-only’ legislation. Whether that will be the resting point or whether further change is needed, only time will tell.
That then is the choice. To stand by and watch Englishness emerge without engaging with either its national expression or the underlying concerns that drive it. Or to engage, to help shape a modern English identity which tells a progressive story about the future of our country – our United Kingdom – and which gives us the voice, the power, the security and fair treatment that all too often we feel we are denied.