One of the most striking political developments of the last year has been the return of class to the forefront of British political debate. Current rows about whether Labour should pursue a ‘core vote’ or ‘big tent’ electoral strategy follow on from the abandonment of the party by many voters in its heartlands in the local and European elections of 2009, as well as continuing concern about the emergence of the BNP as the lightning conductor for the disaffection of some Labour voters.
The return of class is another sign of the novelty of the political era into which we are now moving. It is vital, however, that the current focus on class does not crowd out the lessons of the 1990s and beyond – that a host of different and cross-cutting identities frame the loyalties of citizens, communities and groups.
Among the different forms of belonging and loyalty that Labour needs to consider are the ties and affiliations associated with nationhood, and in particular the recent strengthening of English national identity.
Extensive research conducted by ippr suggests that an attachment to Englishness has become a more significant feature within the social culture of England than many of our politicians have realised. This trend has also become powerfully intertwined with divisions associated with class.
Various factors have helped strengthen Englishness. Devolution has had an impact, forcing the English to reflect on their own sense of nationhood and position in a multinational union. So too has a general trend towards the revival of some of the ancient ties of belonging in the face of the changes and insecurities associated with globalisation and a heightened interest in English heritage and cultural traditions over the last decade. A turn to the more organic and rooted sense of loyalty to Englishness may also be associated with the experience of successive waves of mass immigration in the last few years, uncomfortable as that may be to admit.
Our research points to the emergence of an important dual trend in this period. On the one hand, a distinct English national iconography has quite rapidly become part of the wallpaper of our national life. Think of how much more respectable it has recently become to fly the Cross of St George, or how the idea of celebrating St George’s Day has become a fixture in the calendar of many local authorities. In these guises, English self-identification carries no obvious political agenda. Nor does the strengthening of English identity necessarily mean that people cease to care about Britain. The evidence suggests that for most people the opposite is true: valuing your Englishness has for many people added to the stock of multiple identities that we enjoy holding.
But a second trend needs to be considered alongside the greater familiarity of Englishness. A shriller and sometimes chauvinist idea of English identity has become an important vehicle for the expression of a growing sense of resentment among some sections of the English populace, particularly, though not exclusively, in some of our poorest communities. It is this new breed of populist nationalism, as well as a lingering sense of being excluded from the economic boom of the 1990s and early noughties, that provide the soil in which the BNP is flourishing. These are the sentiments that lie behind author Michael Collins’s reference to the white working class as the ‘last tribe of England’. References to a supposedly forbidden English culture are sometimes a proxy for talking about ethnicity. Sensing their opportunity, the BNP have sought to exploit this sense of marginalisation, which explains its generally unnoticed shift towards a more avowedly pro-English rather than pro-British nationalism. In fighting the BNP, it is imperative that politicians do more to combat the insinuation that Englishness is ‘forbidden’ in our cultural and political life.
However, it would be entirely wrong to suppose that this account of Englishness is all pervasive. A resident from Barking and Dagenham whom we met was especially vocal about the raw deal that ‘the English’ were getting, but also thought that the extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity of the area was a cause of pride, not regret. One respected community activist persuasively reminded her fellow workshop discussants of the local council’s efforts to celebrate St George’s Day alongside its recognition of the festivals of other cultures.
What struck us most about these and other conversations were the different meanings associated with a commitment to being English. Alongside the ethnic resentment expressed by some, others hold to a much more positive and inclusive sense of national community. We became aware of a complex and shifting set of arguments in and around the everyday lives of many ordinary people about what it means to be English today.
But undoubtedly it is this resentful strand of Englishness that repels many progressives. Unlike Britishness, which lends itself towards a more civic and inclusive understanding of nationhood, Englishness in some eyes carries an unavoidably ethnic, and latently racist, overtone. Polls repeatedly show that the majority of ethnic minorities in England connect with the idea of being British rather than English.
On closer inspection of the evidence, however, a more complex picture than this comes into view. Our research shows that attitudes to English identity vary between and within ethnic minority communities, while there is some evidence to suggest that third-generation younger people are more ready to identify with aspects of English, not British, culture and identity. Overall, there is a good case for arguing that the menace associated with the recent English revival has been exaggerated. On a host of social issues, including attitudes towards racial mixing and community cohesion, England remains one of the most tolerant developed countries in the world.
Such a line of argument remains anathema for many on the left. Labour in power has by and large chosen to ignore the re-emergence of a stronger sense of Englishness. Such a stance, we have found, confirms the view of many working-class Labour voters that government is indifferent towards and even disapproving of ‘their culture’ and way of life. This suspicion has only been compounded by the government’s failed attempt to bang the drum for Britishness. The latter has little traction in relation to the trends we are describing here.
This suggests that addressing the needs of the ‘white working class’ involves a more nuanced strategic combination of economic opportunity and protection as well as the provision of greater cultural recognition of some aspects of English identity. Much more could and should be done by government and other public authorities to bolster those forms of national self-awareness that are compatible with the civic values of tolerance, inclusion and solidarity across differences.
Labour needs to think afresh about questions of nationhood, identity and democracy in England. The exaggeration of fears that such engagement would lend credence to the minority who harbour chauvinistic sentiments is counterproductive, reinforcing the idea that the liberal elite disapprove of Englishness. Moreover, there is no god-given reason why Englishness should be defined by ethnicity and resentment. Careful study of Scottish and Welsh nationalism demonstrates this very well.
Labour needs to start articulating – as a handful of figures, such as David Blunkett, have long argued – a progressive form of English patriotism, while reminding the public why it values the union.
In policy terms, there is much more that might be done to undermine the sense that English identity is ‘forbidden’ and to promote the many expressions of it that cut against an Englishness defined by resentment. These include making St George’s Day a public holiday and insisting that public buildings in England fly both the Cross of St George and the union flag. Rather than an English parliament, it would be better to address democratic reform in England through a significant devolution of power to the locality. And why not start by publishing a distinctive election manifesto for England, just as is done for Scotland and Wales?
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