If Labour wants to reconnect with working-class voters, it must start articulating a progressive form of English patriotism

England, England

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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Comments: 18...

  1. On February 4, 2010 at 12:35 pm Stephen Gash responded with... #

    Quote: “Rather than an English parliament, it would be better to address democratic reform in England through a significant devolution of power to the locality. ”

    What locality would that be then?

    Your statement would not be possible if England were an independent nation with its own parliament, so why should it be pertinent merely because England is in a devolved UK?

    England should have its own parliament focusing on England. Any moves on English local government would then be a matter for the English.

    The Scots might wish to install regions in Scotland. That is a matter for them and would not involve English MPs, so why should Scottish MPs decide on how English governance should proceed?

  2. On February 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm Philip R Hosking responded with... #

    So Michael and Guy, to hell with the Cornish identity then? Are you suggesting that the establishments drive to assimilate the Cornish national minority (look up that term. You need to) into the English majority should be ramped up.

    We don’t want to celebrate English culture or St Georges day. We have our own Cornish culture and St Pirans day (5th of March) thanks.

    So how about Labour starting to articulate a progressive Cornish patriotism as opposed to continuing the UK’s discrimination against its small Cornish national minority.

    You could start by offering us a referendum on a Cornish assembly. Yes, you remember that petition of 50,000 signatures we gave you calling for Cornish devolution.

  3. On February 4, 2010 at 1:06 pm Gareth responded with... #

    There’s a feeling in England that Labour, and the Left in general, just don’t do England.

    They do Scotland and Wales, and they do Britishness, but not England or Englishness. It’s a feeling that’s turning to anger and it’s going to contribute to Labour’s downfall.

    I set up a National Conversation for England on Labour Space and the uptake was underwhelming.

    It’s difficult to come to any impression other than Labour are either anti-English or scared by English national identity.

  4. On February 4, 2010 at 1:19 pm Gareth responded with... #

    “Polls repeatedly show that the majority of ethnic minorities in England connect with the idea of being British rather than English.”

    In 2008 the Ministry of Justice commissioned Ipsos-MORI to survey our sense of belonging. They found that both white English and Black and Minority Ethnic English feel a greater sense of belonging to England than they do to Britain.

    In his ‘Politics of Identity’ speech to IPPR, Michael Wills conveniently neglected to mention these results, and disingenuously drew the conclusion that: “What emerges strongly from these findings is the strength of British identity as a source of belonging. And this is true across age, gender, region and ethnicity. 75% of black and minority ethnic respondents, for example, said they felt a strong sense of belonging to Britain.”….“Our British identity is different from our English identity…because it is quintessentially plural. And therefore inherently inclusive“.

    One has to wonder why he didn’t mention that a greater proportion of BMEs feel a greater sense of belonging to England.

  5. On February 4, 2010 at 1:51 pm Terry responded with... #

    “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.”

    What absolute, errant, nonsense.

    It is Britishness, with its echoes of Empire, the butchers’ apron and the BNP that “lends itself” to such “unavoidably ethnic, and latently racist, overtone”.

    Englishness is a far more inclusive, (certainly in these islands and possibly Europe)civic nationalist concept, as illustrated by your resident of Dagenham.

    No wonder black and ethnic minorities more readily associate with England, rather than Britain (see Gareth’s post).

    Just what agenda are you working to?

  6. On February 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm britologywatch responded with... #

    “why not start by publishing a distinctive election manifesto for England, just as is done for Scotland and Wales?”

    Don’t be so naive, Michael and Guy! The Labour Party and the political establishment in general doesn’t even recognise the existence of England as a nation, so how could it expound ‘English policies’, even if over half of all UK-government policy areas do in fact relate to England, or England and Wales, only?

    Can you imagine Gordon Brown or indeed any of the Secretaries of State for England-only departments even trying to articulate the word ‘England’? Look over the record of their speeches and departmental publications: ‘England’ is replaced in their spell checker by ‘Britain’, ‘the / this country’ or the minimalist ‘this’ (DCSF home page), even when England is being referred to. If Gordon Brown were forced to say England, I fear he might choke on the word!

  7. On February 5, 2010 at 6:24 am our english heritage responded with... #

    I was going to get all indignant about some of this stuff – but Stephen did it better.

    So I began an reasoned expose of the misinformation but found Gareth, Terry and David had got there first and were far more articulate.

    So – I will say ‘ditto’ – but you must address the issues that they have raised. You are never going to get the left wing to embrace Englishness – they are still totally stuck in the Owellian non-patriotic mould.

    And every instance of stupidity such as the Southampton Council’s treatment of the cab firm – will reinforce the English resentment (and they have much to be resentful of)

    The British National Party (perhaps the words ‘British’ and ‘National’ will give you the clue that they are LEFT wing, not RIGHT wing in their political views.) are only a stop gap until a real ENGLISH political party arises.

    Both Labour and Tory are letting this real chace go by. God help you when that English party does appear – you are all going to be toast.

  8. On February 5, 2010 at 8:17 am Tally responded with... #

    I object to English MP’s sitting in the same chamber with various Scots Welsh and Northern Irish Nationalists.I includein this suppos-ed Unionist politicians who have signed the Scottish claim of right. What other country in the world would allow some one such as Brown who has made such an oath to favour his own country before another, to rule over them? Scotland? definitely not. We even have Rifkind and Galloway now sitting in English seats who swore oaths to put Scotland first in every thing they do. The Left were silent when English Tory MP’s were defeated by Scottish and Welsh Labour against the introduction of University fees for English students and you wonder why the Left is out of favour?
    In Scotland the Tories are considered to English to vote for,in England I consider New Labour too Scottish to vote for.

  9. On February 5, 2010 at 10:04 am Ben responded with... #

    Labour should be standing up for everything that is great, positive, inclusive and forward thinking about this country. I may well be wrong but your email titled “England, England: To reconnect with core voters Labour must articulate a progressive form of English patriotism” strikes me as a ploy to wrestle the BNP vote from the misguided white working class who vote for them. This should not be a battle over which party is more “patriotic” (BNP shorthand for f##k anyone who isn’t white) as Labour and other parties will enter into the politics of appealing to peoples worst instincts. The politics of fear and suspicion. Times for the party are difficult at the moment but Labour can still have a good story to tell, about the last 13 years as well as about the future. No party/government is without problems after being tested for this amount of time and that has to be acknowledged too.

    I fear that travelling down this road, attempting to appeal to peoples fear and ignorance, rather than hopes and aspirations will only speed up the demise of this government/party rather than setting us up for a potential win and failing that – not a catastrophic loss as in 1979 or for the Tories in 1997. I believe in the fundamentals of this party and we must continue to stay true to our values, not give in during times of difficulty to cynical short termism. Whatever happens after the next election we need to either have a Labour government that seeks the best for everyone in Britain, or failing that we need to have a strong opposition who are still arguing for a better fairer society than the Conservatives (and the BNP) can ever deliver.

  10. On February 5, 2010 at 4:38 pm Green and Progressive Land responded with... #

    Inaccuracies and contentious points aside, an article such as this has been a long time coming. There have been those of us on the English Left who have never had any problem with our progressivism / socialism / liberalism and our English patriotism complementing each other.

    Yet up until now we have felt that we were alone, as the leadership of all the main parties have either ignored or stifled Englishness with Britishness. This has led to the English cause, whether politically or culturally, being taken up by the English right and far right, and if the English Left are not careful we will be left behind whilst reactionary forces (BNP/EDL) exploit the grievances of the ‘white working class’ for their own benefit.

    Please, whatever your views as to the rights or wrongs of this article, let us take it as a starting point for a debate that the English Left and English Centre-Left need to undertake. Figures such as Billy Bragg have argued for the English Left to undertake this discussion for a long time, only for the call to fall on deaf ears. What do we want for England, both culturally and politically? Is there room for compromise? And how can we encourage the leadership of Labour and the Lib Dems to take the case for progressive English patriotism seriously?

    It’s a long game, more akin to a test match than a football match, but surely the debate and the road ahead are worth it?

  11. On February 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm Terry responded with... #

    Ben, I think you’re confusing Britishness with Englishness.

    Look at an English foorball/rugby/cricket match. Look at the various colours and ethnic makeup of the players. Look at the crowd, hear the chants and notice the flag they’re waving to support these people.

    Compare that to the BNP, the Union Flag, god save the queen and empire.

    I don’t think embracing civic nationalism is “being patriotic”, it is celebrating society. This is polar opposed to one woman who said “there’s no such thing as society”

  12. On February 5, 2010 at 9:38 pm Stephen Gash responded with... #

    @ Green and Progressive Land
    What has the BNP, the BRITISH National Party, to do with English nationalism.

    Most English nationalists I know reject the BNP, not least because it is British and has Scottish, British and Irish branches.

    This is why the English left is left behind. That’s what “left” actually means “left behind”. If the English “left” got its head out of its backside it would realise that Britain is an Anglophobic fascist state hell-bent on abolishing England and the English.

  13. On February 6, 2010 at 9:05 am Nils Boray responded with... #

    I’m not sure you’re right on all these points. I think the majority English population of the UK don’t naturally differentiate between English & British – but would tend to say English as opposed to British in conversation. Not least because that’s what foreigners do too – Many Americans for instance think that Wales is part of England – is it such a heinous crime ? I’ve no real idea for instance of whether San Marino is part of Italy or not, or Andorra part of … well Switzerland, France ?? I just don’t know.

    I don’t think English people in general have any enthusiasm for extra tiers of Government – the UK parliament is the English parliament – we don’t need another.

    It’s also telling how English in any sporting contest tend to support the constituent nations of the UK once England are counted out – not true in Scotland’s case. In USA 1994 – English football supporters were very keen on Ireland, as they’d been for Scotland in previous world cups – but for some (I would say childish) reason Scotland don’t seem to ever afford good will to English sporting teams.

  14. On February 7, 2010 at 6:01 pm Green and Progressive Land responded with... #

    What has the BNP to do with English Nationalism? The BNP propose an English ‘Folk’ Parliament for the ‘indigenous’ English population, hoping to get the ‘white working class’ onside. As for the Anglophobic fascist state, isn’t that what the mainstream political right, ie the Tories, support as well? Britain, being the last vesitge of the Empire, needign to be kept united at the expense of England so the Whitehall mandarins have something to do? As I said in my first comment, this is a debate the English Left need to undertake, whether or not it has been late in addressing the issue. A ggod starting point for anyone on the English Left approaching this issue are the books by Mark Perryman, ‘Imagined Nation: England After Britain’ and ‘Breaking Up Britian’. Surely the fact that there are those of us on the Left who thik this issue needs addressing should be encouraged to carry on doing so, and not have asides such as asking us to take our heads out of our backsides (which those of us considering the issue have already done). It’s comments such as that which make us think ‘why bother?’

  15. On February 16, 2010 at 2:40 pm Wyrdtimes responded with... #

    “It’s comments such as that which make us think ‘why bother?’ ”

    Time to toughen up old bean. If a few comments on a blog make you wonder why “you bother”, why are you bothering?

    If those of use not on the left are critical of the English left it’s because we’ve been at it for years whilst the left has been almost completely silent on England. Daring not even to say the word England. Only occasionally breaking it’s silence to label the English racist.

    @Nils Boray “I don’t think English people in general have any enthusiasm for extra tiers of Government – the UK parliament is the English parliament – we don’t need another.”

    The English people don’t have any enthusiasm for ANY government as election turnouts show. That there isn’t a loud call for an English Parliament has as much to do with the Brishit government & press doing it’s utmost to hide the issues from the people.

    An extra tier of government? An EP doesn’t require an extra tier. As re-establishing the English Parliament makes the UK Parliament obsolete – none of them would have anything to do.

    And the establishment know this, and that is the real reason we won’t get our Parliament back without a struggle.

  16. On February 18, 2010 at 2:35 pm Green and Progressive Land responded with... #

    @Wyrdtimes, Ok I probably shoudln’t have gone with the ‘why bother’ end of my comment. Can’t disagree with your comments about the Left, because the mainstream leadership of the Left have done their best to stifle the issue to promote an all-encompassing Britishness that no-one wants to sign up to. There are only two parties on the Left that I know of that advocate parity for England politically: the SDP (yes, they still exist, despite David Owen’s best efforts), who advocate an English Parliament within the Union, and the Communist Party of Great Britan, who advocate the same. That said, the first step needs to be addressing the issue of Englishness, what it means to be English. Michael Kenny’s article in the Guardian, which spins off from this Progress article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/11/english-nationalism-fight), as well as articles by Charlotte Higgins (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2010/feb/12/jerusalem-jez-butterworth-mark-rylance-englishness-shakespeare) and Cole Moreton (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/12/england-daft-pleasant-land) show that the Left-leaning press is starting to consider the English Question on a cultural level, even if not on a political level. Encouraging signs, but still a lot of work to be done. If the Englishness debate is to be carried forward, adn kept out of the hands of Nick Griffin and his ilk, it will need both left and right to engage. If that means a double-pronged attack by those of us on the Left who have (so far) been kept silent by our “leadership” and those on the right with their own ideas arguing with the Left’s “leadership, the debate will be all the better for it.

  17. On March 30, 2010 at 12:09 am Homo Sapien responded with... #

    I object to the sloppy equation of BNP and EDL. I’ve not met anyone in the EDL who wants to discriminate against gay people or ethnic minorities. The EDL is involved in one issue – taking a stand against militant extremism (and as the government’s own Contest2 strategy, leaked to the Guardian on 19 Feb 2009) originally argued, muslim homophobia should be defined as a sign of islamic extremism. It is islam that is a thoroughly reactionary force, not the EDL. The EDL is precisly a form of progressive patriotism.

    This group has taken the brickbats and insults of being called “racist” and “nazi” when they are exactly what this article should be encouraging. They are about the promotion of national pride and patriotism as a bulwark against militant islam. It’s a working-class movement, getting no support from government and unions – unlike the UAF, which is happy to march arm in arm with the misogynistic, homophobic and unpatriotic muslims.

    The EDL has sikh supporters, pakistani supporters, black supporters, women supporters, jewish supporters and even gay supporters. They are a phenomenon of which we should be proud, not something that lazy journalists and crypto-communists should be calling “racist”, or in the case of the comments here, “reactionary”.

    I suggest people actually go to get involved with EDL as observers. Join the forum or go on a demo and see if you aren’t surprised. There are right-wing people and there are left-wing people, and even some Greens and anarchists.

    I’ve been a liberal/left voter all my life. My family contains many black and mixed-race relatives. I was never nationalistic, but decided a year ago that a re-invigorated national pride and patriotism was the only thing that was going to save this country from calamity. I’m gay, and I’m proud of what I’ve seen in the EDL. Despite all the media reports of violence, on the three demos I’ve been on there was never anything from the EDL side that gave me cause for my well-being.

    Stop calling them reactionary. Get behind them – for the save of all British citizens (muslim, christian, hindu and atheist). The Labour Party has introduced a crisis of it’s own making, and seem to have no clue about how to solve it. The rise in the BNP is entirely due to Labour’s actions. It may end up being a terrible legacy for the Labour Party.

  18. On March 30, 2010 at 1:54 am Andy Ray responded with... #

    Should EDL be treated a la SNP or PC then?

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