Let’s be patriotic!
Today is St David’s Day. As a proud Welshman sporting a daffodil on my lapel, I plan to attend a St David’s Day service in Westminster, and throughout the ‘Land of my Fathers’ there will be innumerable events celebrating the history and culture of Wales. In Scotland on 30 November, St Andrew’s Day will be celebrated with even greater enthusiasm. And yet, in contrast, in England St George’s Day celebrations will be decidedly low key.
There are complex historic reasons for this differential patriotism, but a central reason lies in the fact that ‘England’ has been, and still is, the central ‘nation ‘ of a ‘union state’, ie a British state which has been constructed through a series of ‘unions’ with Wales, Ireland and Scotland. With England constituting 85 per cent of the population of the UK, for many ‘England’ has become synonymous with ‘Britain’.
But there are clear indications that the sense of identity of English people is changing. In part because of the development of Welsh and especially Scottish identity in recent years, reinforced by the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament, increasing numbers of English people are seeing themselves primarily as ‘English’ rather than British. Recently, the IPPR published a report on Englishness which graphically described the emergence of such an English identity. Perhaps surprisingly, the report highlighted that this growing sense of Englishness transcended the traditional north/south English divide.
The question for the Labour party is how best to respond to ‘Englishness’. I believe that Labour ought to identify itself firmly with patriotic sentiment. Let us say loudly and clearly that to love one’s country and the values it is built upon is entirely positive. For too long the xenophobes have hijacked the flag of St George; it is surely high time for the people of England to reclaim the symbol of their country as a representation of the universal values which most people uphold.
Here there are lessons to be learnt from Wales. At one time many people in Wales used to be uncomfortable with too close an association with Welsh patriotism. Things are very different now. Most Welsh people warmly embrace Welsh identity and Wales’ national symbols but, at the same time, firmly reject crude Welsh nationalism. In Wales the Labour party is now ‘Welsh Labour’ and indeed the close relationship between Welsh people’s identity and the Labour party is one of the reasons why ‘Welsh Labour’ is increasingly seen as the ‘natural party of Wales’. Recent opinion polls put Welsh Labour at 50 per cent.
‘Identity politics’ is seldom easy, and the dividing line between patriotism and nationalism must always be maintained. But in an age when traditional ‘class politics’ has lost much of its resonance and when insecurity is a hallmark of modern life, I believe that it is important for Labour to examine carefully how best it can align itself as a party with people’s developing sense of identity.
Wayne David is MP for Caerphilly and shadow minister for political and constitutional reform
England, Identity, nationalism, Scottish Parliament, Wales, Welsh Assembly