An English Labour party is an inevitability
Englishness is too important to leave to Tommy Robinson. The tropes of Englishness are barely understood or even witnessed by our metropolitan elite, yet they shape the lives of millions of people. This elite, with their Danish au pairs, Umbrian holiday homes, and homemade focaccia, stare without comprehension at the flags of St George painted on the faces, and planted in the gardens, of their countrymen. Like the Normans, or the Romans before them, the metropolitan elite is worldly, travelled, cultural, and looks down on the rough Anglo-Saxons in its midst. Our elites do not know England, nor do they want to. In the words of WS Gilbert, they are ‘the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and every country but his own.’
The metropolitan left is not beyond culpability. Martin Pugh’s history of the Labour party recounts a conversation between Hugh Dalton and GDH Cole in 1945. Dalton, the hard-headed politician, tells Cole, the utopian intellectual, that Labour can only win the election by winning the votes of the football crowds. Cole, noted Dalton, ‘shuddered and turned away’. Modern-day leftists see English patriots as dupes to a scam they themselves have cleverly seen through. How they scoff at the lager-drinking, fish and chips-eating masses – do they not know lager is German, and fish and chips is a mongrel mix of Jewish and Huguenot street food? Do they not know patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel? Left elitism is worse than right elitism, because of its utter hypocrisy.
There are some honorable exceptions. Jon Cruddas has sought to reframe Englishness through the lens of the English radical tradition, from Lilburne to Lovell. Billy Bragg has taken on the mantel of the ‘progressive patriot’. The tiny enclave of blue Labourites has wrapped itself in the flag of St George. Even Stuart Hall, doyen of the intellectual left, told the New Statesman last August, ‘I do think Englishness is something we need to talk about.’
Ed Miliband’s speech on Englishness, delivered a year ago at the Royal Festival Hall, was the classic metropolitan appeal for multipolar identities and integration. He said the UK’s ‘essential strength comes from our ability to embrace multiple identities’. He cited himself as an example: the son of asylum seekers, proud to be a Jewish Londoner, representing a Yorkshire constituency, married to a girl from Nottingham. Jewish. English. British. Robin Cook did something similar when he pointed out the national dish is chicken tikka masala.
There is a point, and it is coming soon, when Englishness ceases to be the stuff of Fabian seminars or cultural studies reading lists. The likely success of the United Kingdom Independence party in the European elections next year is not the least of it. A ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 would spark a titanic constitutional crisis, not seen since the abdication. At this point, talk of Englishness ceases to be about culture and identity, about tea, queuing and cricket, but about institutions, borders, armies and constitutions. Already, as IPPR has shown, English opinion is shifting against the current devolution settlement, with nearly half of English voters saying Scotland gets more than its fair share. An English polity is being born.
And where is the Labour party? At the moment, it is more with Cole than Dalton, more with the intellectual elites than the football crowds. Independent newspaper columnist Owen Jones reacted to Miliband’s attempts to talk about Englishness by quoting, approvingly, from the Communist Manifesto, that ‘the workers have no country’ and stating that Englishness does not exist. That view is shared across the ever-encroaching leftwing of the Labour party.
Labour has no answer to the English question. Yet what if Scottish MPs no longer sat in the UK parliament? Scottish independence would turf them out, of course, but so would David Cameron’s plan for ‘English votes for English MPs’. That would force the Labour party to develop an English Labour identity, with an English conference, an English head office, and an English general secretary, just as in Wales and Scotland. It would force Labour politicians to address issues of English city-regions, regional democracy, and cultural signifiers such as an English national anthem. It would mean Labour’s values, ethos and programme would reflect the views of people in Basingstoke and Chorleywood. It would be a Labour party anchored on its English traditions and antecedents – the Tolpuddle Martyrs (Dorset), the Diggers (Surrey) and the Chartist settlements (Buckinghamshire) – as much as Tredegar or the Clyde.
For too long the Labour party has relied on battalions of Scottish and Welsh MPs to troop to Westminster to support their beleaguered English comrades. That has meant Labour has never had to confront the question of its own Englishness. Soon, that will have to change.
Ed Miliband, the first English-born Labour leader for 30 years, talks of ‘one nation’. But the question now is which nation does he mean?
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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