Labour must speak for England
The left has to embrace an inclusive, social democratic patriotism if they hope to win in England and form a government again, argues Joe Jervis
I have a hunch that when historians analyse this decade of Labour doom the defining image will not be of Ed Miliband stood awkwardly next to a ridiculous giant stone or failing to successfully munch down a bacon sandwich, nor Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor of a half empty train carriage. It will instead be a photo tweeted by the now shadow foreign secretary mocking three English flags hanging outside a suburban house in a swing seat Labour really should be able to win.
The left’s detachment from a sense of patriotism has probably contributed more than anything else to the current crisis in social democracy, across Britain and elsewhere in Europe, but particularly in England. As each St George’s Day passes the more urgent the need for Labour to celebrate national identity becomes, particularly this year ahead of a general election that will be decided in England. Increasingly people are identifying solely as English, yet just 22 per cent of people who identified as such voted Labour in 2015 compared to 42 per cent of those who felt solely British. Considering England is both where Theresa May will look to make gains on 8 June and Labour’s only route to a majority, Labour would be wise to take this growing sense of Englishness seriously.
Until recently there has felt like little reason to worry about Englishness. Back in the days of empire, for all its ills we English knew our place in the world – an almost assumed superiority both politically and culturally. We were either respected or feared internationally, and as a leading global power we had little against which we needed to rally. In the dying days of empire it was the collective spirit of the second world war – followed by a sense of pride in defeating fascism and the post-war consensus – that gave us national purpose. We have also felt similarly comfortable at home as the dominant force in the union. This has all been underpinned by the so-called ‘character of the English’ – the old adage that the English just get on with it, that they mustn’t grumble, and that it is anything but English to even talk about being English, let alone wave a flag.
But in 2017 things are very different. Empire is a distant memory, the post-war consensus has long broken down, and there is a feeling that devolution settlements and various EU treaties have given powers to everyone but the English. Once you add in deindustrialisation, the erosion of trust in institutions, and the fast-paced change of globalisation, it suddenly makes sense why the Brexiteers’ call for us to ‘take back control’ won a majority in every English region beyond London. So many see Brexit as chance to restore national pride – something that the right have seized upon in order to promote a narrow, hostile and closed nationalism.
To foster a more confident and inclusive Englishness we must first learn to open up emotionally and celebrate our national identity. Much like our society is recognising the need to open up about pretty much everything else – from mental health, to masculinity, to our relationships – we need to be comfortable with being English and talking about what it means to us.
There are natural reasons why progressives have been slow to start these conversations. Our history of empire is challenging and the more recent appropriation of Englishness by the likes of the EDL and jingoistic football hooligans inevitably put off significant numbers of liberals and ethnic minorities. Then there is the debate about definition and value, with many wondering what differentiates us from other Western democracies. There is also the fact that the progressive instinct to change means too often we fail to value what we already have.
But progressives can over overcome each of these challenges if we put our minds to it. First, we need to tell a national story about how our history has shaped England’s democracy and society for the better – an inclusive, social democratic and unique history that Danny Boyle portrayed in aspects of his Isles of Wonder Olympics opening ceremony. Yes, facets of empire were deeply troubling, but no country is without its baggage and there is plenty for the English to take pride in. We were arguably the first to end absolute monarchy; we were the first to industrialise; we successfully defended our values in both world wars and we haven’t been invaded for 1,000 years. The welfare state was designed by an Englishman, as was the internet, while our country has given birth to literary greats from William Shakespeare to Jane Austen, many of the world’s greatest ever musicians, and pretty much every sport worth playing! We have some magnificent foundations on which to build a national story.
Second, we need to talk boldly about, and live, the values we cannot afford to lose to globalisation – values we take for granted that have been passed down through generations. To name just a few; a love of fair play, an instinctive support of the underdog, compassion for those suffering, a belief in contribution, a belief that we reach have both rights and responsibilities, and a genuine faith that we achieve more together than we do alone.
Third, we need to recognise the rights of the English to govern their own affairs, championing a fully federal United Kingdom and regional devolution. With this we need a movement within Labour that champions England and does more to celebrate the achievements of the English at a local level.
But to achieve any of this, those of us on the left need to feel at ease with our national identity and be comfortable wrapping ourselves in patriotism. Only then will Labour have a chance of forming a social democratic government once more.
Joe Jervis is a communications specialist, political writer and former journalist. He tweets at @
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Brexit, English, Englishness, St George's Day, Theresa May