In need of soul-searching - what should England be? Photograph: Getty Images.
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England dreaming, the break-up of Britain and what Orson Welles knew

As someone who was born in the 1960s, the son of wartime evacuees from London, I had a sense from an early age that Britain was oppressed by a lost greatness.

What does England want? What kind of country do we who call ourselves English wish to live in and be part of as good citizens, in an age of supranational institutions, of fluid, compound identities and of shared or conflicting sovereignties? Questions of national identity and purpose – especially for England, the dominant nation in these islands – will become even more pressing in 2014 as the September date of the referendum on Scottish independence approaches and we confront what seemed inconceivable only a few years ago, the possible break-up of the Union of Great Britain, with all the ramifications that it would have for the United Kingdom in the world.

Visit Scotland and you know an urgent and vibrantly self-questioning conversation is taking place. The Scottish elites – political, academic, journalistic, artistic, business – are grappling every day with fundamental questions of history, sovereignty, identity and culture. They are turning inwards but also looking outwards, daring to imagine what it might mean for Scotland to go its own way as a small nation in the world, bereft of all the supporting structures of the British state.

In England, by contrast, there is no such comparable conversation. Too many people, it seems to me, are either uninterested in the constitutional question or simply believe, or prefer to believe, that the Scots, when ultimately forced to choose, will opt for what they know. Certainly too many Westminster MPs – including many senior members of the Labour shadow cabinet – are complacent defenders of our existing constitutional settlement, the frustrations and inadequacies of which have left many Scots actively working towards separation and many English feeling disenfranchised and voiceless.

The last of England

As someone who was born in the 1960s, the son of wartime evacuees from London, I had a sense from an early age that England, or Britain (during my childhood the two nouns seemed to be interchangeable), was oppressed by a lost greatness. As my father grew older, he seemed to become ever more nostalgic for an England that no longer existed – or had never existed, except perhaps as a construct of the imagination. He spoke to me often about the war years and what it was like to have lived through the Blitz – his father refused to leave the house during air raids, even though other houses on their road were bomb-ruined and fire-destroyed. My paternal grandfather was a fatalist, and, as it happened, luck was on his side: he lived until he was nearly 90.

A sweeter, purer past

In Jeremy Paxman’s latest book, Great Brit­ain’s Great War, he writes that the end of the First World War was the point at which “the British decided that what lay ahead of them would never be as grand as their past; the point at which they began to walk backward into the future”.

I thought of these words last week when I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II, with David Tennant impressively foppish and camp in the title role, at the Barbican in London. The play is not only about the deposition of a foolish king who too late reaches a kind of anguished self-knowledge, but about England and Englishness and what it means to walk backwards into the future.

Shakespeare was writing at the end of the 16th century. Richard II, who was crowned king as a ten-year-old boy in 1377, was deposed in 1399 and died the following year. Yet listen to or read John of Gaunt’s celebrated speech – “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle” – in which England is referred to as “this other Eden, demi-paradise”, and a question forms: is this what it means to be English, to be haunted by lost possibi­lities, to be banished from Avalon, which never did exist?

Throughout Richard II there are repeated references to English blood and to English soil. It’s as if an ideal of England has been violated. Richard, “unkinged”, dies at the end of the medieval period and Shakespeare is living through an Elizabethan golden age.

Yet there is a sense that the best is in the past; something has been irretrievably lost and those who came after the wretched Richard, including the Elizabethans watching and performing the play, are also walking backwards into the future. As Orson Welles once said: “I think Shakespeare was greatly preoccupied, as I am, in my humble way, with the loss of innocence. And I think there has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer . . . You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all through Shakespeare.”

Welles is on to something here. The myth of America is all about making it new; about self-reinvention, about being the person you wish to be. It’s about the present and also about what you will make of the future. And the myth of England? This one is complicated – and it is bound up, I think, with living in the present as it relates to the past; to what has been. It’s not for nothing, as Welles said, that Camelot is the great English legend.

Statesmanlike surge

And so ends our centenary year. Our admir­able subscriptions manager, Stephen Brasher, tells me that in “20 years working on the New Statesman, I’ve never known a year like it”. It has been busy, for sure, and we as a team are delighted that we have been able to honour this great magazine in various ways – not least through publishing two splendid centenary volumes showcasing the richness and quality of our archive.

There were times in recent years when it looked as if the New Statesman would not make it. Once on life support, it has now returned to robust health. Our website traffic is at a record high, buoyant advertising revenue has allowed us to increase the number of pages in the magazine, the circulation is rising steadily, our app has been successfully launched, we keep getting great scoops and we will return to profit in 2014.

None of this would have been possible without the loyal support of our readers. I wish you all a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.