The Tolpuddle Martyrs and Marie Antoinette

A couple of sublime moments plus a trip to rural West Dorset

Amid all the disappointments and upsets that life has to offer there are fleeting moments when things can feel pretty perfect.

For example in 2002, on holiday in a remote town in the Masurian lakes, I came across a European Union roadshow touring Poland in a bid to persuade people of the merits of EU membership. The lyric blaring out of its loudspeaker system was ‘Oh I’m wicked and I’m lazy’. It may have been the language barrier, but the vote was a resounding 'yes'.

Food for thought for David Cameron if being cuddly doesn’t pay off…

Then there was the man so enraged, because I honked my horn after he cut me up, that he spat at me from three lanes away coating the inside of his passenger window. Wound up? He most certainly was!

I imagine the people of Fair Isle get a similar lift from the disappearance of the darkness of winter and arrival of Spring. And it’s that topic that Malachy Tallack turns to in his latest blog. Living that far north a bit of sunshine does wonders for the spirits – even if the joy is shortlived…

Simon Munnery meanwhile gives his tips for a perfect holiday. For example he suggests getting your house burgled in advance because it saves the worry of it happening when you’re away.

And Victoria Brignell explains why she doesn’t want to become a daredevil plus we’ve got our agony aunt Marina Pepper on the chocolate Jesus.

Talking of which I hope you all had a happy Easter. Personally I headed to an idyllic corner of Dorset with my spouse for a bit of much needed country air and some pretty decent pub dinners.

It strikes me that this county offers pretty much all you could wish for in terms of scenery, eye-catching coastline and pleasant diversions.

It was also the setting for much of Thomas Hardy's writing and home, of course, to the Tolpuddle Martyrs – framed and transported for starting a union in reaction to the appalling wages they and other agricultural workers earned in the 1830s.

Nowadays Dorset is home to Poundbury – Prince Charles’s fantasy of a village, Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface founder of the River Cottage dynasty plus a bunch of wealthy weekenders from the capital.

You know the balance has tipped in the wrong direction when more or less every nice house in the prettier villages has a BMW or Mercedes on its drive bought at a London garage. How can local people now afford homes?

For some reason I was reminded of Marie-Antoinette. She had a fake village in the grounds of Versaille where she could divert herself by playing at rural life for a few hours at a time.

Still, must have done her good because, as we all know, she lived to a ripe old age dying secure in the knowledge that she had contributed greatly to the rural economy…

Or did she?

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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