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Why the left shouldn't fear the rise of Englishness

From the Levellers to Orwell, from the Quakers to Tawney, radicals can take inspiration from a hugely impressive tradition of English social radicalism.

The St George flag is seen flying above 10 Downing St on Saint George's Day. Photograph: Getty Images.

When Andy Murray finally hoisted the Wimbledon Men’s trophy, Britain was once again unified by a warm, inclusive, patriotic glow. It was the much-vaunted spirit of the London Olympics reborn. Yet between the summer of 2012 and the triumph in SW19, Britain – and British politics – has been transfixed by the rise of another kind of patriotism. A patriotism that is often angry, intolerant and exclusionary.

UKIP’s breakthrough performance in the English local elections appears to reflect a Britain whose sense of national identity stands in direct contradiction to that forged in the shadow of Olympic Park and the Centre Court. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the response of many progressives is to try and minimise the significance of the former while embracing and celebrating the latter. If only things were that simple. The truth is that public attitudes in England are in a process of dramatic change. Changes directly linked to the increasingly politicised nature of English (rather than British) national identity. The left ignores these developments at its peril.

Consider this: while UKIP and Tory eurosceptics continually pose 'Europe' as a threat to British traditions and values, evidence from the 2012 Future of England Survey demonstrates that among the population of England at large, those with the most exclusively British sense of national identity tend to be pro-European. Euroscepticism is closely related to English and not British identity. Indeed, among those with an exclusively English sense of national identity, anti-EU sentiment is overwhelmingly strong.

English euroscepticism is also closely linked to a very strong sense that England is getting short changed as a result of the changes brought about by devolution. Indeed, with support for the current arrangements by which England is governed within the UK falling to no more than one in four of the population, it seems scarcely an exaggeration to claim that England’s relationship to both of the unions of which it is a part – EU and UK – is in a state of crisis.

Put differently, euroscepticism is merely one manifestation of a wider sense of anxiety among the English about England’s place in the world. Regardless of the Union Jack-laden imagery and the faux Churchillian rhetoric, it is this seam of English anxiety that is currently being mined so effectively by UKIP and Tory europhobes.

Given that England is, de facto, being delineated ever more clearly within the UK as the devolution reforms brought about by the last Labour government continue to work themselves through, there is simply no prospect that this issue is going to go away any time soon. Like or not, England and English identity politics are here to stay. There is no option but to engage. Not least because there has never been a stable centre-left government at the UK level that did not enjoy majority support in England. What was true before the devolution of power to the so-called Celtic fringe is even more surely the case now.

The good news, however, is that if – surely, when – progressives do finally engage seriously with the new politics of Englishness, they will find that they have formidable intellectual resources on which to draw. From the Levellers to Orwell, from the Quaker tradition of philanthropy to Tawney, radicals can gain sustenance and inspiration from a hugely impressive tradition of English social radicalism. Indeed, viewed from this angle it seems downright bizarre that the left has been so willing to cede to its political opponents the terrain of Englishness when for once it, rather than the right, has all the best tunes.

At a more prosaic level there are also some institutional reforms on the table that would help neuter some of the resentment that is creating space for the right. In a situation where fully 81% of people of England believe that it is no longer appropriate that Scottish MPs vote on matters that effect England only – with 55% "strongly agreeing" with this view – an answer to Tam Dayell’s "West Lothian Question" is now urgently required. The McKay Commission’s proposal for a non-binding version of English votes for English laws (emphatically not an "English veto" as luridly claimed in yesterday's Independent) are both practical and eminently sensible.

The real Britain encompasses encompasses both 'Murray mania' and a widespread sense that England is being shabbily treated by both of the Unions of which it is a part. As difficult as it may be for some to believe, many millions share both sentiments without feeling any sense of internal contradiction. The politicisation of English identity cannot be wished away and denial will certainly not suffice. But neither is to urge engagement some kind of counsel of despair. The left need not fear the growth of England as a political nation.

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. He is the co-author of England and its Two Unions: An Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents, which was published this week  by IPPR