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.

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

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

Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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