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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.