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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser