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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder