The parties must stop dithering and address the English question

The challenge for mainstream parties is to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation and to connect these to a renewed case for the Union.

The development of a more compelling, contemporary case for Britain’s Union requires not just a fine-grained understanding of Scottish sensibilities and arguments, but also a proper consideration of the nature and implications of developing forms of English identity. A growing body of social science research points to a gradual reassertion of English nationhood in the current period, a trend that is more deeply rooted and politically significant than is generally appreciated. Several different, contending versions of what it means to be English are quietly and inexorably leaving their imprint upon the agendas and assumptions of politics at Westminster.

All of the main parties have obvious, short-term incentives for averting their eyes from these issues, or for playing them tactically, given their own internal differences on Europe and the Union, and the difficulties they have in engaging with the public on such matters. And yet each is likely to find an evasive or purely tactical stance increasingly difficult to sustain. In part, this is a result of the dramatic coincidence of loud questions about Britain’s role in Europe, the referendum on Scottish independence and the attendant debate about the Union, and the likelihood of further devolutionary developments in Scotland and Wales, even if Scottish independence does not come to pass.

More generally, national questions are necessarily difficult for politicians who are schooled in the dominant narrative in the UK of centralised and functional, rather than territorial, governance. And yet the blood has been seeping away from the Westminster model for some time, primarily because long-established ideas about what was special and unique about Britain and its evolving system of parliamentary government began to lose their appeal as the last century drew to a close.

The three main parties appear either uncomfortable or uncertain as they grapple with these national questions. For the Conservative party, David Cameron’s deployment of familiar Unionist arguments in the debate over Scottish independence sits awkwardly with the reality that the Tories look increasingly like the party that represents the most affluent parts of southern and central England. Many voters within their electoral core are increasingly impatient with the Union and Scottish demands upon it.

In Labour’s case, Ed Miliband’s "one nation" rhetoric is vulnerable to a pretty obvious rejoinder – "which nation?" Perhaps best known as a Tory phrase, it is heard in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a decidedly English trope. Engaging with contemporary English sensibilities raises another pressing question for the Labour party: how can its rediscovery of an authentic, radical lineage of progressive patriotism – as proposed by figures such as the chair of its policy review, Jon Cruddas – be reconciled with the widespread perception that the party clings to the established order because of its heavy reliance upon the votes of Scottish MPs? If Labour does succeed in winning a majority in the general election of 2015 but lacks representatives in large swathes of southern, eastern and western England and the midlands, it could well find itself facing a crisis of territorial legitimacy, at the mercy of a potent English-focused backlash. (Indeed, one advantage of coalition with the Liberal Democrats is that this might help offset Labour’s position in England, as it has done in relation to the Tories’ situation in Scotland.)

At present, the one political party that appears to be in tune with some strands of the new English zeitgeist is the UK Independence Party (Ukip) (despite the anachronistic name with which it is saddled). Recent polling suggests a strong correlation between sympathy for Ukip and identification with English, rather than British, national identity. Yet transforming its retro-British nationalist outlook into an English nationalism presents a challenge for Ukip, as is clear from its significant internal divisions on such questions as whether to support an English parliament. And, more fundamentally still, the extent to which Englishness signals the kind of pessimistic, insular and conservative outlook that Ukip promotes is often exaggerated. My own research suggests that most people who are increasingly inclined to identify as "English" first and foremost are broadly liberal and/or conservative in disposition, and still feel a strong sense of affiliation for the Union, even if many are increasingly sceptical about the EU.

In the end, the most effective response to increasingly prominent populist-nationalist sentiments is not to disengage from the terrain of "the national-popular" in the name of universal liberal values, nor to try to recycle or appropriate the simplicities of nationalist-populist rhetoric on issues like immigration. The better, more enduring alternative is to work much harder and more imaginatively – in intellectual, cultural and policy terms – to express and ground alternative ideas of the English nation, and to connect these to a renewed case for Union. This is the major challenge linking the various national questions of British politics. It is time that the parties stopped dithering and embraced it. 

The full version of this article will appear in the forthcoming essay collection Democracy in Britain, Essays in honour of James Cornford to be published by IPPR in February.’ Michael Kenny's book, "The Politics of English Nationhood" is published by Oxford University Press in February.

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

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

Show Hide image

The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump