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

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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