England is one country with many roots. Photo: Getty
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Jon Cruddas: Only Labour can speak for England’s roots in a single voice

The shift towards English identity is a long-term phenomenon that is probably irreversible.

The Politics of English Nationhood
Michael Kenny
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £25

England is a country of strong regional identities and we are proud of where we come from. We hold to the virtues of fairness, responsibility and duty to others and we are fiercely democratic and individualist. We believe that parliament is the sovereign expression of our country and that it belongs to all of us. But in recent years people have come to believe that it ignores the things that matter to them. They have lost trust in the political establishment.

The English represent about 85 per cent of the population of the UK. The recent elections, the rise of Euroscepticism and the approaching Scottish referendum have combined to force the political establishment to confront the question of English identity and nationhood. As Ed Miliband has pointed out, one in nine of the electorate voted Ukip and six times that many didn’t bother to vote at all.

Parts of the left have viewed the rise of patriotic England through the history of Powellism and racial antagonism towards New Commonwealth immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s. Sociologically the country has changed enough to make this a serious political mistake. Along with the leadership of the Conservative Party, the social liberalism of much of the left resonates in our big cities and with the university-educated middle classes but it is at odds with the “small C” conservative sentiment in the rest of the country. Added to this is Labour’s previous reliance on top-down control, which jarred with people who resented its condescension and having change imposed on them.

The Scots and the Welsh now want more devolution. First Labour and now the Conservatives are promising income-tax-raising powers to Scotland. But what of England?

This is not a Conservative moment and England is not a Tory country. The Tories are no longer conservative in their values. They are a liberal market party of southern England, backed by the financial elite. Only Labour can represent the interests of all the English people and build a common good.

What will England do to Labour? This is the question that runs through Michael Kenny’s excellent book. Kenny is an academic with a good understanding of Labour politics and its history. He has spent the past few years building a body of evidence and marshalling a powerful argument to warn Labour of the perils ahead if it fails to address English nationhood.

Labour’s future depends on it having a strong identity and role within England. But, Kenny argues, it has been forced into an ever more defensive stance on the Union because of its reliance on Scottish and Welsh MPs, its own strong regional political identities and its lingering fear of the xenophobic character of an English identity.

The party, he writes, has to develop an English Labour political identity. First, it must break out of its regional identities and former industrial strongholds to engage with the rising cultural and political currents associated with English identity. Second, it needs to renew itself in the local traditions, cultures and values of different parts of England. And third, it needs to develop a policy agenda that speaks to the democratic aspirations around the national sovereignty of the English.

Labour’s new deal for England will give the English the biggest devolution of power to our cities and counties in a century. It will bring regional banking, local powers over high streets, people-powered public services and a top-class system of vocational education and training tailored to local needs. But Kenny argues this is only part of the answer. There also has to be a cultural representation of English national identity.

A people’s culture gives them the standards and beliefs they live by. It literally gives life meaning and when people feel their culture is threatened, it is a profound challenge to their existence that no promises of economic improvement will resolve. Without their traditions people become disorientated and cannot project themselves into a hopeful future. Without the power to define their own identities they are unable to defend themselves against more dominant elite cultures that redescribe them in negative ways. Only a self-confident culture assured of its identity can build and sustain good relationships, unions and alliances.

Kenny addresses the key policy issues associated with devolution and with the outcome of the Scottish referendum and their likely impact on Labour. He sets out with clarity the political challenges and the possible predicaments we face. I can recommend the book for these chapters alone. Yet the importance of his work lies in the way it signals the role of culture in politics and shows the class-based nature of this culture. The political elite, with their liberal and cosmopolitan values, have lost empathy with ordinary, everyday English life.

Kenny is clear that the shift towards English identity is a long-term phenomenon that is probably irreversible. It is attracting growing political energy and social forces. Like most such political moments, it offers as much opportunity as threat. Labour has a tradition of English socialism and engage­ment with English culture that it can draw on. Our own resources of hope and nation-building energy lie in our traditions. England is one country with many roots. “Look,” says the poet Daljit Nagra, “we have coming to Dover!” Only Labour can speak for these roots in a single voice.

Jon Cruddas MP is the Labour Party’s policy co-ordinator

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle