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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 white cliffs of Dover and the South Foreland lighthouse. Photo: Getty
England is one country with many roots. Photo: Getty

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