England is one country with many roots. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496