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

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.