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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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