The two main parties need to talk about Englishness, in light of Ukip's threat and Scotland. Photo: Getty
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Tories and Labour are stuck in a crisis over Englishness

A Conservative party conference fringe event revealed both the Tories’ and Labour’s problem with defining Englishness.

“I could do so much more as a locally-elected mayor than a member of parliament, wobbling up and down on the West Coast Mainline.”

This was the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart’s lament at a fringe event held by the IPPR during Conservative party conference this afternoon.

He was speaking on the subject of the post-Scottish referendum Union, calling for England to have a broader conversation about its identity and people having a sense of place, and more power to localities.

Stewart, chair of the defence select committee, was damning of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland, saying “the depressing thing about No voters was that they were voting for the narrowest material reasons; their hearts were saying Yes, but their heads were saying No.”

He went on to criticise the PM’s immediate concern of “EVEL” – English Votes for English Laws. Though not disagreeing with having a closer look at this constitutional change, Stewart said the bigger issue was to “start a serious conversation” about broader English identity, for which we would need to “build a constitution again”. He admitted, “I know this is not a comfortable thing for a Conservative audience to hear.”

However, it wasn’t just a message for the Conservative party. Stewart was joined by the Labour peer, Blue Labour architect, and former adviser to Ed Miliband, Maurice Glasman, who made a very similar argument.

He said: “In the referendum debate, there was a complete confusion as to who we were… It was an empty, self-interested, rationalist debate."

Glasman attacked British politics as a whole for neglecting to look at the intricacies and reforms of English institutions, calling the Commons “full of people who have never worked. They’re constantly dealing with PR situations – not thinking about institutions.”

And his condemnation certainly didn’t soften when he spoke about the Labour party. He said there was “not enough conservatism” in the Conservative party but also that there’s “a lack of conservatism in the Labour party. Everything’s thought through in terms of the media interest and PR.”

Both politicians’ key lament was that our narrow-thinking political leadership, on both sides of the House, means that England has not been allowed a proper conversation about Englishness and being empowered on a local level. This debate has emerged because of the shift in power required by the Scottish referendum result, and also because Ukip are offering voters a vision of Englishness – something the main parties have not been addressing.

Glasman warned against “heritage patriotism”, or “theme park patriotism”, with people dressing up as St George and riding on horses and such like, saying that the “English nation and tradition needs to be recovered”. “You don’t just give people a couple of festivals,” he warned, about paying lip-service to patriotism, “England is a very complicated composite – it’s a civic category; it’s never been an ethnic category.”

For both politicians, the lack of local empowerment in England was one of the reasons there has been a loss of English identity. They had different solutions for this, with Glasman being particularly emphatic about the “nightmare” of trying to impose administrative “regions” upon the country: “Nobody says they live in a region… There’s no allegiance, no loyalty, it’s a nightmare… Why would people support regional devolution?”

Stewart was more enthusiastic than Glasman about taking the McKay Commission as a starting point for solving the West Lothian Question, but was still sceptical about David Cameron’s hasty promise of more powers to Scots. He admitted, “I do have an anxiety about opening up the Pandora’s Box of constitutional change”, cautioning that such reforms could snowball into scenarios such as the adoption of proportional representation and the break-up of the House of Lords.

What both men were united on, however, was that the politicians in their respective parties' leadership have failed so far in having an increasingly vital conversation about Englishness.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Popperfoto
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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue