In recent days I have been doing some interviews for my new book, Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England, which is in part about the complex, ever-changing nature of our shared national home. Covering the period from New Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997 through to the aftermath of the pandemic, it explores what George Orwell called the social atmosphere of the country and, in a different context, Georges Bataille called “the politics of atmosphere”. For too long the political atmosphere in Britain has been rancidly divided, especially during the long Brexit wars. But during the pandemic there were glimpses of renewed social solidarity even if a new politics of the common good remains out of reach.
On Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, I was asked by the amiable host if England was “right-wing”. Can a country as opposed to its government be left- or right-wing? I don’t think so but this much we do know: the question of what England is, and what part it can play in the huge events that are happening, remains as unresolved as ever.
“Everyone understands English,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the European Commission, once quipped, “but no one understands England.” “England” here serves as a synonym for Britain, or the UK, but Juncker was broadly correct. England is hard to understand – but so are other countries. What he surely meant was that England has its own unique peculiarities and vulnerabilities as the dominant nation in the fragile, post-imperial multinational British state, the only country ever to have left the EU.
What makes nations cohere or find common purpose? Should England have its own parliament and political institutions? Does it want regional assemblies and greater internal devolution? Who even speaks for England? Sadiq Khan? Boris Johnson? Gareth Southgate? Certainly not the Labour Party, which still seems afraid of the English Question, and doesn’t seem to understand the calamity that has befallen it. Routed in Scotland and abandoned in many of its former English heartlands, Labour is an outlier in Europe, where many social democratic parties are back in power: a party of the left that keeps losing and doesn’t know for whom it speaks.
After all these years Tony Blair has no such uncertainty, as he showed in his recent NS interview with Michael Sheen. Blair once declared in a 1995 speech to the Labour conference that “we will be a young country”. He repeated it emphatically as if tradition and the past could simply be wished away. As prime minister Blair set a liberal-modern Britishness against a conservative-traditional Englishness and thought there could be only one winner. Riding the wave of globalisation, he wanted to remake Britain as progressive, open, dynamic and Europhile. A young country – and a new country. He favoured open borders, free markets, the deregulation of finance, and the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. He later dreamed of “reordering the world” and proselytised for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He seemed to believe he was on the right side of history. But as the historian Robert Tombs wrote, “Those who claim that history is on their side are abusing it: and the abuse of history is one of mankind’s oldest cultural endeavours.”
The story didn’t end as Blair – or indeed David Cameron – would have wished. What they didn’t know, or perhaps chose to ignore, was that during the New Labour years, and after them, other powerful forces were in play, in peripheral England, far from the great cities. Something was stirring in the old industrial towns, the provincial shires, the neglected postwar new towns and the run-down coastal regions: an inchoate English revolt. It would sweep the Cameroons from office and, in time, open the way for Boris Johnson to win the 2019 general election on a pledge to “get Brexit done”, whatever that means. And then the pandemic struck. So, here’s the question, again: who are we now, after Brexit, after the pandemic, as war rages in Ukraine and we face the most serious cost-of-living crisis since the 1970s?
At the start of the pandemic, I planted a cherry tree, a gift from my sister, in our front garden. I’d been worrying about it because it hadn’t flowered, though mature cherry trees in nearby gardens had. On Saturday 2 April I woke to discover it was aflame with blossom. In the cold of early spring the delicate pink, white-turning flowers were radiant against the sombre greens of the hawthorn, ivy and laurel surrounding them.
In the final years of his life, when he was terminally ill yet determined to keep writing, Clive James published some wonderful poems, several in the NS. Looking at the cherry tree as fine rain began to fall, I recalled one of James’s late poems, “Japanese Maple”, in which he writes of his wish to live just long enough to see for one more time, one last time, the leaves of the tree planted by his daughter in his back garden turn to flame in the autumn: “When did you ever see/So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls/On that small tree.” May I wish all our readers a happy Easter.
“Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England” is published by Picador. Jason Cowley will be in conversation with Helen Lewis on 23 April at the Cambridge Literary Festival
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special