Why Labour needs to re-discover England By Paul Kingsnorth

A few years back, I was driving with a friend of mine through south Cumbria, where I live. We passed a roadside van, a cafe, with a flag flying from an aerial on top of it – the flag was a George Cross. ‘What do you think that’s about?’ my friend asked me. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. He went on to say that it took him back to a journey he’d taken a few years ago, across the southern states of the USA, where the confederate flag still flies from similar corners. That flag, he said, was flown as an act of defiance – a message that shouted ‘we are still here’ to an establishment that had no time for it. A defiant shout from a people that feels ignored; my friend said the two things felt similar to him. I found this interesting, and disturbing, and possible true. I often go to Scotland, and I’m struck with how much more confident it feels since devolution. Here is a nation forging its own destiny, armed with a sense of its own identity. It is contested, argued about, all the time – but it is acknowledged and it is a binding agent. I feel the same in Wales. People in these two British nations seem now to have not only a political but a cultural outlet for their needs and aspirations. When I travel England, by contrast, the country seems almost fearful. There’s a sense of a people unacknowledged as what they are – a historic nation, with a specific cultural identity. A few years back I spent nine months travelling the country meeting people from all backgrounds, and this was very clear. The English feel that they are not listened to. They feel that their Englishness is not respected, or even understood, by a political establishment which zigzags between talk of multiculturalism and talk of Britishness; which is happy to acknowledge the

existence of Scottish or Welsh culture, but which only mentions England when the World Cup is on. Increasing numbers of English people - and you can see this in the opinion polls – feel they do not get the same treatment as the other UK nations. The West Lothian question remains unanswered. The writ of the British government does not run, in many cases, beyond the borders of England, and yet this is rarely mentioned. And then there is immigration and cultural change: until recently, the elephant in the room. England has been the chosen home for most of the over two million new arrivals who have come to this country over the last decade. The distress felt by many at rapid and barely understood change, coupled with real pressure on services and on their identity is very real – yet it is still often dismissed as bigotry or even racism. England feels unhappy. The country has the worrying potential to become divided – to stratify by wealth, ethnicity, class and geography. It needs uniting. I would suggest that the thing which will unite it is its identity – its English identity. There is some anxiety about the recent census figures which showed how far and how rapidly England has changed. Some of this is justified: this rate and scale of change needs to be attended to, and concerns about it should be heard and acted upon. But here is another figure that gets less attention: every opinion poll that is taken on the issue of British and English identity sees the percentage of people from ethnic minorities who consider themselves to be ‘English’ moving upwards. This, in my view, is something to be optimistic about. It’s often suggested , especially by people who work in Parlaiment, that ‘Britishness’ is our binding identity. But Britishness is a state identity, based on institutions and values; moreover, it is one that is now coming apart, as the Scottish would happily affirm. Englishness, by contrast, is a grassroots identity, based on place and belonging. It is deeper, and older, than Britishness. For some time now, the political class seems to have been pushing England away. The left has been particularly guilty of this, associating Englishness with racism, xenophobia and ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric, and trying to replace it either

with this vaguer ‘Britishness’ or with an idealistic ‘multiculturalism.’ There might be a case for both of these things, but neither is a point to unite around – and nations that don’t unite, fall apart. Englishness is the historic identity of the people of this nation. It is not going away, so we need to make sure it is – that dread word – ‘inclusive’. The alternative is an Englishness that divides us – a country in which only white, ethnically English people call themselves ‘English’, and everyone else calls themselves British. This, I think, gives our political leaders a responsibility – to acknowledge England. What is Englishness, you might ask? Surprisingly the answer is easy to come by. Englishness, like any identity, is a marriage of people and place. Englishness comes from simply being in England, and wanting to belong to it. This is why English identity takes time to lodge amongst new arrivals – like any identity, it is two or three generations deep. An adult migrant from Poland or India will probably never feel English; they didn’t grow up here, their cultural reference points and their memories, are not rooted here. But their children might, and their grandchildren almost certainly will – if they are given permission to do so. My friend Alastair McIntosh, the Scottish writer and thinker, writes a lot about modern Scottish identity. He contrasts the alienating concept of ‘blood and soil’ with the welcoming one of ‘soil and soul.’ Place matters, he says, and so does historic identity – but these things are not tied to your bloodline, they are tied your sense of belonging, and your desire to belong. Englishness, then, is being in England. Belonging is wanting to belong. This session is called ‘re-imagining England.’ But I’m not sure about this – it sounds a bit think-tanky to me; a bit patronising. I don’t think England needs to be re-imagined. I think it needs to be re-discovered. It needs to be rediscovered particularly by the left, and by the London-based media and think tanks, who sometimes speak as if it were a strange foreign country which needs to be explored with a team of sherpas and guides. It needs to be re-discovered by the Labour Party too. After thirteen years of government in which the nation was politically marginalised and barely

mentioned, I think Labour has to speak directly to England and the English. Perhaps it needs to gain their trust again. Speaking personally, my heart would leap if the Labour party did two simple things before the next general election. Firstly, if your leader made a speech about England. A speech which didn’t hymn Britishness or multiculturalism, but which spoke of and to England; which acknowledged the pace of change and the challenges we face, and acknowledged that England is a nation with its own needs and identity, and with a positive future ahead of it for all of its people. I’d like to hear Labour talk about an Englishness that is rooted, and real but which belongs to everyone in England. Secondly, I’d like Labour to address the political problem of English governance. I’d like you to address the West Lothian question, and to at least take seriously the case for an English parliament. It can’t be acceptable any longer for Scottish and Welsh MPs to be making English laws but not viceversa, or for the British government to confuse Britain and England. There are four nations in this union; only one of them has not been consulted in recent years on how it should be governed. This needs to change, and Labour ought to be the party to change it. It seems to me that beyond the metropolis, and despite the shouty recent headlines, England is still a very English place. Englishness is changing and adapting, as it always has – cultures are processes, not things. But it is not going away, and it is still deeply felt. Let’s build on those connections and make people feel good about them again. Paul Kingsnorth is a writer and journalist. He took part in the Policy Review event, Re-imagining England, 4 February 2013. See http://www.paulkingsnorth.net

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