Who are we? An answer has rarely seemed so imperative. Later this year, a closely-contested referendum will determine whether or not Britain leaves the EU. If the vote is for an exit, then the pro-European Scottish government may make another bid for independence. That in turn would imperil a union that has held the United Kingdom together since 1707.
With our deepest alliances at risk, we are in the grip of an identity crisis. Reluctant Europeans, at best, and lukewarm Britons, we have become a nation of unenthusiasts. That negativity has taken root at an inauspicious time. With national security under threat from forces ranging from terrorism to climate change, international allies and cohesion at home are vital if we are to safeguard our future and help those, such as refugees, whose fates may turn on our resolve.
The shadow of fear under which we live now is nothing new. In the mid-17th century, Hobbes tried to dispel the terrors of the age by telling readers of Leviathan that they should not fear fairies, ghosts, goblins and witches. The death sentence for witchcraft lapsed some years later, as the optimism of the Enlightenment took hold.
More than three centuries later, Britain stands poised again between angry dread and a sense, as yet unarticulated, that the world in which we live is both benign and improvable. Politics occupies the same limbo. The battles in which it engages are small and bitter, making citizens believe, with much justification, that it has lost any capacity to forge a better society. The most that can reasonably be expected (though never relied upon) is that our leaders – buffeted by forces over which they have little or no traction – contrive not to make things worse.
Hope and passion, the key ingredients of change, are not however absent from public life. At a time of uncertainty about who we are, the politics of identity offers an alternative to torpor. Across Europe, extreme movements of the right, and sometimes the left are the torch-bearers for a different future. As such groups gain momentum, the Enlightenment vision has been exchanged for a pathology of progress.
It is in that context that English identity matters. Though support for Ukip has ebbed and flowed, its showing in the general election of 2015, when it increased its vote share by 10 per cent and garnered 3.9 million votes, suggests that Nigel Farage’s party should not be under-estimated. In a campaign when many residential streets boasted barely a single election poster, the St George flag draped over domestic facades became the symbol of grassroots political engagement.
In January 2012, the Institute for Public Policy research (IPPR) published a report entitled: ‘The Dog That Finally Barked: England as an emerging political community. It argued that a deepening English political identity may come to challenge the workings of the UK more profoundly even than Scottish independence.
The IPPR conducted a follow-up survey in 2013, which appeared to confirm its conclusion that, although British identity remained relatively weak, people south of the border have a strengthening sense of being English. The English, in the think tank’s findings, had begun to form a political community seeking some form of self-government.
This nascent movement appeared to be founded in dissatisfaction. Where British identifiers tended also to be Europhiles, those who defined themselves as English were much more likely to be Eurosceptics eager that Britain should leave the EU. The conclusion was unsurprising. More astonishing was Labour’s failure to react to a trend that posed an existential danger to the party.
Labour had not only lost the votes of England. It had also forfeited its faith. The voters that it could most have relied upon in elections past defected in 2015 to the Tories and to Ukip partly because Labour had done little or nothing to harness and shape English identity. As the IPPR had pointed out in its canine metaphor, the warnings had been clear. In failing to heed them, Labour became the dog that did not bark.
For sure, some forces within the party understood how England was changing. Jon Cruddas, Ed Miliband’s policy reviewer, addressed the issue in both philosophical and practical terms. Having taken the new leader to meet Billingsgate fish porters as part of a crash course in English heritage, Cruddas later became the prime architect of regional devolution, under which money and power would be handed down to council groupings.
Miliband himself took on the English question, acknowledging in a speech that the left had not been clear enough about its pride in England and exhorting his party to “embrace a positive, outward-looking view of English identity.” Quite what this vision might be was less clear. The Miliband version ranged from England football fans through jubilee street parties to the “great Victorian visionaries like William Morris and John Ruskin.”
Rich though Labour’s English traditions surely are, the Conservatives of the 21st century had proved more adept at implanting the idea that England was a Tory country, headed by a Tory monarchy and presided over by a Tory God. Stanley Baldwin and John Major had both conjured up a land of cricket teas and women cycling to Communion, and when that prelapsarian idyll faded, the Harlow MP, Robert Halfon, and the Renewal movement stepped in with a blueprint for a “white van Conservatism” designed to appeal to the 21st century worker whose view of England was steeped less in glory than in grievance.
The Labour leadership’s lack of a positive and countervailing story of English identity was undoubtedly a factor in its crushing 2015 election defeat. The reasons for skirting round the issue of identity were clear enough. Englishness has come to be seen by many on the left as either a patina of privilege assumed by a grouse-shouting squirarchy or as the dark and chauvinistic impulse of the poor and resentful.
That neither explains nor justifies the inability of many senior figures to understand the complexity of English identity or even to update its arcane touchstones. The red pillar boxes, the boiled cabbages and the oil-lit churches variously described by Orwell, Eliot and Betjeman are unlikely to stir any chord in a generation weaned on email, takeaways and secularism.
As for the “Blitz spirit” invoked by media sentimentalists (and by Ed Miliband in his speech on English identity), anyone wishing to recreate a kinder yesteryear might remember that the war years, though certainly an era of community spirit, generosity and sacrifice, were also a time of strikes, rising anti-Semitism and class antagonism.
What Labour has not cared to admit, for fairly obvious reasons, is that one distinguishing feature of English identity is dislike of most of what the party is supposed to stand for. Aloof, out-of-touch, welcoming to outsiders, hostile to its own people and headed by a metropolitan elite. That collective stereotype, applied to Tony Blair and those who followed him, has not been dispelled by Jeremy Corbyn.
Elected on a wave of almost unprecedented popular support, Corbyn can certainly claim to be elected by the people for the people. Whether he is of the people is another matter. While he is a well-liked and well-respected representative for his relatively poor constituency, it is not clear that he has any affinity either with the disaffected south and the north of the country.
His support, certainly within the metropolis, is not confined to the young or the less well-off. On the contrary, other London MPs admit that Corbynites in their constituency are older, well-heeled and affluent enough to indulge their principles. Corbyn purports to speak for the disaffected everywhere, and it is true that his writ runs far beyond the capital. But the realm he commands is, in the words of David Runciman, is “a London of the mind”.
The Labour left to which Corbyn belongs has traditionally favoured a centralised system and tight controls. While that hardly makes his faction unique in Westminster, Corbyn has shown limited enthusiasm for giving power to the regions. Nor has he responded very positively to pressure from Cruddas, John Denham and others for the foundation of an English Labour party.
His initial support for a constitutional convention has not been repeated, leaving changes designed to boost England – such as English voting on English legislation – as a Tory initiative. The devolution championed by Cruddas and Andrew Adonis before the election has been appropriated by George Osborne (and tweaked as a means to devolve government funding cuts.) Labour meanwhile still lacks any coherent story about English identity.
The case for English Labour has been persuasively made by Denham and others. The difficulties in implementing such a change (considerable but far from insurmountable) have also been rehearsed. Suffice for now to focus on the national mood that such a movement could reflect and foster.
Relatively early in the last parliament, Labour thinkers in touch with the grassroots realised that, in an age of mass movement of people, of globalisation and security threats, voters felt a powerful identity with their street, their community and their town. I come from Boston in Lincolnshire, a byword for high immigration and social upheaval, and I have seen a little of how notions of belonging and estrangement evolve.
At first, many Bostonians turned against the Portuguese immigrants who came over in the initial wave of European migration to pick and package fruit and other crops. Families were shunned in public and housed in slum conditions. Public services were over-stretched, bigotry was rife, and the unease culminated in a riot.
But gradually (and unseen by the media) the mood changed. The Polish builder and his British counterpart felt an equal enthusiasm for a community made more vibrant by migration. They also experienced a shared anger that they had to drive more than 70 miles a day to Peterborough, the nearest city, and back if they wanted a job with a living wage. By the 2015 election, when Ukip hoped (but ultimately failed) to win the seat of Boston and Skegness from the Tories, a solidarity had emerged.
When I interviewed indigenous Bostonians, a number told me that they had warmed to their mixed community. Many who planned to vote Ukip said they would do so not through any dislike of their migrant neighbours, whom they had come first to tolerate and then to value, but because they wanted to punish Westminster politicians.
Away from Lincolnshire, some in Labour realised that the key to electoral success lay in local involvement. Arnie Graf, the Baltimore community organiser briefly feted by Miliband, became the driving force of a new form of grassroots politics which recognised and acted on an obvious truth. Speed bumps, playgrounds, refuse collection and dog fouling are a better conduit to social and political engagement than a thousand mediocre Westminster speeches.
Neither Graf nor his creed survived to the election, and Labour duly paid the price. It is vital, if Labour is to fare better next time, that it revives its interest in the politics of place. In an age when fear of the outsider drives intolerance, it follows that a sense of shared identity goes at least some way to addressing problems that seem intractable at national and supra-national level.
Fostering a positive English identity, through an English Labour movement, is not simply last year’s discarded good idea. The project is more urgent and more necessary than ever, for two reasons. The first turns on the necrosis now afflicting politics, and Labour politics in particular. For good or ill, identity politics are a visceral force defining, at the extremes, what we live and die for.
It follows that identity is a crucial tool in the revival of a moribund politics. Other parties are already harnessing that instinct, for malign or at least negative purposes. Labour, if it chooses, is best-placed to help instil the positive impulses that might, in turn, drive a Labour revival.
But irrespective of narrow party interest, the politics of identity are the key to the future of the nation. Later this year voters will decide whether Britain stays in the EU or leaves. With some polls showing an almost equal split between Yes and No, David Cameron has given his Eurosceptics leave to campaign as they see fit. The Labour leadership, vapid thus far on making the pro-EU case, must quickly raise its game.
It must also recognise that helping to instil a positive view of English identity is vital if our place in the EU is to be preserved and the future of the union secured. We shall never trust our natural allies, let alone secure a role on the global stage, unless we first discover who we are.
*The first of three seminars on England and Labour will be held from 5pm to 6.30pm in Westminster on 9 February. Speakers include Lisa Nandy MP. Details from Alison.Palmer@winchester.ac.uk