Speech to the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester
Thursday 4th February 2016
Let me begin by thanking John Denham and the University of Winchester for organising tonight’s event, and for the farsighted decision to open up a centre dedicated to studying English identity and politics in the first place.
And where better to discuss England and the English question than here in Winchester?
It is not only the great, Anglo-Saxon capital of Wessex, but also a city which embodies both elements of what Professor Robert Tombs, in his inauguration lecture here, described as our two distinct “cultural, social and political tendencies”.
For both our Dissenting tradition and our Established church – our Roundheads and Cavaliers – can find intellectual sustenance in Winchester.
After all, when Wat Tyler and his peasant rebels rode into London in 1381 demanding serf emancipation, communal self-regulation, no more poll taxes and basic labour protections for the common man, “Winchester” was their rallying cry.
And yet on the other hand what could be more emblematic of established England.
The “real, enduring England,” as JB Priestley put it in his 1934 meditation on Englishness,English Journey – “the country of the cathedrals and ministers and manor houses and inns … We all know this England, which at its best cannot be improved upon in this world.”
But, crucially, Priestley thought, this England “has long ceased to earn its living.”
There was certainly that impatience about the existing English settlement evident in that other Winchester institution which, perhaps fittingly, opened its doors less than one year after Tyler’s fall and the brutal suppression of his commonweal ‘Winchester’.
Sir Stafford Cripps, Hugh Gaitskell, Richard Crossman and my great uncle Douglas Jay – so many of the Labour movement’s leading lights attended Winchester College.
So, Winchester, not known for its return of Labour MPs to Parliament, sits squarely within the English socialist tradition.
That is my theme this evening. Because we all owe a debt to John’s insistence that the Labour Party take English identity and cultural affiliation seriously.
And I have three messages.
The first is that we in the Labour Party need a much greater honesty in how we navigate Englishness and politics – particularly when it comes to questions of immigration.
Secondly, we need to go much further than simply a grudging acceptance of populist English culture, and instead learn to embrace it.
And, thirdly, I believe that tackling inequality – Labour’s defining moral mission – will only be achieved if we root our politics in an optimistic, inclusive, and deeply-felt patriotism.
AN ENGLISH CULTURE
Which means seeking to address, without embarrassment or angst, the English Question.
In the 2000s, Gordon Brown valiantly sought to turn this into the British Question, with an attempt to craft a new vision of British identity, even as the cultural allure of Englishness was growing.
As he made his case, the unifying blocks of Britishness – Protestantism, heavy industry, Empire – were collapsing. And the trend has now accelerated as a result of lopsided devolution to Scotland and Wales; the impact of globalisation on industrial communities; and the tide of consciously English motifs in fashion, literature, drama and sport.
We also have the raw data to prove it. We can ask people whether they are ‘English only’, ‘English and British’ or ‘just British.’ And over the past ten years or so, the ‘English only’ group has expanded, the ‘British only’ group has shrunk.
More say they feel ‘more English than British’: over 70% have English either as their preferred or shared identity.
In short, our sense of Englishness matters to us more and more.
As John has rightly noted, “The days when England didn’t need to be English because it was good enough to be British are gone.”
And the Labour Party has fallen on the wrong side of that cultural divide.
According to Jon Cruddas’s review into why the Labour Party lost the 2015 General Election, since 2005 voters who are socially conservative are the most likely to have deserted Labour.
They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them.
And, tragically, they feel that Labour no longer represents them, or understands their lives.
These small ‘c’ conservative voters are twice as likely to be from socio-economic groups DE as AB. Their desertion represents the collapse of Labour’s traditional working-class base.
In short, they feel we don’t value England, and are not on the side of the English.
Fighting the Parliamentary seat of Harlow in 2015, our candidate Suzy Stride (in a forthcoming series of essays) explained how, in her experience, “those with more liberal social opinions tended to define as British while those with more social conservative views tended to define as English.”
“It seemed that Englishness did play an important role in Harlow, as a vehicle for nostalgia, dissatisfaction with a sense of decline in living standards and local area, and perceived threats to cultural identity around shared institutions, language, etc. Those self-defining as English tended to be white and working class, but Labour had little that resonated with these people.”
Sadly, throughout much of our recent history this tradition of patriotic sentiment has been undermined, in equal measure, by the Marxist Left and, more recently, the Technocratic Right.
For some on the Left, patriotism has always been seen as short-hand for nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. An unhelpful divergence of the working class from realising their true calling as socialist revolutionaries.
Of course, George Orwell summed it up best.
“England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, his superb 1941 essay on socialism and English patriotism.
“In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings”.
He was right too: in no other European progressive tradition, whether socialist or social democratic, do you see such a reluctance to fly the flag.
By contrast, President Hollande’s election rallies were covered in Tricolours; and even the modish Podemos are proud of their patriotism.
Even in ordinary times to be associated with such patronising disdain would be deeply damaging for the Labour Party. But now, in the wake of an election defeat that – as Suzy highlighted – raises profound questions about the withering of our cultural roots, we cannot afford the merest hint.
We need a Labour Party – members and representatives – which at the very least does not offend, unwittingly or otherwise, the deeply held patriotic sensibilities of voters.
And one which not only better reflects the make-up of our country, but which can sustain a deep cultural bond with all our supporters.
Take one of the defining symbols and signs of English identity – the flag of St George.
The writer Paul Kingsnorth has drawn an analogy between the spread of St. George’s Cross and the Confederate Flag in the South of the United States. An unofficial, unspoken act of defiance by a people which says “we are still here”.
I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but there is a sense that for many people flying the St. George cross symbolises the rejection of a certain, metropolitan mind-set.
They are saying that:
“We are not from London.
“We are not middle class.
“We are the people of England – and we have roots”.
And in Labour heartland areas like my own city of Stoke-on-Trent:
“Don’t you dare forget us!”
So when the Labour Party seems to disdain it, as Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry appeared to do during the Rochester and Strood by-election, the insult was obvious.
Naushabah Khan, the Labour Party candidate in the by-election, was canvassing on that fateful day. For her, Thornberry’s ‘image from Rochester’ tweet represented the deeper problem that Labour was seen to be a party for the Scots, for the EU, for migrants – in fact, anything but the party of England.
“Although it is not as entrenched as often suggested, there is a reluctance among some in the party to embrace patriotism and promote national pride… An aversion to the institutions and traditions people hold dear has helped to create a perception that the Labour-party is anti-English and does not share the values of the nation. This perception while unfair must be challenged if Labour is to win back hearts and minds.”
So we need to be much clearer about our love and affection for the signs and symbols of Englishness.
I am delighted to support my colleague Toby Perkins’s Bill to replace God Save the Queen with an English National Anthem at English sporting events – my favoured option being Blake and Parry’s ‘Jerusalem.’
Similarly, I am very much in favour of turning St George’s Day into a public holiday. Because of our Protestant heritage, we are woefully under-resourced on Bank Holidays compared to our Continental neighbours.
Quite rightly, the Scots have St Andrew’s Day, and England should have its own national Saint’s day Bank Holiday too.
A moment to celebrate our island’s histories, like Thanksgiving Day in America, and no doubt indulge in a range of classic English pursuits, from gardening to beer-drinking to football to music festivals.
I think it was our failure to understand this emerging landscape of identity politics that allowed our opponents to steal a march on us in the 2015 General Election. And as the only coherent political party who represented the entirety of Great Britain, it hurt us more than most.
Just as King Charles I was undone by the War of Three Kingdoms, Labour was pole-axed by an electoral map which had detached itself from any UK affiliation.
In Scotland, voters were told we would sell them out to the Tories.
In England, voters were told we would sell them out to the SNP.
It was a tag-team effort by David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon; a shameless marriage of convenience between lion and unicorn.
One can understand it from the separatists. But from the supposedly unionist Tories, stirring up latent English nationalism was a little more difficult to stomach.
Just as the Tories are more than willing to squander our relationship with Europe to massage internal party politics; so they were happy to undermine one of the most successful political unions in global history for narrow electoral advantage.
The only surprise is that we are ever surprised by them. But for far too long we have looked like a party who, when faced with such challenges, only wants to bury our head in the sand and hope that more favourable circumstances emerge.
We looked – and were – scared.
Scared of democracy. Scared of our people. Scared of allowing England to express itself.
So we must rid ourselves of these morbid symptoms.
No progressive party can thrive without optimism, hope and democratic confidence.
Yet even worse, a belief in democratic self-determination, in giving a voice to the powerless, is the core belief of an English radical tradition which stretches back centuries through the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Diggers and Levellers, Thomas More to John Ball’s radical lament:
When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
It was George Orwell’s finest political achievement to connect this radical English tradition to the socialism of the Labour Party. As Robert Colls has argued, he redefined Englishness on the left for a generation, turning English socialism from something you lived under into something that underpinned how you lived.
We need to do that all over again.
Orwell and the ‘Spirit of ’45’ should also remind us just how important patriotism is to this sense of ambition. Because Orwell’s patriotic vision of England in The Lion and the Unicornprovided the cultural mood music for Attlee’s government and its great reforming zeal.
Yes, you need the poetry of vision.
Yes, you need the pragmatism of policy.
But you also need the purpose of patriotism; the motivation behind the mission.
And in an age as sceptical and suspicious of political action as ours, we need it more than ever.
Because whilst I have deep misgivings about the direction the Party is taking under our current leadership, I am equally convinced that the technocratic ‘thin gruel’ we on the centre-left have presented to the British people in recent elections falls similarly short.
Short of what it takes to win elections. But, more importantly, short of what we need to win our war against 21st century inequality.
As the political philosopher Roberto Unger has put it, the modern centre left has often seemed “content to appear on the stage of contemporary history as humanisers of the inevitable”.
Or, to put it another way, people didn’t believe we were angry enough about the state of the world – the inequality; the impact of globalisation; the tax affairs of multi-nationals – or determined and capable enough to bring about real and lasting change that could make their lives better.
And I certainly count myself amongst the guilty in that context.
But when our forebears created a decent working week, secure employment rights, the welfare state, public education, the NHS, the minimum wage, slashed child poverty and secured a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ for millions upon millions of working people down the decades – we were far far more ambitious.
So my argument is not just that patriotism is compatible with social justice, but that in 21st century England they must embrace each other if either is to advance.
That for the Labour Party, our ability to build the sort of society we want to see;
– where your chances of getting on in life are not defined by the circumstances of birth or background;
– where there is a safety net which can provide everyone with a sense of security;
– where our responsibilities towards one another and our sense of solidarity are not strained by rampant inequality
…all of this depends upon rooting our politics in an inclusive, optimistic, civic patriotism.
And more specifically, I believe that we need to embrace a distinctive patriotism that is English. And Scottish. And Welsh.
Which, of course, is a profound challenge for an institution like the Labour Party where the culture, organisation and historical outlook are unmistakably British.
Perhaps even now some people may resist such a shift in our party – like the establishment of an English Labour Party – on the grounds it might imperil the Union.
But this is just the thing. I believe it is the only way to save it.
You have to remember the story the SNP peddles about England. It is not a direct, grievance-based attack. Rather, it is a myth of England as a reactionary nation; of English political sensibilities as hopelessly, incurably conservative.
And so, the argument follows, to free itself from the yoke of conservative hegemony, Scotland must become an independent nation.
It is a powerful message.
Oh, we can bang the drum for the security and social justice which British institutions can provide – the pound, the pensions, the armed forces, NHS, BBC and collective redistribution.
Yet with no compelling account of how that can be balanced and indeed strengthened by the Scottish peoples’ desire for more democracy, self-determination and autonomy, too often the separatists have the constitutional stage to themselves.
Now, it is certainly not my place to put forward policies to Scottish Labour or the Scottish people – though as a convert to a more federal structure for the UK, my sympathies are clear.
But one thing that does concern me is the democratic deficit we see between Scotland and England.
Not just in terms of powers and representation either, but also in terms of democratic culture.
Nobody who campaigned up in Scotland during the referendum could fail to be shaped by the experience.
It was to reconnect with the power and wonder of democracy; to see an entire nation debate and debate again its culture, its identity and every single aspect of its future.
I want that for England.
I want the English to experience the same kind of democratic awakening as we have seen in Scotland.
And I want Labour to lead it.
The Welsh and the Scots have been asked their views on the future of their nation three times since 1973. It’s high time the English were given a chance to have their say.
So let’s campaign for a referendum to ask England what she wants. But, much more importantly, let’s use it as an opportunity to have a broader debate about who we are as a nation, what we want from our politics.
More devolution to councils and city regions – with greater transparency and democratic input – is a given. And it remains an act of terrible political negligence to have allowed the Tories to steal the mantle of English devolution.
But I think Labour’s Constitutional Convention should advocate putting the English question to a vote. My instinct is that we need a proper English Parliament. But some prefer regional assemblies. And the jury is still out on the new English Votes for English Laws settlement – perhaps that could be deepened and strengthened.
But these are complex issues and no one can claim to have all the answers – so we should put all three on a ballot and let the English people decide. Because it is only through the big, broad, inclusive debate a referendum brings that we will arrive at the constitutional settlement both Britain and England need to thrive.
What I saw in Scotland shows that democracy and patriotism are the most powerful forces for renewing progressive politics.
Radical England is not the only England. But it is an England that has been marginalised for too long.
An important component of who we are as a people and a nation. The Labour Party needs to rouse the lion from its slumber. And the force we must use is democracy.
THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY
Yet clearly there are deeper forces at work in our defeat by Scottish and English nationalism than a lack of constitutional confidence. And so we should now turn to the depressing spectacle of European social democracy and our place within its travails.
Because what makes our predicament all the more febrile is the uneasy sense that what we have seen in the collapse of mainstream centre-left parties across Europe is a fundamental shift which could lock us out of power for a generation.
And, even worse, that the energy behind Europe’s nationalist surge will not content itself with parties that preach a relatively mild dose of the old religion, like the SNP, nor those who seek to channel it towards a more progressive populism, such as Podemos in Spain.
No, as we can see from the reaction to the ongoing migration tragedy, ugly nationalism is also on the rise. And I believe it to be intimately linked with our own deficiencies.
In particular, to four failings common to pretty much all European parties of the centre-left.
First – and foremost – our inability, pure and simple, to fulfil the basic promise of progressive politics and reduce inequality. Remember, way back in the late 1990s, social democrats were being elected everywhere.
It was a golden age, one which, according to the theories of Karl Polanyi, was entirely consistent with the habitual pendulum swings of the western social order. The rebirth of turbocharged, laissez-faire capitalism.
Which in turn is humanised and tempered by a revival in reforming social democracy. Yet as the Labour historian David Marquand warned us back in 1999: “everything depends on whether the antibody overcomes the infection”.
If we failed, he continued, then “religious fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, xenophobic nationalism, moral authoritarianism and the scapegoating of minorities” might offer “seductive” alternative escape routes from the “insecurity, injustices and tensions that untamed capitalism brings.”
Sadly, his prediction now seems painfully true.
Second, the combination of professionalised politics, the relative absence of working class representatives and the decline of collective institutions like the trade unions all combined to fray the relationship between mainstream centre-left parties and their communities.
Increasingly, we are dismissed as members of a remote and distant political class (and of course, I speak with some experience…). And though clearly this is a deeper dislocation – one which affects all mainstream parties not just those of the centre-left – the electoral evidence seems to suggest it hurts us more.
Third, we failed to react to the rise of issues of identity, culture and defending the national interest, as the overriding concerns of our voters – most obviously, on immigration.
And finally, fourth, these cultural questions have also transformed the character of European politics, particularly at an EU level, into one of national conflict not cooperation.
Despite all its shortcomings I believe the EU retains – and deserves – strong backing. Yet when it comes to the electoral crunch this sentiment does not translate into votes for the most consensual, pro-European parties.
In fact, quite the opposite: voters appear to be actively punishing centre-left parties for their conciliatory instincts.
The more troubling conclusion arises when we consider the specific condition of the Labour Party in England on each of these points.
And perhaps our biggest challenge concerns immigration. My starting point on immigration is a recognition that England is a very old country indeed, with some settled sense of itself stretching as far back as the 10th century.
That whilst England has indeed experienced waves of migration over the centuries, the speed and enormity of what has taken place over the last 20 years is markedly different and historically significant.
The post-2004 immigration influx is the biggest demographic surge in the history of England, creating the fastest growing population we have ever seen. The Labour government estimated we would see between five and thirteen thousand immigrants arrive a year from Eastern Europe following the A8 accession.
In fact the figure was around 120,000.
Meanwhile, between 2005 and 2007, whilst over half a million incomers found employment, more than a quarter of a million British workers lost theirs.
Of course there is no direct link between the jobs gained and those lost – many of those gained were in booming London whilst our deindustrialising heartlands suffered the most.
Nevertheless, what we have is a toxic political cocktail: communities, our communities, seeing their way of life change, believing their economic fortunes to be suffering and all because of a Labour policy for which consent was never sought – let alone given.
But even worse, we seemed determined to delegitimise and dismiss any complaints about it.
On the doorstep, whilst voters tried to tell us of their fears of change, culture, identity and place, we told them that immigration was a) good for them; b) unavoidable; and c) could all be dealt with via extra funds.
In short, we saw this as a question of investment, not identity.
This sense of two, incongruous worlds colliding was of course captured in that bizarre election stump moment when Gordon Brown privately described Mrs Gillian Duffy in Rochdale as ‘bigoted’ for expressing her concerns about Eastern European immigration.
Yet the truth is it wasn’t just Gordon who spoke that day. It was the entire Labour Party.
We had nothing to say to Mrs. Duffy and the millions of voters like her who, first and foremost, had sincere, legitimate worries about immigration – but on a more esoteric level were troubled by the loss of their England; of the erosion of the world they grew up and felt secure in.
I hear the same concerns in Stoke-on-Trent. An understandable and perfectly human fear about the rapid cultural and linguistic change they see in their community, alongside more bread and butter concerns about falling wage rates, housing and education pressures, and exclusive work agency contracts.
Let us again turn to Harlow and listen to the words of Suzy Stride:
“Some who had been directly affected [by immigration] raised concerns about economic impacts, but a good deal of our doorstep conversations centred on cultural concerns. Women considering voting UKIP would often talk about the pressure on services; different languages in their child’s school or the doctor’s waiting room. Many middle class Labourites scoffed at such views; “where would the NHS be without immigrants?” was a common response from canvassers.”
Now, there are no easy answers for Labour on immigration – and, in the light of the ongoing migration crisis, no easy answers for anybody.
But I believe we should continue to have a strict, fair and controlled immigration policy; ensure those who come here have the resources and language skills to succeed; prevent exploitation from unscrupulous importers of sub-minimum wage labour; limit benefits for EU nationals entering the country; and support student migration.
But my real call is for honesty: honesty about the speed and nature of the change we have seen; honesty about the fact that we are entering a world of massive migratory pressures and will be unable in the short term to reduce numbers to ‘the tens of thousands’; and honesty about what this means for a viable and equitable welfare state.
Politics is about leadership, and on this crucial question of immigration and Englishness this government is acting in a dangerously negligent fashion.
PRIDE IN MODERN ENGLAND
Now, we can all muse on the instrumental, political benefits of a more instinctively patriotic Labour Party – but it will come to naught if it does not seem natural.
In this age of authenticity, the English people can see straight through any attempts at confected sincerity. Our patriotism must come from the heart or not at all.
This should not be so difficult – the overwhelming number of Labour supporters I meet on doorsteps, in Stoke-on-Trent and throughout the country, are fiercely patriotic.
Proud to be British but – with no contradiction – prouder still to be English, Scottish or Welsh. Indeed, their patriotism provides one reason why they want to make this great country even better.
And why, to that end, so many of them choose to dedicate their lives to public service.
A love of country, of England and Great Britain, is certainly one of the reasons I entered politics.
For me, it is the landscape, history, culture, humour, and literature of this country which inspires me.
I was born a child of the Fens, in the University city of Cambridge; I spent much of my childhood exploring the wilds of Exmoor in Devon; and now I have the profound privilege of representing The Potteries – ‘that rugged pot-making spot of earth’ – of North Staffordshire.
I adore the industrial landscapes of Stoke-on-Trent Potbanks, Oldham mills, and Liverpool docks; the deep England of South Downs and North Downs; the wild England of Peaks and Lakes; the historic England of country houses, minsters and castles; the coastal England of Whitby, and Durdle Door and Margate.
But, today, I particularly relish the sense of fairness; good-humour; and social ease in which England and Britain manages to thrive. We should be deeply proud of our successful post-colonial settlement as a multi-cultural, multi-faith society.
Indeed, one of the more interesting and welcome developments of recent decades is a more racially inclusive sense of Englishness, one which no longer traps people of colour being forced to rely on a ‘civic’ sense of Britishness to balance their national identity with their ethnicity.
In the 1980s, Labour MP Bernie Grant declared that he called himself ‘British’ because “it includes other oppressed peoples, like the Welsh or the Scots. It would stick in my throat to call myself English.”
By contrast, the black journalist Gary Younge wrote in 2006 of a growing accommodation between blackness and Englishness.
Unlike the case in Scotland and Wales, “the apparently seamless link between Englishness and whiteness has long since broken… From pop to politics, cuisine to music, fashion to business, the black experience is now intimately interwoven into the fabric of English daily life.”
And whilst we cannot be too complacent – especially when disgraceful organisations like the English Defence League still use English symbolism as a veneer for racism – this, surely, is an English journey we can all take pride in.
Particularly as this kind of multicultural, inclusive, nation-building approach to politics is nearly always a component of electorally successful Labour projects.
Whether that is Roy Jenkins and multiculturalism in the 1960s, or Tony Blair’s modern social liberalism, our most successful Labour governments have always understood the need for a culturally compelling vision of the nation.
That need for nation-building is with us once again.
And our material ambitions on inequality, poverty and social justice, will ultimately depend upon it.
Let me end by returning to Orwell. He concludes The Lion and the Unicorn with a passionate demand for patriotic progress.
“We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.”
That was always at the core of Orwell’s vision: a deep love for England, alongside a sense of impatience, injustice, and anger at the waste and inequality.
He wanted to put power into the hands of “the heirs of Nelson and Cromwell,” who would now be found “in the fields and the streets, in the factories and armed forces, in the four ale bar and the suburban back garden.”
These were the “wholly necessary people” – the airmen and mechanics; the scientists and technicians; the chemists and teachers – who could be found, less in Winchester, more in the communities of the future: Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth and Hayes.
The genius of Orwell’s English socialism was an embrace of the future, predicated on a deep reverence for the past.
A paradoxical mix between radical, visionary hope and a conservative respect for English culture, which for Orwell proved that England was something worth fighting for.
This is, I think, something which speaks powerfully to our own age of globalisation, technological upheaval and rapid social change.
Because the only way we can approach this coming maelstrom and deliver a progressive future is with a clear and confident account of who we are.
The people we love. The culture we cherish. And the fairer, more equal country we are fighting for.
To achieve the kind of radical, transformational change the Labour Party first of all needs to start loving England.
And start showing that it does too.