Niki Seth-Smith says the political left need to sieze control of the English identity question
I identify as English, first and foremost. Even now, I get defensive writing this, because I also identify as left-wing. Faced with those of a similar political persuasion, I feel the need to justify myself, distancing my sense of ‘Englishness’ from the history of Empire, from tea-and-scones nostalgia, and ultimately guarding myself from accusations of racism. But English identity has never belonged to the right, and this is becoming increasingly clear as a greater proportion of the country’s population from across the political spectrum, are coming to see themselves as English rather than British.
The 2011 census showed a marked strengthening of English identity over the last decade, with 60 per cent of people in England defining themselves as solely English. Such data is often disregarded, with some cause. How much do people honestly reflect before they tick a box? What does ‘being English’ convey anymore? But the rise of Englishness today is about more than a cultural badge. It is for many an increasingly political choice, and is prompting a battle for hearts and minds that the left is only now beginning to recognise.
England’s demand for greater political recognition is nothing new. Since 1997 and devolution, English voters have argued that the constitutional settlement is unfair. But while a yawn was once the time-honoured response to the West Lothian Question (that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get to vote on laws affecting England, while the English have no say on devolved matters), today this does not seem so technical. The majority of people in England want more power over the country. The IPPR Future of England report has described “a transformation which is bringing England and Englishness to the fore as a political community and political identity”.
It is the populist and far right that are today gaining from this transformation. Take a look at some of the key reasons cited by the English majority disaffected with the British status quo (this 2012 IPPR report gives you the hard stats). There is a strong current of belief that England is getting a ‘raw’ deal from its position in the Union; that English taxpayers are funding decadent public spending north and west of the border; that England is ceding its sovereignty, if not its identity. Sound familiar? This is textbook UKIP. In fact, the relation between anti-Union and anti-EU sentiment is a close one. The more English someone feels, the more likely they are to believe that England is getting a bad deal from its membership of both the EU and the United Kingdom.
It seems bizarre that UKIP could play the role of an English nationalist party. After all it’s not called EIP. Indeed, for years it was the party line that greater English self-determination would only weaken the Union and play into the hands of Brussels. But their position has changed. In 2011, Farage made a big appeal to the Englishness vote. At conference, he told a packed crowd of the party faithful that “the English feel put upon”, while political leaders “reel in horror at the idea of the cross of St George”. He promised that UKIP would restore “the self-respect and pride that they so desperately need and deserve” and announced that the party would be campaigning for an English Parliament. Not only was this best for the English, according to Farage, but it was the only way to keep the Union together. Otherwise, the English would wave goodbye to Scotland before the Scots had even made up their minds. This was greeted by the party faithful with a hearty cheer. Since then, the proposal for an English parliament has run into trouble (this video of a party debate in Skegness gives a window into the in-fighting). However, it achieved the right effect. Since then, the number of English people who see UKIP as the “party that best stands up for English interests” has more than doubled, with the three main parties lagging behind.
It’s easy for Labour supporters, and any of us rooting for Cameron’s downfall, to watch in smug satisfaction as the UKIP surge grows. Those switching from Labour or Lib Dem to Farage’s party are still a slim minority, while 60 per cent voted Conservative in the last general elections. We can rub our hands, can’t we, that UKIP has 21 per cent in recent polls, only 5 per cent behind the Conservatives, splitting the right-wing vote and giving Labour a cool 37 per cent? But this is a dangerously naïve outlook. Whatever the outcome of the next general election, England is in dicey waters if its growing desire for expression continues to be channelled by UKIP, which is rapidly moving to become the legitimate, mainstream face of English nationalism.
For it is an England of blood that Farage is peddling, just as much as the country of waistcoats and warm bitter. While the party may be too much of a political hydra to be categorised within the far right, its promise of England is one of ethnic, not civic nationalism. We see this in the party’s relationship with the English Defence League, which officially endorsed UKIP in April, much to the (at least public) dismay of Farage. Many UKIP supporters unofficially took part in the EDL parades that followed the Woolwich murder. Farage was quick to call for ‘calm’ and sent a personal message to the rank and file, asking them not to comment. But we got a taste of what those comments might have been earlier that month, when a UKIP councillor was expelled for saying that Islam was ‘a cancer’ that needed to be ‘cured with radiation’. Farage cannot stem the constant drip-feed of racist scandal. Nevertheless, he is attempting to move further into the centre and appeal to a constituency of voters repelled by explicit racism, but deeply unhappy with England’s position in the Union and in Europe.
From where does this sense of grievance spring? In dismissing UKIP as ‘clowns’ and ‘fruitcakes’, Cameron and his party made the mistake they are now ruefully regretting – of judging the party on its policies, rather than on the emotions it elicits and feeds upon. Whether wrangling over the West Lothian question or denouncing the ‘EU enforced’ smoking ban, the common theme is a loss of power and sovereignty. England is the embattled nation, with Farage the little man standing up to enemies and infiltrators, whether these be Eurocrats, immigrants or the pro-independence Scots that Farage labelled ‘fascist scum’ in his dramatic confrontation north of the border last May. The prospect of the end of the Union that began with the treaty of 1707 is held up as yet another sign that good old Blighty, with the English at the helm, is in a state of terminal decline, undermined from all sides. The importance of nostalgia to UKIP’s vision of a lost England/Britain is reflected in the party followers, who are twice as likely to be over 60 than the general population. Only 15 per cent of voters are under 40, and they are desperate to fill the ranks of their Young Independence youth wing.
UKIP may well be a party of the past, supported by the older generation, but that does not mean that it is no threat to the future. That is, unless a progressive vision of an inclusive contemporary English identity is allowed room for expression. So where is the left in this debate? The vast majority of people who self-define as English reject the narrow, ethnic nationalism offered by UKIP. I count myself among them. How has the populist right been allowed to annex this fertile political terrain?
This is not simple incompetence on the part of the parliamentary left. The causes are rooted at least as far back as the British imperial project, when England was the anchor for a global empire that spanned a quarter of the world’s surface. England has long been the silent heart of a ‘greater’ project, the country that dare not speak its name. As David Goodhart put it in a recent essay, Englishness is a bit like Boris Johnson. “Dominance is more efficiently achieved if it is less visible,” says Goodhart. “…consider Boris Johnson’s disarmingly bumbling manner as an effective front for a highly intelligent and ambitious man, and think how typically English it feels.” England, with Westminster at its heart alongside the City of London, has benefited from this invisible dominance. Its power has resided precisely in its assumed hegemony over ‘the nations’ and historically over the Empire.
The British Labour Party, as part of the Westminster establishment, is complicit in this and wishes to retain its sovereignty over the Union in its entirety. Of course, there may be justified fears of a ‘forever Tory’ England, but these disguise a much more fundamental instinct simply not to cede control. The big picture since devolution in 1997 sees the English question repeatedly ignored, dismissed and repressed by parties across the left-right spectrum. In this respect Farage is justified in claiming to be waging a war against the London political class. We all know that the private school City boy is hardly the anti-élite politician he claims to be, yet UKIP is representing a wave of English popular sentiment that has long been ignored inside the Westminster bubble.
That said, Labour has been quicker than the other parties to wake up to the fact that saving the Union may in fact entail acknowledging this problem. Since taking the leadership, Miliband has endeavoured to voice a ‘progressive’ Englishness. Last summer, amidst the wave of patriotic spirit brought on by the Jubilee and the Olympics, he delivered a speech designed to open a conversation on England, admitting that “the Labour party have been too reluctant to talk about Englishness”.
The rhetoric of a ‘proud’ Englishness that rejects ‘narrow nationalism’ and embraces dual and multiple identities is the right vocabulary and while ‘beginning to talk about England’ maybe a pitifully slow start, it is miles ahead of the Prime Minister. The Conservatives have been hugely neglectful, resting on their laurels as the traditional party of nationalist sentiment while their voters flock over to UKIP. Last St George’s day, Boris Johnson staged an unprecedented mini festival, even going so far as to wrap himself in the once-toxic English flag to prance around Trafalgar Square. Such small concessions may be tried, but it’s no wonder that the Tories rank lower than Labour as being trusted to stick up for England – this despite their demographics as a clear majority English party, with only one Scottish MP. The Lib Dems, predictably, aren’t even in the race.
Any political vacuum is dangerous, as is the rush to fill it. The next four years, whatever Scotland decides and whether or not we have an EU referendum, will destabilise England and its place in the world. Labour has begun to outline a story of England that is civic, inclusive and genuinely multicultural. Too little, too late, but at least it is a beginning. The rise in Englishness needs to be acknowledged and confronted by the parliamentary left. If not, UKIP’s nostalgic vision of an England of ‘blood and bitter’ is likely to hold sway. The left needs to grab the microphone from Nigel Farage today, before he becomes the voice for England.