A report from the IPPR festival of Englishness: How can we rescue 'England' from the far right?

Is the year of the English upon us? And what will it mean?

Share

Walking into a festival of Englishness on Saturday, called ‘England, My England’ and held in a lecture hall decked with bunting, I was a little uneasy. But this anxiety, along with my furtive glances around the two hundred or so attendees for any telltale English Defence League thugs, only confirmed my reasons for coming. This was part of the festival’s aim: to help reclaim Englishness from the far right, along with the still toxic St George's Flag. Hosted by two think tanks, the centre-left IPPR and British Future, the festival brought together a motley mix of politicians, policy makers, poets, sports writers, comedians and campaigners to ask a daunting question: What is Englishness today, and what do we want it to be?

The all-day event opened with Tory MP John Redwood and Jon Cruddas, head of Labour's policy review, in discussion with journalist Suzanne Moore. Each had chosen one object that for them best represented the nation. They chose a cricket ball, PJ Harvey's album 'Let England Shake' and 'My England', a 1930s book imagining a future socialist state. It’s not hard to guess which was whose. Suzanne Moore had never even held a cricket ball. While Cruddas called for a “national renewal”, the ideas of Englishness expressed were so diverse that it was tempting just to give up and go. After all, as Redwood claimed, weren't the English happy with an understated, muddle-through identity that doesn't need shouting from the rooftops?

There are many reasons not to shout about England: our post-imperial legacy of guilt and decline, the fear of fuelling nationalist extremism, the belief amongst the Westminster class that any talk of self-determination will necessarily undermine the Union. But while the mainstream remains silent, the void has been filled by the likes of the EDL and British Nationalist Party and, much more worryingly, the populist nationalism trumpeted by Nigel Farage. “We don't know how to have the conversation,” Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, explains, “London generally, but especially the culture-makers, are still uncomfortable with a conversation that has already started and has been going on for years.” Katwala believes it can no longer be avoided. In less than a year the Scots will vote on independence, while the rising Eurosceptic tide makes the future role of England in the world increasingly uncertain. “We are approaching the year of the English,” says Labour MP John Denham. “I don't want the Englishness to emerge to be defined by the right.”

Yet time is running out. English identity is on the rise, with sixty per cent of people in England now identifying as solely English. It was IPPR whose recent research showed UKIP is benefitting, as the party judged most likely to represent English interests. Look at the other main parties and it’s no wonder. Even Cruddas, who has long been pushing Labour to recognize the issue, admitted that he felt his English identity had to be “exiled” when he joined the London political class.

It’s clear that we can’t rely on politicians alone to confront the English question. The festival is admirable for attempting to bring the conversation out of policy meetings and towards some kind of civic engagement. I enjoyed the afternoon on English culture, humour and sport: if Goodness Gracious Me, The Office and underdog sports hero “Eddie the Eagle” are our national gems, surely we can celebrate Englishness while still laughing at ourselves. Yet it also showed how far we have to go. It was revealing that the writer Linda Grant, born in Liverpool to Jewish immigrant parents, said she couldn’t write the “great English novel” as she didn’t understand the countryside, our “green and pleasant land”. We need a cultural renewal of Englishness, one that embraces Grant’s novels, before we can properly tackle the minefield of political representation.

After the London launch, the festival will travel to Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle. It is one small step towards developing a broad, inclusive, cross-party conversation on what it means to be English today. Yet there is only so much two London-based think tanks can achieve. The real conversation will be happening in pubs, living rooms and offices across the country – and contested in violent clashes on our streets. We are approaching the year of the English. Better raise your voice now, before you don’t like what you hear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russell Brand joins residents and supporters from the New Era housing estate in East London as they deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street  

With Russell Brand and the public on our side, this is how I helped my family and countless others from being evicted this Christmas

Lindsey Garrett
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick