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.