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: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back