Owen Jones: The incoherence of
Englishness, and why Ed Miliband's
England is a lost country

Labour would do better to champion the interests of

the working people it was set up to represent

Share
Related Topics

What does it mean to be English? I've asked strangers and friends this question a number of times, and the standard response has been a blank face. Yesterday, I posed the question on Twitter (disclaimer: not a scientific polling method), and was inundated with hundreds of replies. Barely anybody attempted to define what Englishness was: a few suggested football, queuing and tea. I can certainly identify with the last: I am never going on holiday without a bag of PG Tips ever again.

No other demographic in Britain spends more time mulling over what "Englishness" means than a well-connected coterie of think-tankers, political advisers and certain academics. Their efforts came to full fruition yesterday with Ed Miliband's much-trailed speech on Englishness. "Presidential State of the Union speeches are less worked on this one," one Labour MP told me. It is an intervention that bears the hallmarks of Jon Cruddas, the new head of Labour's policy review. Labour politicians had "been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character," Miliband argued, for fear of undermining the Union and being tarred with racist nationalism.

The Labour leadership is talking about Englishness for a number of reasons. Firstly, they lack a coherent narrative, or "story", as some advisers put it. How the next Labour government would meet people's need for jobs, housing and good wages is unclear. With "Englishness", the party offers a "story" to fill that vacuum. But it is also tapping into a perceived surge in a sense of English identity, driven by devolution in Scotland and Wales. A report by the IPPR earlier this year revealed that 17 per cent of people in England rejected the "British" label altogether in favour of "English"; and nearly a quarter opted for "more English than British".

That doesn't mean "Englishness" is a priority for most: I doubt many spend much of their life thinking about it unless asked. Bread-and-butter issues, particularly at a time of economic crisis, are more pressing, and Labour has to answer them if it is to claw back some of the five million voters who abandoned the party during its 13 years in office. The report hinted at tensions within England, too: nearly nine out of 10 Northerners felt London was one of the regions the Government best looked after, compared with just 1 per cent who felt the same about the North-west or Northeast. But it is certainly true that nationalism has been on the rise across Britain, and it's not just down to devolution.

Partly, it is the consequence of a decline in traditional forms of belonging. A sense of working-class pride has been battered over the past 30 years. Nearly half of workers were members of trade unions in the late 1970s; it is little over a quarter today, and unions are less relevant in people's everyday lives. The sense of solidarity they provided was never replaced. The old industrial jobs were often dirty and backbreaking, as well as often excluding women. But there was a sense of pride attached to working in a mine or a dock; that is often missing for those who, for example, stack shelves at Tesco. You don't have communities based around supermarkets or call centres as you might have had with, say, a steelworks.

Much of the left has traditionally been wary of nationalism precisely because of a belief that working people share common interests; nations just divide them up. "The workers have no country", as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto. "We cannot take from them what they have not got." When the First World War broke out a generation after Marx's death, a large chunk of his European followers wrapped themselves in their respective flags and cheered on as millions of working-class people were sent by their rulers to slaughter each other.

But Marx and Engels were right: it is our conflicting interests that make national identity so problematic. A supermarket checkout worker in Manchester has more in common with a call centre worker in Aberdeen – or Paris or Athens, for that matter – than, say, a hedge-fund manager or globe-trotting billionaire based in London.

We have a habit of airbrushing our nation's history, too. A big part of it involved the horrors of Empire. Turkey is often assailed for not acknowledging the Armenian genocide, but most of us aren't even aware of the deaths of millions of Indians under English (and Scottish and Welsh) rule, as detailed by Mike Davis's book Late Victorian Holocausts.

We also hear a lot about the sacrifices made fighting against external threats; but a big part of our history was English people struggling against each other for their freedom – the oppressed versus the oppressor. To be fair, Miliband hinted at it in his speech. It goes back to the Peasants' Revolt against the remnants of feudalism in the 14th century; the English Revolution of the 1640s, in which we deposed of our king 150 years before the French; the Chartists of the 19th century, who were the world's first working-class movement; the suffragettes; early trade unionists; the anti-fascists who said "they shall not pass" to Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in the 1930s; and so on.

There is no coherent or cohesive "Englishness". It is a catch-all term for all those who live in England's borders, who have a range of identities, interests and histories. Other than newspaper columnists like myself, I doubt most will spend much time musing over Ed Miliband's thoughts on Englishness. Labour would do better to talk about championing the interests of the people it was set up to represent: working people, regardless of their national affiliations.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory