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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us