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

Owen Jones
Friday 08 June 2012 11:52

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.

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