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Orwell's England is One the Left Should Appeal To

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Seemingly from the newly dusted-off textbook of Jon Cruddas, Ed Miliband took the opportunity on Thursday to "talk up" England, noting that Englishness had been overlooked in the ongoing debate over Scottish independence.

Labour, he said, should not be afraid to talk about England's national identity. "We in the Labour Party," he continued "have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years...some people in England felt Labour's attention had turned away."

Indeed this echoed Cruddas' recent Roscoe Lecture, delivered at Liverpool John Moores University in March this year on Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. The Book, as he referred to it throughout, "in a profound way - shines a light on what Labour has become today; on what it has lost: its ordinariness; its Englishness."

The question doing the rounds on Twitter is whether the political left can have any truck with something avowedly pegged on national identity. Owen Jones in his column for the Independent points out that "it is our conflicting interests that make national identity so problematic". "Englishness", he goes on to say is neither "coherent [n]or cohesive".

But the authority on Englishness (and socialism) would have something to say about this opinion. In one of the great lines from The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell hollers:

There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging 'democracy', standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Orwell's democratic England is of course a socialist one: the socialism of "justice and common decency"; the socialism of the "English genius". And for Orwell the ruling class had betrayed that genius.

In Englishness, Orwell referred to three interconnected elements: 1) a national character as a general concept; 2) that distinct character including a lack of capacity for abstract thought (in art/philosophy), tradition of respect for law, constitutionality, and an absence of militarism; and 3) that it be noted that this character is timeless.

So two things can be edged out of Orwell's appeal to Englishness, namely that in order maintain political freedom we must utilise what is great about the English national character and, further, though England itself may change over the time the English character remains timeless.

Moreover, rather than conflicting class interests being a barrier to national identity, the ruling class are in fact betraying an already existing Englishness found among decent common men and women.

In effect, what Orwell is saying is Englishness is a coherent, tangible thing; but the ruling class is profoundly distinct from it.

England is all the things Orwell said it was - armchairs, mint sauce, marmalade, the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, pin-tables in Soho pubs, old maids hiking to Holy Communion, rich slices of Yorkshire pudding in an Englishman's home - and I think Miliband is right to sing its praises.

Around the Web

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