Englishness Matters and Politicians Should Embrace It

Some people in the Westminster bubble may not like the concept of Englishness. But shuddering and turning away cannot be an option for Tory or Labour politicians still struggling to win the votes of the patriotic football crowds.

As England expects ahead of our showdown with Italy on Sunday, Englishness is back in vogue amongst political circles. As the St George's Crosses pop up at pubs and houses across the country, senior politicians, notably Ed Miliband, have started to talk about the concept of Englishness and what it means for politics.

Miliband's speech was the subject of plaudits and brickbats from across the political spectrum. The criticism on the left is particularly interesting and, arguably, says a lot about the state of today's Labour Party.

According to Owen Jones, author of Chavs, "there is no coherent or cohesive 'Englishness'." As ever, Owen is lucid and fascinating but, in this case, he is wrong.

There is such a thing as Englishness and politicians and opinion formers would be well served by remembering that.

He suggests that, "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." In saying that, he's almost proving my point.

The well-connected coterie that he mentions may strive to analyse what 'Englishness' is, but venture outside of the Westminster bubble and there's little doubt that a sense of Englishness exists. There's certainly a strong sense that Englishness matters in those working class areas that Owen, rightly, suggests have been been neglected for too long.

If you went into a pub in most parts of England outside of Westminster and suggested there was no such thing as Englishness, I imagine that people would laugh into their pints.

The fact that people in the Westminster bubble want to analyse and sometimes deny Englishness shows that too many of them don't understand it.

If the Westminster bubble wants to deny Englishness, is it any wonder that, according to our recent 'Northern Lights' research, more than eight out of ten people think that politicians "don't understand the real world at all". To most people in England, Englishness exists, it's a positive force and being English is something to be proud of. The recent Jubilee celebrations show that patriotism remains a powerful and unifying force.

And there's plenty of polling evidence that Englishness exists too. British Future recently did a survey with YouGov on this topic. The poll found that 18 per cent of people in England regard themselves as more English than British, 43 per cent felt equally English and British and 19 per cent felt English, not British. So there's clearly a strong sense of Englishness throughout England.

What does this clear sense of Englishness really mean? Of course, Englishness is a sense of belonging and a sense of place and patriotic feeling often defies intellectualising or excessive definition, but there are plenty of common threads to Englishness. Orwell called it an "unconscious patriotism" and he had a point.

The first is the concept of the "freeborn Englishman" - an idea popularised by the Levellers, with its roots in the Magna Carta. It's a romantic but important concept that Englishness is rooted in freedom and liberty, something ingrained in the soil. The concept is that a freeborn Englishman has fundamental liberties that should not be trammelled by higher authority- it is an idea that you hear regularly in debate even today. Alongside this belief in English liberty is what Orwell described as a "respect for constitutionalism and legality".

These liberties are expressed through its Parliament. Michael Foot rightly said that, "no comparable institution... has shaped so continuously the life and society of any Western European state." And John Lilburne, the great Leveller talked of "the free Commons of England - the real and essential body politic."

The second is the English language. Just as the French see their language as part of their identity, so the English see their language as part of theirs. There is great pride in its influence and its beauty, from Shakespeare and Byron to Blake. Eighty nine per cent of English people in the You Gov poll felt proud of the English language and think it plays an important part in their sense of Englishness. There are other elements of Englishness. The gift of English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally remains distinctively English, whilst absorbing influences from around the world. The idea of the English pub, the unique beauty and diversity of the English countryside and, yes, tea, football and cricket all play a part.

Politicians used to understand this sense of Englishness. Attlee quoted Blake about, "building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land"; the idea of a new Jerusalem was fundamental to his Government. As Brian Brivati suggests, a sense of patriotism was crucial to a whole generation of post war Labour figures, believing that their country was "special because of its history and political system."

Some modern political figures still understand this sense of patriotism felt instinctively in most of the country. Jon Cruddas, for example, has spoken about the importance of Englishness and tradition:

"a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one's neighbourhood. England once had this kind of conservative, common culture; it acted as a counter to the commodification of labour and to social isolation... At one time Labour gave expression to this kind of conservatism. "

But too many people in politics, on both left and right, don't understand the importance of this Englishness and this patriotism. It isn't a narrow nationalism based on exclusion of the 'other'. It's a patriotism that is not negative or exclusive, but is rooted in pride in country.

People are right that politicians should be focusing on the squeeze in cost of living and in creating jobs and growth. But that doesn't mean that policy makers should reduce man to the homo economicus that the Marxist left and neo-liberal right have so regularly reduced us too. A sense of belonging and patriotism is real, it is important and it shouldn't just be ignored or wished away.

At the moment, pubs and homes across England are covered in the St George's Cross - with a real sense of Englishness - as part of England's Euro 2012 campaign.

The denial of this Englishness amongst parts of the Westminster commentariat is reminiscent of a conversation between Hugh Dalton and GDH Cole, recorded in Dalton's diary. Dalton suggested that "Labour would only win power with the votes of the football crowds." In response to this, "Cole shuddered and turned away."

Some people in the Westminster bubble may not like the concept of Englishness. But shuddering and turning away cannot be an option for Tory or Labour politicians still struggling to win the votes of the patriotic football crowds.


What's Hot