St George’s Day within the political circles has become time for talking about reconnecting or celebrating English identity, nationhood and being a patriot. It’s the time of the year when a good portion of the left suddenly feels like strangers to the country, and to a good part of the society it claims to represent.
It’s been done to the death, but really, we still need essays on the absence of patriotic, communitarian leftism, a void that hasn’t been filled by the Labour Party in the slightest, but will be crucial if they ever hope to reclaim working-class towns that they have lost, and become the party of both the Remain and Leave voters (evangelical voters aside).
There are a lot of reasons why the left hasn’t been in government since 2010 but a good chunk of it surely has to be that the Labour Party, and the wider left, is no longer perceived as the party of the English. Some of this abdication is actually stemming from causes that the left is correct to fight, such as rights of migrant workers, justice for refugees and wishing to address institutional racism within society. But if the party is completely hollowing out English patriotism, it suffers in elections.
A survey by BBC found that 80% of people identify strongly as being English. In 2015, Ed Miliband was seen to be in a coalition with Scottish nationalists and witnessed a devastating Ukip surge in English heartlands in the north that led to a concession of seats to the Tories. In the EU referendum, Leave positioned itself as the authentic voice of the working-class England. This dynamic cannot be emphasised enough. Research by LSE found that there was a significant link between strong identification with England (70%) and voting for Leave. Or at least, perceptions of what Englishness was.
This should not be such a surprise, nor a point of scorn for the modern-day left. Nationhood appeals to human beings’ natural gravitation towards tribal solidarity and the sense of belonging and history it can create. England is a land but it is also the centuries of rich history for good and bad, which people feel part of. There’s an underpinning sense of cultural solidarity here that shouldn’t be seen as antithetical to an open, inclusive socialist concept of England but rather rooted in the heart of it. What we are left with otherwise, is a socialism that is lacking in heart and soul, that cannot appreciate the attachment to home and the sense of community it creates, but one that instead regards people as simply motivated by material security.
The inability to articulate a vision of a patriotic socialist England derives from the immediate association of the English flag with the far-right, and with the country’s dark relationship with racism and colonialism. Emily Thornberry once tweeted an unfortunate confirmation of the suspicions that the left just hated the English and their white vans. But through this, the left conceded what it meant to be English to the far-right. And they will always define Englishness through the exclusive membership of ethnicity. Small wonder then, that more minorities identify with Britain (despite it being the British Empire and not the English) because they regard it as more open and inclusive. The BBC survey found that of those who identify strongly as English over British, diversity is only cherished as important by a third as compared to two-thirds for those who identify first as being British.
Similarly, in Scotland there’s less conflict between minorities balancing dual identities. They often see themselves as Scottish Asian for example, because there’s a perceived pluralism about Scottish nationalism, set against the supposed hostility of Englishness.
The refusal to challenge this is severely damaging politics in England and leaving it in the hands of a Tory party that does not care about poverty or homelessness in England. Nor about how half the country is owned by less than 1% of the population. Negotiating identity today is complex, but being English and being a brown Muslim should be seen as perfectly compatible, able to exist in harmony. I wrote about how last year, the World Cup had a transformative effect in making me identify as English, as opposed to British.
There are movements in the Labour Party which are exploring this renewal with our national identity. The English Labour Network is a fascinating coalition of MPs, councillors and activists united by a shared belief in a more equal and fairer Britain. It’s a project aimed at the idea of civic nationalist values, of promoting a more inclusive concept of patriotism. The group Blue Labour were also previously doing this, but have lately veered into uncomfortable waters over nationhood and racism.
If we push for a space in which being English is defined as love of English culture and the land’s institutions and values, rather than place of birth and ancestry, then we can explore an England that is open, tolerant and inclusive. An England of Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, working-class and middle-class. One that binds itself to each through a sense of mutual generosity and solidarity. This is the England that I want to live in where a brand of communitarian socialism can thrive in. But only, if we make a genuine case for being English, and actually mean it.