For too long, one version of Englishness has dominated British politics. Proud, white, both confident and defensive, often xenophobic, always anti-Europe, this Englishness has changed as little as the tabloid front pages that have bellowed it out for decades. Brexit is one of its greatest victories. The continuing Conservative ascendancy is another.
Even formidable politicians of other parties have struggled to popularise a different national identity. Gordon Brown got lost in well-meaning but unconvincing generalities about the British national character: in 2007, he praised our “tolerance”, “decency”, and love of “fair play” and “liberty”.
Tony Blair tried to adopt the language of conservative patriotism for Labour’s own purposes. One of his election broadcasts in 1997 intercut promises of a national revival with footage of a waking bulldog. Labour won the election, but the idea that national pride could only be expressed through such dated Churchillian symbols was left unchallenged.
For anyone alienated – or worse – by the right’s continuing hold on our national identity, one of the frustrations is that for a long time, and in many ways, much of the country hasn’t resembled the tabloid England, if it ever did. Increasingly multicultural, globally connected and socially liberal, not reverent about the nation’s imperial past, and immersed instead in our cosmopolitan popular culture, tens of millions of people have been living out new forms of Englishness ever since the 1960s. The black British historian Paul Gilroy, no romantic about England, calls this the country’s “convivial” side. The components of this alternative Englishness have been there for decades – right under our noses. And yet they have rarely been put together by politicians.
Paradoxically, Brexit could change that. The disappearance of the EU bogeyman, or at least its diminution, removes much of what has energised conservative Englishness and held its factions together. Some predict that the right will simply replace its campaign against the EU with culture wars against liberal England. With all the recent rightwing attacks on anti-racism and “wokeness”, that shift in strategy appears well under way.
And yet, politically potent and socially destructive though such culture wars are, it may prove hard to define and maintain conservative Englishness purely by attacking English people rather than foreigners – by attacking the imperfect but clearly functional multicultural life of our towns and cities rather than caricatured bureaucrats in Brussels. And such culture wars risk making the diverse other England appreciate more clearly what it has in common. At the Black Lives Matter marches last summer, which were larger and more multiracial than many expected, you could sense the demonstrators and speakers looking round and thinking, “There are more of us than I thought.”
If this other Englishness is, finally, going to be properly represented at Westminster, then the Labour party is for now at least the only plausible vehicle – thanks to its size, relative diversity, and continuing strength in many of England’s towns and cities.
Yet making Labour think afresh about Englishness won’t be easy. So much of the party’s energy and talent has historically come from Scotland and Wales – and so associated has the politics of Englishness been with the right, and sometimes the far right, that often Labour leaders have avoided the subject of Englishness altogether.
But Brexit has made it harder for Labour to duck the issue. Scottish independence feels closer now that Britain has left the EU. If it happens, Labour will become even more dependent on English voters and MPs. And even if the Conservatives manage to deny Scotland another referendum, the battles required are likely to make them even more the party of aggressive English nationalism. Labour can’t realistically be that too – however much the party’s more right-curious figures, disproportionately focused on winning back patriotic voters in the “red wall”, may want to try. Trying to outbid the Tories on nationalism is likely to be as futile as trying to out-tough them on crime.
Instead, Labour will probably need to offer a different vision of England. At three of the last four general elections, the Conservatives have won at least 100 more English seats than Labour. One of the Tories’ most effective tactics has been to warn that, in the event of a hung parliament, Labour would form a coalition with the SNP – in other words, that a Labour government would be insufficiently English. If the Tories wheel out their Labour-SNP scare stories at the next election, Labour could do with having a story to tell about modern England.
The Cool Britannia phase of Tony Blair’s government, when Noel Gallagher was invited to Downing Street in 1997 and “creative industries” became a ministerial cliche, is usually remembered now as a cautionary tale about the danger of mixing politicians with pop stars (Gallagher later bragged that he’d taken cocaine in a Downing Street toilet). But at the time, it also felt like a breakthrough. At long last, a government was recognising the importance of popular culture – and by implication, of modernising what our national identity was about. Cool Britannia certainly did New Labour no harm at the ballot box. At the 2001 election, it won 158 more English seats than the Conservatives.
During the best moments of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, there was again a sense that Labour was taking energy from alternative forms of Englishness – not just the old dissenting tradition that Corbyn embodied, but the modern lives of many young people and minorities. In the crowd at a Corbyn rally, you saw a different England to the one idealised by the tabloids.
Yet this England wasn’t big enough for Labour to win. And the other England is resilient: a large minority of voters still crave Boris Johnson’s English nationalism, despite all the disappointments and disasters it brings.
Social change, such as the increasing ethnic-minority population, may decisively weaken the old Englishness in the end. But social change can be slow and unpredictable. A new Englishness will probably only displace the old if there is enough political will.
In the middle of a pandemic, with US democracy under attack, and the UK visibly fragmenting, the future of Englishness may seem an irrelevance, especially if you’re a Scot anticipating independence. But the attempted insurrection in Washington shows what can happen when the right considers its version of what a country is to be both seriously threatened and sacrosanct.
England isn’t that divided yet. But the nature of Englishness matters – not least because a less prickly and entitled version would be better for our neighbours. And it might even stop a lot of the English from feeling like foreigners in their own land.