Can Englishness be re-claimed from the populist right? In this extract from Breaking up Britain Mark Perryman suggests what the key features of a post-Union progressive English identity would be.
In disentangling our Englishness from a Britishness which has denied the Scots and Welsh their independence we have the opportunity to achieve a progressive national settlement for ourselves. George Monbiot describes both the process and the outcome. ‘ Three nations in the United Kingdom, as a result of one of this government's rare progressive policies, now possess a representative assembly. The fourth, and largest, England, does not. England, the great colonising nation, has become a colony.' A populist right defines the colonisation of England in terms of a Scottish raj, they detest an ungrateful nation on our northern border and want nothing to do with the continent except cheap holidays and bottles of plonk while proposing to erect barriers to keep out asylum-seekers and migrant workers.
The political theorist Chantal Mouffe describes the context in which a response devoid of a progressively popular alternative is provided. ‘ So far the answer has been completely inadequate because it has mainly consisted in moral condemnation. Of course, such a reaction fits perfectly with the dominant post-political perspective and it had to be expected. Given that politics had supposedly become "non-adversarial" the frontier between us and them constitutive of politics can only be drawn in the moral register.' Chantal describes the likely consequences of such a failing, ‘ If a serious attempt is not made to address the democratic deficit that characterises the "post-political" age that neo-liberal hegemony has brought about, and to challenge the growing inequalities it has created, the diverse forms of resentment are bound to persist.'
England's populist right, best characterised by an ugly mixture of Kelvin Mckenzie, Richard Littlejohn, Garry Bushell and Jeremy Clarkson, define their Englishness against the soggy social-democracy they blame on Scotland and its representatives in Labour's Cabinet. For McKenzie Scottish independence can't come soon enough, ‘ A sick and skint nation, and the sooner we take them off the payroll the better.' While Littlejohn is scathing in his contempt for Brownite Labour's celebration of Britishness, ‘ They believe we can all be brought together at one giant, multi-culti Union Jack-bedecked, Knees-up, Gordon Brown love-in, complete with organic chicken tikka and lo-alcohol scrumpy.' Bushell blasts Labour's devolution for failing to satisfy England, ‘ The English put up with a lot, but there is a limit to how long the people of the UK's biggest and richest country will suffer being treated like second-class citizens.' And Clarkson doesn't like much of what the combined forces of immigration, Europe and devolution have done to our culture either ‘ There's a mosque at the end of your street and a French restaurant next door. We are neither in nor out of Europe. We are famous for our beer but we drink in wine bars. We live in a United Kingdom that's no longer united.'
Anti-Scottish, and the Welsh don't fare much better, more than a tinge of racism, against Europe, and an anger focused on an out of touch political class. Its an explosive mix, so what might a progressive English politics moulded by the break-up look like?
First it will be founded on a commitment to England being an active partner in the break-up, welcoming and supporting the civic nationalism being crafted by politicians and civil society the other side of our borders. By recognising the democratic alternative of independence to the archaic and deferential imperial British state we create for ourselves a vision of England after Britain. And that means a break with the politics of Brownite Labour. Since Gordon's elevation to the leadership Labour has deepened a commitment to Britishness which began with the "Cool Britannia" era of Blair's post-landslide afterglow. Tom Nairn describes the ideological role of this commitment‘ In 1997 an effective over-arching belief system was urgently needed, above all by a movement then unused to office. Party survival itself prompted this compensation, rather than popular belief. But still, a declining or contested (British) nationalism offered a far stronger chance of redemption than a socialism ailing unto death all around the globe.' Blairism began by misunderstanding the dynamics of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, believing that devolution could be the buttress on which to build a new Britain in the image of new Labour's conservative modernity . And Brown, learning nothing from the impact of devolution seeks to see off the threat of a break-up with a Britishness that he has conjured out of misrrepresenting civic nationalism. ‘We will all lose if politicians play fast and loose with the Union and abandon national purpose to a focus on what divides. All political parties should learn from past mistakes: it is by showing what binds us together that we will energise the modern British patriotic purpose we should all want to see.' Brown reveals a willful misunderstanding of what constitutes a ‘national purpose'. For a sizeable chunk of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, and now their legislatures too, there is a national purpose alright, its to the left of Labour and it no longer defines itself as British. There is not much of a single British national purpose anymore, but neither except for some fringe elements is their a lot of energy for the ghoulful threat of hatred and division that Brown seeks to summon up.
Second, an English politics that happily co-exists with other nations' breaking up Britain will need a vision for its own national settlement. This is bound to be influenced by those new institutions on our borders, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. The foundation of each revealed a glaring democratic deficit. Despite new Labour's antipathy for proportional representation for Westminster all three are elected under this system producing a legislature much more representative of the electorate's will than the one we're lumbered with at Westminster. The system whilst not obscuring the necessities of adversarial politics at the same times encourages coalition-building where parties share a broadly similar policy agenda. And furthermore despite new Labour's likewise opposition to Westminster having fixed term parliaments all three have precisely this as a statutory right. Significantly weakening the power of the majority party to set the election date to best suit their own electoral fortunes. At the very least reproducing these two vital changes that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have already seen the benefits of, producing a more representative, co-operative and accountable model of governance, should be the basis of England's own democratic settlement.
Third we have already entered an era in which environmental politics have acquired an increasing importance, whilst climate change threatens to reach crisis proportions in the relatively near future. Civic nationalism at its best combines a politics of friends of the earth, the country, the landscape, the habitat that we call home. With a politics of friends of the Earth, our planet, demanding global co-operation against a wave of devastation that respects no frontiers. Environmentalism at the core of a progressive nationalism provides an important part of an accompanying internationalist imperative.
Fourth, and arguably for reasons of demography and history this will be much more prominent in any English progressive nationalism than elsewhere, the issue of race and identity. Brown defined his version of Britishness via an ill -thought out caricature of multiculturalism, ‘ We are waking from a once-fashionable view of multiculturalism, which, by emphasising the separate and the exclusive, simply pushed communities apart.' For a Labour politician who throughout his long career has hardly uttered a word or written a sentence to suggest any understanding of the complexities of modern racism this was an extraordinary intervention. An English identity based on such shoddy sentiments and rank opportunism will soon flounder in the face of those who will seek to use the break-up to enforce a racialisation of Englishness. Instead we need to construct a framework which celebrates diversity as a core value of social solidarity. Rachel Briggs has suggested Brown is in danger of driving the debate towards a short cut to reaction, ‘ For a Scottish Prime Minister in a fragmented United Kingdom, the temptation will always be to reach for that which unites rather than divides. But top-down, stage-managed national identities are not only unworkable, they are likely to increase the sense of personal and collective uncertainty as people are rightly suspicious of what they seek to hide.' Instead Rachel outlines a riskier but more purposeful journey towards an inclusive national identity focused especially on a very different relationship with politicised sections of England's Muslim communities to the kind Brown outlined. ‘ Activism and dissent can be a pathway into engagement in other forms of civic and political participation and it is only by surfacing and working through difference that we will achieve meaningful and lasting cohesion. It will take political bravery to embrace the voices of dissent and challenge those who have managed to dominate mainstream thinking so far.'
These four core themes are certainly not right-wing nor are they particularly left-wing either, that's not the point. They are plural values that appeal across parties, as well as to a majority who have no party to call their own. What will bind those together who identify with the project are ideals, something increasingly rare in modern politics, for an England they want to become. A vision for England after Britain which is both popular and progressive and one entirely different to the exclusively white and rather unpleasant land the populist right would seem to prefer. Together these themes provide at the point of rupture with the home comforts of Britishness the tools to imagine what a progressive Englishness might look like, remaking what the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci once called the ‘national-popular' a politics ‘ which in other nations has ‘awakened and organised the national-popular collective will.' An awakening that will be sorely needed when this break-up is finally completed, by England.