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"England After Britain"

8 May 2008

Mark Perryman (London, Editor Imagined Nation: England after Britain): On the eve of Labour's near meltdown in London, English and Welsh local elections last Thursday Gareth Young posed an interesting challenge for those of us on the political left who are interested in The English Question.

"I have a feeling that the left is growing up, and reconciling itself to the need to engage positively with Englishness. Imagined Nation: England After Britain notes that the left in England is not yet an English left. I want to highlight, an olive branch to leave dangling; the left needs unashamedly to participate in and support some of the constitutional and cultural initiatives that it currently seems to reject. These include the Campaign for an English Parliament, the increasing demand that England should have its own National Anthem, and local efforts to celebrate St George’s Day in ways which are both popular and inclusive. The alternative is that legitimate democratic aspirations will be hijacked by the far right."

Gareth is spot-on and the proximity to a fast-forming English hegemony of the Cameroons makes this even more pressing. A 2010 Cameron General Election victory with virtually no Tory representation north of the border would force a rapid unravelling of the Union. Scotland will vote for independence, the Wales Assembly will become a Parliament. Which leaves Britain as what exactly? In such a scenario an English Parliament will evolve as a result of force of circumstances rather than English political will.

Most of those on the left, not just those in the Labour Party, with a few exceptions, wilfully ignores this agenda. It is not simply a matter of being disinterested, a sizeable leftist chunk denounces any engagement with English issues as being by definition racist and reactionary. Meanwhile Brownite Labour sticks steadfastly to Britishness, fixated on the unifying appeal of the Union Jack, which increasingly has the opposite effect.

Gareth is generous enough to recognise the growing significance of those of us who rejects both positions in favour of a political imaginary founded on an England for all. This is principally where I would differ from Gareth, and it is a tactical not a strategic difference. He is absolutely right that a progressive patriot's agenda must at some stage address the forms of state that a broken-up Britain would eventually dissolve into. I see this as essentially a practical question. Scotland within 10-20 years will be an independent nation. Wales will have a Parliament. Ireland, due to demographic, rather than strictly political, pressure will be united. Which leaves England after Britain.

But right now we need a progressive coalition, certainly not limited to the political left, that begins the process of constructing a political imaginary towards England. Our agenda begins by recognising that Britain and England are two entirely different constructs. Out of this we start to imagine what England might become. Do we define it primarily as a frontier against Europe and immigration, or in terms of a nation and nationality for all, founded on space not race. Do we welcome the fact that England is immeasurably more multicultural than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and start to paint that vision on to our St George's Cross.

None of this precludes the demand for an English Parliament. It is surely the only conclusion of any attachment to England as an independent nation state. But to take this as both our start and finish to the argument is mistaken and unappealing to the huge audience in favour of an England after Britain. First, we need to find forms to conduct a conversation, create participation and attachment in ways that reach far beyond the ranks of a professionalised political class. The emergence of St George as a popular icon of attachment post 1997 devolution, mainly off the back of football, cricket and rugby, is an example of this process. A popular development out of this could be on the lines of calling for a 'National Anthem' that belongs to England. This will reach far more people than any Campaign for an English Parliament can hope to, while it connects to this eventual constitutional agenda. This would be my starting-point for a conversation Gareth.

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