An English backlash or an English project

Tom Griffin
5 March 2010

Is an English Backlash emerging? the IPPR asked in a report out this week. The answer provided by Professor John Curtice was heavily qualified, but it suggests that the English question is moving up the political agenda:

In England public attitudes towards devolution may be beginning to be linked a little more to people’s sense of national identity and their views about how well Scotland is funded. Support for the idea of an English Parliament may be beginning to find some roots in English national identity and perceptions of England’s material interests. If  this trend continues too, then politicians may indeed no longer be able to assume that it is safe to ignore England in the devolution debate.

One politician who is engaging is Communities Secretary John Denham. In a speech to the Smith Foundation on Tuesday, he identified a number of key trends contributing to a growing sense of English identity: 

There is, beyond doubt, some envy for those who are able to express both their British identity and their Welsh or Scottish identity. Those who feel English ask increasingly whether their dual identity has a similar legitimacy.

The second driver is the recognition that some members of ethnic minority communities also express confidence in their dual identity, British and an identity of their community, related to the country of origin of them or increasingly their parents and grandparents. Where they ask, does this leave those who want to say we are English?

Denham went on to point to two further contradictory developments: on the one hand, a growing willingness to embrace Englishness, and not just Britishness, among some people from ethnic minority backgrounds; on the other, a new form of English chauvinism:

As Britishness has become established as a genuinely multi-ethnic identity, there are some who now seen an ethnic Englishness as the best way of resisting our diverse modern society.

In the last year we have seen the viciously anti Islamic English Defence League play to that idea. No one who has read my public statements about the EDL will be in any doubt about my rejection of their politics. It is though interesting that in their public statements – albeit entirely denied by their public actions – that they claim to represent a non-racist view of Englishness. A forced concession to the wider changes that have taken place.

The EDL's attempt to capitalise on perceptions of a marginalised English identity was reflected in an email exchange I had with the group's youth leader Joel Titus in January:

Tom Griffin: The EDL website states: "A stark demonstration of how Englishness is marginalised in England itself is that St. George’s day is no longer recognised in many towns and cities, and the St. George flag is even banned by some councils, in case it offends. This capitulation to Muslim extremists is spreading across the country. We believe that it’s about time that people stood up for English culture against this Islamist assault and the political correctness that seeks to appease it." Where is the evidence that the Government's hostility to Englishness is down to Muslims , rather than to say the Labour's reliance on Scottish MPs in the House of Commons? Where is the evidence that there's ever been an official tradition of celebrating Englishness and the St George flag, as opposed to Britishness and the Union flag?"

Joel Titus: Anything pro english is frowned upon, there is welsh assembly, northern ireland and scotland have their own governments yet england have no representation whatsoever, We fall under the bracket of great britain yet our leader is scottish! despite many high level campaigns by pressure groups st georges day is still not a bank holiday and other issues such as hot cross buns being withdrew from shops as the cross offends muslims and thats just to start

It is tempting to see in the EDL the fulfilment of of Arthur Aughey's warning that: "English radicals may continue to be romantically attached to the cause of the people but only in so far as the people behave as they ought. And what has troubled their conscience is the unpredictable quality of the nationalism that may be called forth during the fall of the rotting constitution."

However, it is important to recognise that there is nothing peculiarly English about the crude mix of nationalism and Islamophobia that the EDL represents. Similar developments have emerged across Europe wherever the right-wing fringe of the American conservative movement has offered its organizing skills to the local far-right

It is telling, however, that in the UK this counterjihad movement has opted for an English rather than a British identity. It's propagandists have found themselves the entirely fortuitous beneficiaries of a vacuum left open too long by the Westminster political class.

Welcome though it is, John Denham's call for more support for St George's Day invites the suspicion that it is more a response to the emergence of the EDL than to the broader trends he identifies.

Nevertheless, he is right to argue for an 'English project for the centre-left':

Our English history is not all maypoles and Morris dancers. Nor is it simply the somewhat Eeyoorish observation of George Orwell that it is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays.

It is the history of English radicalism too. The Making of the English Working Class shaped many a student radical of my generation. My part of the country gave birth to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Captain Swing. It is the history of the cooperative movement. Our English history is the history of a people who embraced and defended and married migrants as often as we resisted them.

If we need a national progressive and patriotic politics today, we should not be shy of making our history an ally.

John Curtice's findings underline why this is a now a better option for the centre-left than holding fast to the 'rotting constitution'. At the same time, they also point to a crucial lacuna in Denham's argument.

Support for the status quo has fallen below 50 per cent, albeit only just, for the first time. More importantly, at 29 per cent, support for the idea of an English Parliament is now considerably higher than it has ever been before. It would seem that now that the idea of elected regional assemblies has fallen off the political agenda, the demand for devolution in England is beginning to coalesce around the potentially more radical and more 'nationalist’ solution of an English Parliament.

The British Social Attitudes data did not include English Votes for English Laws as an alternative to the status quo, alongside an English Parliament and regional assemblies. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is now a substantial body of opinion in England that seeks some democratic institutional expression of its national identity.

If Denham's centre-left project is to be viable it needs to address that constituency. The failure of Westminster politicians to do so up to now has given the right-wing fringe a free run. Yet the case for an English Parliament is rooted in a profoundly democratic demand for politicians to be accountable to the people they govern.

It is timely therefore that Power2010 is addressing the issue through the inclusion of English Votes for English Laws in the pledge it is putting to candidates for the next general election. The English question is one the politicians can no longer ignore.

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