This Enchanted Isle: place, politics and England

Where are the everyday symbols of a leftish, pluralist Englishness?
Nick Pearce
19 November 2010

Ken Worpole's nice post at Our Kingdom about a new book to which he has contributed, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings got me thinking.

His concluding remark, that 'attachment to place remains strong, and in exploring that attachment there's a chance we may find some reconciliation between modernity and an appreciation of the mysterious enchantment of the natural world' seems to me to capture well one of the defining challenges for a contemporary progressive politics: to reconcile contradictory desires for tradition and change, progress and conservation.

New Labour was all about modernity and progress – in its style, ambitions and political lexicon. But there are strong currents of small-c conservatism at work in contemporary Britain, which thinking people on the left (see my post on Blue Labour) are grappling with. Our attachment to the natural world around us is just one, albeit important, strand of this.

The debate about Englishness draws in many of these issues. ippr and Our Kingdom have joined forces to hold monthly discussions debating the relationships between how we are governed and matters of policy. The first of these debated Englishness, with contributions from John Denham and Roger Scruton. For Scruton, England is essentially a nation defined by place, rather than blood, which helps to explain the language of enchantment and 'home' so often employed in evocations of Englishness.

I particularly like this landscape art project – if that's what you call it – linked from Ken's Worpole's post. The inscription of England in the process of mapping the terrain carries some powerful symbolism.

Readers of this blog might also enjoy this lecture, recently given to the Warwick University Conference on the Literature of an Independent England by Arthur Aughey: Citizens of Nowhere? Reflections on a very English Anxiety (opens in pdf). He pinpoints the factors that have led to an emergent English anxiety, as well as those that weigh against the expression of that anxiety in a new English nationalism. I also recall an interesting essay, More than one English question, written by current and former ippr colleagues Guy Lodge and Michael Kenny, which reveals the diverse political and cultural drivers underpinning the rising tide of English self-consciousness over the last 20 years or so.

Both got me thinking about the varieties of political Englishness at play in the current debate, inter alia: a northern Englishness calling for greater economic and political power for the great cities and counties of the North, to counter the clout of London in England's governance and allow the North to fashion its own future after the cuts in public spending take effect; a white working class Englishness that has different variants, North and South, expressing a blocked desire for cultural and political recognition and, at the margins, bleeding into a right-wing nationalism of the type fuelling the English Defence League; and a Twickenham Englishness, which is carried by a southern middle class constituency and which runs the gamut from a culturally confident, cosmopolitan expression of the values of that class through to a more defensive, older and sometimes xenophobic Englishness that finds political voice in support for anti-European politicians.

What I can't locate in this typology – which simply proves that it is inadequate – is the leftish, pluralist Englishness of people like John Denham or the more strident but not right-wing supporters of an English Parliament.

Views are welcome – but, for now, I'll let Ian Dury have the last word.

Frankie Howerd, Noël Coward and garden gnomes
Frankie Vaughan, Kenneth Horne, Sherlock Holmes
Nice bit of kipper and Jack the Ripper and Upton Park
Gracie, Cilla, Maxy Miller, Petula Clark
Winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips
Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps
And every one could tell a different story
And show old England's glory something new.

Cross-posted from Nick Pearce's ippr blog

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