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Labour and the new Englishness.

In the mid-1930s, with the encouragement of the Comintern, British communists attempted to assert their claim to represent an indigenous line of English radicalism. This was intended as a counter to fascism's practice of 'rummaging through the entire history of every nation so as to be able to pose as heirs and continuers of all that was exalted and heroic in its past'. (1) In response, communists--particularly in Britain--were encouraged to 'enlighten the masses on the past of their own people, in a historically correct fashion' (p129). The CPGB responded enthusiastically to this suggestion, not only through the work of its Historians' Group, but also by staging a number of Marches of English History--in London, Lancashire and Sussex, as well as Pageants of Scottish History in Glasgow and Dundee. However, this led to arguments about whether it was acceptable to appeal to liberal-radical traditions and sensibilities, or whether communists should focus solely on the proletariat and its predecessors. (2)

These debates have re-emerged in Blue Labour's provocative re-telling of both English and Labour history, and in fears of losing the 'white working class' to UKIP, as well as, more recently, Jeremy Corbyn's marked antipathy to the symbolic politics of the British state. This latter point is particularly interesting because of the tangled history of English, British and 'Anglo-British' identities it invokes--more of which later. Those insisting that Labour needs to develop its patriotic appeal have tended to focus on the idea of 'reclaiming' Englishness 'as a positive statement of national expression and pride in England--not as negative, divisive and dangerous'. (3) They challenge the reading of the icons of patriotism 'as symbols of oppression, imperial domination and exploitation', and point to an alternative lineage of English history, rooted in the stories of working men and women. (4)

This is an admirable and long-standing project, which stretches back through Raphael Samuel and E.P. Thompson in the latter half of the twentieth-century, to the CP's Popular Front. It also resonates with the recent renewal of interest in what has been called 'deep Englishness'--cultural explorations of land and folk memories, often with a radical or at least anarchic edge. (5) We might think of the music of P.J. Harvey, the novels of Nicola Barker or the films of Ben Wheatley. Robert Macfarlane has described this as the rise of 'an English eerie' and underlined its connection to 'a dissenting left politics', seeing it as 'an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism'. (6)

However this has always been more convincing as a way of reconciling the left to English patriotism, than winning English patriots to the left. The kind of events that we most associate with expressions of radical Englishness--such as Levellers' Day or the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival--focus less on creating a cohesive national identity than on disrupting dominant conservative notions of England and Englishness. The political resonance of Levellers' Day, for instance, comes from the incongruous procession of communist, anarchist and socialist banners through a picturesque village in Conservative-dominated Oxfordshire--within David Cameron's constituency, no less. It invokes a deliberately alternative narrative of Englishness, which sustains a lineage of activists on the left but is not intended to resonate with wider senses of nationhood. It is certainly not concerned with articulating an English nationalist irritation with the constitutional settlement. Blue Labour attempted to bridge this gap: on the one hand asking Labour to embrace pre-existing lived attachments to nation and community; on the other insisting that this nostalgia was partisan, rooted in the struggles of the labour movement. But it didn't manage to satisfy either camp.

Moreover, the terrain has shifted. This is no longer just about asserting the left's claim to represent core strands of national identity. It is about its response to a new current in British politics: the rise of a politicised English identity. And radical forms of 'deep Englishness' are only one (arguably marginal) aspect of this. At the other end of the scale lies a more competitive, resentful form of politics, which does not play with the ambiguities of land and identity, but seeks a stable connection between the two. Ben Wellings has emphasised the link between Englishness and euroscepticism; more recently, hostility to Scottish nationalism has also become a motivation for some. This has proved more difficult territory for Labour. (7) As Kenny has suggested, it is usually (incorrectly) assumed that this anti-establishment, populist form of English nationalism is the product of an increasingly marginalised and resentful white working class (though in fact it is more associated with the 'squeezed middle'). This makes it a problem to which Labour has a particular duty to respond. Yet Labour has so far proved unable to reconcile this defensive form of nationalism with its internationalist and liberal-cosmopolitan traditions.

Unlike in the 1930s, this is an Englishness that seeks to define itself separately from Britishness. And that, in itself, is problematic for the left. Although the Conservative Party has officially been the party of the Union, its culture has tended to be rather Anglo-centric (notwithstanding its electoral success in Scotland into the 1960s and continued support until the Thatcher years). Labour, on the other hand, has been at least as much a party of Scotland and Wales as of England. As E.P. Thompson explained in his introduction to The Making of the English Working Class, 'It is possible, at least until the 1820s, to regard the English and Scottish experiences as distinct, since trade union and political links were impermanent and immature'. (8) But, as he implies, any history which runs beyond this point finds itself inextricably tied up with the Newport Rising, Taff Vale and Red Clydeside. Those communist Marches of English History culminated in the election of Willie Gallacher as MP for West Fife. And the Labour Party's story is inescapably that of Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Jennie Lee. The iconic moments of labour movement politics from the mid-twentieth century onwards--the 1945 Labour Government, miners' strikes and poll tax protests--were all Scottish and Welsh as much as they were English.

Labour's culture, its traditions, its collective memory, is inextricably bound up with at least three of the British nations. This is why it has found it so difficult to abandon its commitment to the Union; it is based on emotional connection as much as electoral calculation. And whereas in Scotland (and to a lesser extent, Wales), the memory of industrial decline under Thatcher has been fused with a much longer collective narrative of radical politics and national grievance, there is no comparable story of Englishness that could be used to forge a national political project. However, some interesting work is taking place on developing such a story at the moment, especially through the new Centre for English Identity and Politics, which John Denham has established at the University of Winchester.

In recent years, the idea of an English Labour Party has been put forward as a way of representing English national interests within a federal organisational structure. However, it isn't clear that this would address the concerns associated with the new English politics. It hasn't risen from below--in the way that the earlier radical movements did, or even in the way that Scottish nationalism has done over the past two years. It comes from a party of government that many people see as part of the very problem it's trying to fix. I think this brings us to the biggest problem facing Labour. The emergent English nationalism is, at root, an anti-establishment form of politics and Labour is a party of the establishment. Having fought to become part of the Westminster system, it now struggles to speak for those who feel alienated by the whole set up.

As a clear outsider to both the New Labour project and Westminster politics more generally, Corbyn's leadership has the potential to create an interesting space here. He clearly identifies with the lineage of English radicalism; he has claimed John Lilburne as his political inspiration, and the organisers of Levellers' Day have celebrated his success as one of their own. (9) He has also shown very little interest in Scotland or Wales, and seems unlikely to make a defence of the Union a core part of his political programme. Perhaps here is the champion of Englishness the left have been waiting for? Just typing those words underlines their unlikeliness. Yes, Corbyn sees himself as part of a long line of anti-establishment radicals, but he is also first and foremost an internationalist, with cosmopolitan instincts. This is not to say that Englishness has to be insular, isolationist or monocultural. Krishan Kumar has argued that precisely because of its close association with the British imperial project, Englishness is a far more expansive identity than is often imagined and Michael Kenny has identified a shift towards Englishness among younger voters from mixed race and African-Caribbean backgrounds. (10) Yet Corbyn has made no attempt to appeal to a liberal-cosmopolitan strand of Englishness or to refashion Labour's appeal in this way.

Indeed, he has so far avoided any discussion of England or Englishness at all. During the leadership campaign, when asked whether he would support the proposal to create an English Labour Party, his brief answer emphasised his support for a constitutional convention and 'serious discussion' of nations and regions, but made no reference to either England or an English Labour Party. (11) And although his speech to the 2015 Party Conference was trailed on the Today programme as a move into the territory of Englishness, in the event his profession of 'love' of country was limited to Britain and 'British values', which he aligned with the 'Labour values' of kindness, care and a concern with justice. (12) The reason why Corbyn felt the need to make even this patriotic gesture was because of his well-known antipathy to the symbolic politics of the British state, especially its monarchy. This has become totemic for those Labour critics who believe Corbyn to be out of touch with the basic instincts and attachments of the British people--though this seemed to apply to the English most of all.

This raises the wider question of whether English nationalism can be imagined separately from the signifiers of British identity. Critics have long spoken disparagingly of the dominance of the 'Anglo-British state'. (13) As Ben Wellings has more recently noted, 'English nationalism does not always go by the name of England. It is a nationalism that defines itself in close relation to Britain's political institutions, which it equates with the continued existence of England's national character' (English Nationalism and Euroscepticism, PP41-2). This is certainly true of the everyday conservative Englishness identified by Kenny as one of the strands (though the least vocal) in the emergent English politics. And it was this assumption that lay at the heart of Ed Miliband's attempts to tie together 'the essence of English identity' with the 'great Labour traditions' of fighting injustice and 'people com[ing] together to struggle to improve their lives and the lives of others'. His list here was expansive--stretching from suffrage and gay rights campaigners to the organisers of Sunday League football matches (none of which are English rather than British). But although Miliband claimed to be talking about 'courageous communities', rather than the 'grandeur' of the state, it is significant that his list also included street parties for the Queen's jubilee the very pinnacle of Nairn's (and, we suspect, Corbyn's) Anglo-British state. (14)

However, there is the possibility that a different sort of Englishness might develop; one that sees its interests as distinct from the British state. If Labour is to be in a position to harness such a movement, it will need to have a clear sense of where its own boundaries lie. Is it prepared to engage in competitive nationalism within the UK? Will it countenance major challenges to the institutions of the state? Can it develop an identity that is distinct from the traditions of the British labour movement? Is it possible to reconcile cosmopolitan liberalism with conservative patriotism? Or to choose between them? It may be that the answer to some or all of these questions is no. Ed Miliband's preference for a constitutional convention rather than outright backing of EVEL, for instance, may have been out of step with public opinion, but was consistent with Labour's desire not to play into the more divisive aspects of this debate. And becoming a party of Englishness is certainly not the only way forward. The issue is unlikely to outweigh the economy or NHS as a deciding theme in parliamentary elections any time soon, and Labour may be well advised to maintain its ambivalent position for the time being. But, with the memory of the Scottish referendum and the prospect of the EU referendum in mind, it would be foolish to discount some surprising shifts in the politics of English national identity in the near future. Labour needs to think about this in terms of identity politics, as well as constitutional reform. It has tended to emphasise the latter as a way of neutralising the former, but in doing so it sacrifices the possibility of engaging on an emotional level with what is an increasingly emotive issue. This is a theme Renewal will be continuing in future issues, including an analysis of recent seminars at the Centre for English Identity and Politics in the next issue.


(1.) Georgi Dimitrov, 'The Working Class Against Fascism' [1935], reprinted in John Callaghan and Ben Harker, British Communism: A documentary history, Manchester University Press 2011, P129. Emphasis in the original.

(2.) See for example, C. Day Lewis, 'England Expects', Discussion, November 1936, 26, and 'March of History', Discussion, January 1937; Christopher Hill, 'Our England', Labour Monthly, February 1939; Jack Lindsay, 'Non-dialectical', Discussion, December 1936, 31 .

(3.) Red Shift, Looking for a New England, Red Shift, London 2015, pp3-4: http:// A%2oN ew%20England%20final.pdf.

(4.) Billy Bragg, The Progressive Patriot, Bantam Press, London 2006, p2.

(5.) Michael Kenny, The Politics of English Nationhood, Oxford University Press 2014.

(6.) Robert Macfarlane, 'The eeriness of the English countryside', Guardian, 10 April 2015: www.

(7.) Ben Wellings, English Nationalism and Euroscepticism: losing the peace, Peter Lang, Oxford 2012.

(8.) E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class [1963] Third edition Penguin Books 1980, p13.

(9.) @Levellers_Day, 17 June 2015: status/6iii87997i49655040?p=v.

(10.) Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity, Cambridge University Press 2003; and 'Negotiating English Identity: Englishness, Britishness and the future of the United Kingdom', Nations and Nationalism 20i0, i6: 3. See also Kenny's The Politics of English Nationhood.

(11.) OurKingdom, 'The Labour candidates on an English Labour Party, a constitutional convention and a written constitution', Our Kingdom, 6 August 20i5: www.

(12.) Jeremy Corbyn, speech to the Labour Party Conference, 29 September 20i5: www.

(13.) See, for example, Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy, Radius, London i988.

(14.) Ed Miliband, speech on defending the Union in England, full text available at: www.

Emily Robinson is a lecturer in politics at the University of Sussex and a commissioning editor for Renewal
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Author:Robinson, Emily
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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