Monday 22 April 2024

Labour is the party of English patriotism

The build-up to St George's Day 2024 was a busy one for Keir Starmer. His first offering was an article proclaiming Labour to be the true party of English patriotism.

I’m proud to be English precisely because it’s a place where we can disagree – whether that’s a debate in the House of Commons or in the local pub – and still celebrate a common identity, a shared history and a future together. That’s what makes Britain the strong democracy that’s the envy of the world.

As Caroline Lucas pointed out, the article conflated England and Britain.

Having watched Labour spend the English local election campaign referring to England as Britain and only using the Union flag on campaign literature, it was strange to read, only a day later, in another article, that Starmer had written to all Labour's general election candidates asking them to 'celebrate St George's Day with enthusiasm' and to 'fly the flag' on St George's Day. One presumes he only wrote to candidates in England, though the Guardian did not make that clear.

Why only on St George's Day? Why not fly the flag of England all year round? The problem, of course, is that the Labour Party is not an English party. It is a UK Party. It can only do English patriotism as a sideline, on special occasions, like St George's Day or when England is in a football tournament. To be a patriotic English party year-round would alienate the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.

There is something to be said for banal nationalism. It might provide a sense of cohesion and make English identity more inclusive if Labour occasionally used England's national flag. But for a party to be truly patriotic, they need to have a vision of the type of country they want England to be and a means of achieving that - they need policies and a manifesto for England.

A third article, one that this time did not conflate England and Britain (possibly because it was only about sport), showed that maybe Starmer had set his mind to trying to articulate a vision for England, albeit within an extremely limited set of sporting parameters.

“The pride we feel in our sporting heroes and national teams runs deep in the country’s psyche. It forms our identity and is a cornerstone of our national life, and our national teams exemplify so much of what it means to English,” Starmer said.

“When I speak to young people up and down the country, the confidence, pride and patriotism that comes with national sport is clear for all to see. And that patriotism is a force for good in English sport.”

“We must widen access for the next generation, because if playing team sports is the preserve of a handful of children, we will simply miss out on the talents of so many. Only by harnessing our pride and patriotism can we reverse this damaging decline, develop the talent of future stars and cement national pride in sports for years to come.”

It's really the ultimate affirmation of England as a 90-minute nation. Our national teams exemplify so much of what it means to be English because sport is one of the few explicitly English forms of expression we're permitted. This just had to be the policy announcement for St George's Day.

And how must the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish feel about a UK party referring to 'our national pride' in regard to English national pride? Surely only a Labour Party England should make such a statement.

Later that day it was revealed that, far from being England's truly patriotic party, Labour voters were the most likely to consider the Cross of St George racist. 

But let's not be too downhearted. From small acorns grow might oaks. Though this was a feeble St George's Day policy offering, it was nevertheless an offering that portrayed England as a political community bound by ties of patriotic feeling that could be utilised as a force for good. In that respect, it was something of a revelation from a party so often fearful of English national identity.

Saturday 13 April 2024

The Leaders Speeches

Rishi Sunak's leader's speech at the 2023 Conservative Conference in Manchester lasted over an hour, but in all that time he only mentioned England once.

Family matters, and as proud Conservatives we should never be afraid to say that. And there's another family that matters to us all, our family of nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Today, our Union is the strongest it has been in a quarter of a century. The forces of separatism are in retreat across our country.

The word 'country' (our country/the country/this country) is used 57 times in Sunak's conference speech, irrespective of whether he is talking about England-only policy or UK-wide policy.

For example, he doesn't mention England when talking about the 'Advanced British Standard' (which despite its name is an England-only qualification).

A quarter of our children leave education without the basic literacy and numeracy they need to fulfil their potential. And our students study too narrow a range of subjects. Today, I am changing all of that, pulling one of the biggest levers we have to change the direction of our country. We will introduce the new rigorous, knowledge-rich Advanced British Standard, which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers.

Sunak mentions Britain in relation to infrastructure but doesn't mention England in relation to the NHS, cancer care and education.

We will give Britain the infrastructure it needs, protect the long-term future of our NHS and cut cancer deaths by a quarter and create the best education system in the Western world, to set our children up for the opportunities of the future.

A week later, in his leader's speech from Liverpool, Keir Starmer remarked that people like Rishi Sunak 'cannot see the country before them'. If that country is England, then we're inclined to agree. But did Starmer do any better? No, Starmer didn't mention England once. Starmer talked about Labour policy for England (for example the pledge to build 1.5M homes) but he talked of 'Britain' and 'the country' rather than England:

'So it’s time to get Britain building again. It’s time to build one and half million new homes across the country.'

The fascinating thing about their reluctance to mention England is that the BBC has to get creative and insert the word 'England' for the benefit of a public that may not know which policies apply where.

The Labour leader said he would "bulldoze through" the planning system in England if his party wins power.


Sir Keir promised to accelerate building on unused urban land to create the "next generation of new towns" near English cities, echoing those built by the first Labour government after World War Two.

It wasn't specified by Starmer that it would be England's planning laws he would be bulldozing or that the new towns would be near English cities. Only the words 'Britain' and 'British' were used. So why is the BBC putting words (or two words: England and English) into Starmer's mouth? Well, unlike Westminster politicians, the BBC has a duty to 'locate the story':

When our UK audiences are affected differently by a story or issue we are reporting we should make it clear. We should properly and proportionately label content that has limited applicability across the UK.

In other words, the BBC has a duty to inform the public about which parts of the UK the policies and pledges of politicians apply to. It is ludicrous that politicians themselves are not required to locate the story (or policy) like the BBC is.



Secretary of State for England

An announcement from the new Secretary of State for England:
This is not real. It's a work of fiction based on a blog post from Jim Murphy upon his appointment as Secretary of State for Scotland. 

It's almost impossible to imagine a politician talking about England in the terms Murphy does about Scotland, but it shouldn't be. 

England also deserves to be imagined and talked of as a political community with direction and a future. 

In the absence of a First Minister for England, and with UK Prime Ministers reluctant to mention England in a political context, a Secretary of State for England is one way in which England's political priorities and sense of nationhood could be articulated.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Anglocentric Britishness

As previously noted on this website, the Union Flag is front and centre on Labour's campaign literature in England, while in Scotland and Wales the national flags of those nations are prioritised.

David Lammy wrote a piece for The Sun outlining why Labour is proud to fly the Union Flag.
While Lammy's reasons for Labour's flying of the Union Flag are commendable, the article begs three questions: 
  1. Why not use the Union Flag on your campaign literature in Scotland? 
  2. Why is the national flag of England absent from your English local and mayoral election campaign? 
  3. Why isn't your article in The Scottish Sun?
It appears that David Lammy and Labour's Britishness is an Anglocentric Britishness, important in England but less so in Scotland and Wales. One might even say problematic in Scotland and Wales, which is why the Labour Party prefer not to use it in those nations. Whether or not the lack of appeal in Scotland and Wales is down to the Union Flag's Anglocentricity, perhaps compounded by the actions of the Labour Party, is another matter. 

Conversely, it would appear that Labour sees the English flag as being less important, and less of a symbol of pride, than the national flags of Scotland and Wales. This obviously needs to change. To be 'comfortable' with the Scottish Saltire and the Welsh Red Dragon, but uncomfortable with the English Cross of St George, reveals a party ill at ease with the national identity of the majority of its voters.


Saturday 6 April 2024

Caroline Lucas comes out in favour of an English Parliament

In a review of Caroline Lucas' upcoming book, Another England (released on 18th April), the Independent reveals that Lucas 'argues for nothing less than an English parliament'.

We probably have to go back to Frank Field to find an MP on the Left (vaguely on the Left in the case of Field) who has supported the case for an English parliament.

On 18th Nov 2023, in Edinburgh, to celebrate the life of Tom Nairn, Lucas delivered a speech to The Break Up of Britain? Conference. I watched the whole event and, to my mind, it was the most noteworthy contribution of the conference.

That speech can be watched on YouTube and a transcript follows.

Speech to The Break Up of Britain? Conference, Edinburgh, 18th Nov 2023

Thank you, Adam. Thank you to your lovely daughter and thank you all for the huge honour to be sharing this really important day with you. I'd like to, my congratulations to the organizers for such a fitting tribute to the extraordinary Tom Nairn.

While his death earlier this year was widely acknowledged in Scotland with Gordon Brown, Nicholas Sturgeon and Alex Salmond sharing their fulsome tributes about the significant influence he had on their thinking, I was struck that it barely registered among English political thinkers. And that's a particular shame I think, because much of Nairn's analysis was actually about my homeland and its seemingly permanent state of political crisis. Perhaps it reflects the fact that few of England's political elite are actually willing to accept that they are just English, let alone to contemplate the logic of Nairn's argument that the breakup of Britain, the mutual liberation from the crumbling political construct, which he famously called UKania, might just be good for all of us.

But just as Tom Nairn spent a lot of his time thinking about England, I hope you'll forgive me if I spend most of my time today looking at this issue through the lens of England and the English, particularly since we have such elegant speakers from Scotland and Wales here on the panel beside me. The title we've been given is How did we get here? And I will certainly try to answer that, but I also want to look forward to how we get out of here, which is probably more important. But where is here in the first place? What is the nature of the democratic crisis that we face? Well seen in one way I think the problem is our political institutions, clearly the archaic and undemocratic first past the post voting system, an over-centralized governance system, the unelected Lords, populist abuse of sovereignty, vast networks of patronage, the stuffy and outdated conventions, public school atmosphere, the whole damn, lot of it.

So yes, partly the problem is our political institutions, but seen in another way it's also about nationalisms and identity, and specifically about how England in particular has struggled to find its way in the modern world. How we cling to delusions of imperial grandeur, pretend that we are so much more than just English. And the devastating consequences of that are all around us. It was English exceptionalism that drove Brexit, for example. One way that referendum campaign seems a lifetime ago, although I'm sure you share with me the slight horror of seeing David Cameron slouch back to Westminster in the way that he has over the last few days. But we have gone through so much more since that referendum. And if anything, I would say that the alienation and the polarization are even greater today than they were in 2016. But the truth was clear even then that Brexit were the result of division and would make those divisions worse.

It has deepened the democratic crisis within the United Kingdom. The fact that England and Wales voted to leave and Scotland and Northern Ireland to stay has put incredible strain on the myth that the United Kingdom is an equal partnership of four nations. Government in London decided what form Brexit would take without a reference at all to the elected government in Edinburgh or Belfast or indeed in Cardiff. And unsurprisingly, as a result, support for the reunification of Ireland has grown; the pressure for a second referendum in Scotland remains strong; in Wales, a new sense of national identity is on the rise. I think it is very true to say that the future of the United Kingdom is now in doubt, yet we left the EU, I would argue, primarily because of what happened in England. Outside of the capital, every single English region voted for Brexit. And it's no disrespect to Wales, I hope, which voted by a majority of only 80,000, to say that it was an English vote that drove Brexit.

And in the month following 2016, I traveled to as many leave voting places in England as I could to hear from people firsthand and face-to-face, why it is that they voted for Brexit. And sometimes that was a difficult process. And one reason that came up again and again was that those who benefited economically from the EU membership and from the UK becoming a more open and diverse society, didn't do anything like enough to share those gains fairly and often sneered at those with a more traditional view of England. But those conversations were also refreshing and reassuring because there was so much more that we agreed on than held us apart. Many people were angry, of course they were, but if you took the time to go and pay them the courtesy of listening, then common ground could emerge. And one theme continually did emerge through that whole process, which my small team filmed, and we shared it afterwards as a project called 'Dear Leavers'.

One theme that came up again and again was about people's sense of pride in the places where they lived, but simultaneously their feelings of powerlessness. I was told countless times that London - the power that was held there - was so far away that it might've been on another planet. People felt unheard and ignored. And this was much more than an economic complaint, however corrosive this country's grotesque inequalities of wealth and opportunity undoubtedly are. It was also about culture and identity. Many resented how some expressions of Englishness were allowed while others were not. It was acceptable to love English countryside, English humor, English music, English literature, and to see those aspects of English as welcoming and humane, full of energy and creativity. But the moment Englishness took a political form, it apparently turned into the opposite. Even mild forms of patriotism were frowned on. English flags were acceptable, fluttering from a church hour in a picturesque village, but instantly interpreted as a form of racism if hanging from someone's window on an estate. Yet Englishness should not be something to be scared of or indeed suppressed within the notion of Britain, as if that will somehow contain it safely.

I think Brexit showed us the limits to that particular strategy. I think instead we need to recognize that many people who see themselves primarily as English feel that they are without a voice, including a political voice. There are no institutions that represent England equivalent to those in the three other countries in the UK. Nothing to give political expression while complex and rich and sometimes raucous reality or where difference can be expressed and perhaps resolved. So the so-called English problem is not only one of culture and identity, it is also profoundly one of democracy. And we need to ask ourselves what kind of England do we want now and in the future, either within the United Kingdom, or as an independent state - a reborn kingdom of England. Will it be a smaller diminished version of what we have now? Will imperial delusions and exceptionalism continue to shape our sense of self?

Will it be inward-looking and resentful of lost glories? Or could it - could it? - just become a genuine democracy, confident, outward-looking inclusive and recognizing that our future necessarily involves being part of Europe? These questions, I think, have taken on an even greater urgency as xenophobic nationalism continues its rise across Europe, from the success of the Sweden Democrats and True Fins to the growth of the far-right France, Italy and Hungary. And, at the same time, propelled by the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election in the UK, the populist right strengthens its grip on an increasingly extreme and out-of-touch Conservative party. If a progressive alternative, this national populist agenda, is to be successful, I think it needs to do more than offer bolder, more ambitious policies. Vital though those are. It needs to unify rather than divide and offer hope rather than despair. And one of the most effective ways of doing that, I think, is by telling more compelling stories about who we are and who we can be.

So my answer to the question 'How do we get out of the current democratic crisis?' isn't only about constitutional answers. It's not only about PR or an elected House of Lords or a written constitution. It's about telling more compelling stories about who we English are so that we might finally be more comfortable in our own skin, less intent on subduing our neighbours, whether they be within the UK or across the Empire. Because I would wager that once we English do finally settle with our own identity, we might just establish we are far more progressive than we were ever led to believe. Because right now Englishness has been hijacked by right, the dominant version of our national story solely serves their interests. The only people who dare speak Englishness are cheerleaders of isolationism and imperial nostalgia. But there are other stories equally compelling about who we are, about the English people's radical inclusivity, the ancient commitment to the natural world, their long struggle for rights for all. Stories that put the Chartists and the Diggers in a rightful place alongside Nelson and Churchill.

Stories that draw inspiration from the agreement of the people from Tom Paine, from Blake, Shelley, William Morris, and the Suffragettes. That draw on medieval writers and romantic poets who emphasize the sanctity of the environment, that recognise and celebrate England's ancient multicultural heritage. And so, if I could just end with one tiny shameless plug. My forthcoming book, Another England, sets out to tell those stories because I genuinely believe in rediscovering those stories of an England at ease with itself, and with our past, forward-looking open more equal, diverse and multi-ethnic, and identifying the policies that could actually help to realize those visions and stories. I believe that project has become a political project every bit as urgent and important as levelling up or investing in infrastructure. Because a country without a coherent story about who and what it is can now thrive and prosper. It can't extract itself from its own democratic crisis and it certainly can't rise to the existential threats of our time, the climate and nature emergencies. As the writer Ben Okri puts it, nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they'll suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings. So finding and telling those stories that speak to the truth of England's past and present and inspire us to imagine and pursue new and better futures might just turn out to be one of the most transformative acts that we can undertake. And indeed, one of the greatest contributions to a healthy democracy right across all of the isles. I understand why many Scots have run out of patience with the English. You are constructing your own modern narrative, why on earth should you need to concern yourself with England's need for one? Well, I would just perhaps leave you with the answer that perhaps there has to be a collaborative effort among all of us, if any of us is to succeed.


Further Reading: ‘A Disunited Kingdom? It Is Time to Tell an Inclusive English Story’


Monday 1 April 2024

On this Day in History: Gerrard Winstanley

On 1st April, 1649, Gerrard Winstanley, a prominent figure in the English Civil War period and a leader of the Diggers movement, took significant action to challenge the prevailing land ownership system in England. The Diggers, also known as True Levellers, were a group of agrarian communists who advocated for the common ownership of land and the abolition of private property rights. 

On this day, Winstanley and his followers, inspired by their belief in communal living and egalitarian principles, occupied and began cultivating common land at St. George's Hill in Surrey. The action was symbolic of their broader vision to reclaim and cultivate land that they argued rightfully belonged to the common people, rather than being monopolized by wealthy landlords. 

The Diggers' occupation of St. George's Hill was not just a spontaneous event but part of a deliberate campaign to challenge the existing social order. They saw themselves as enacting a radical reordering of society based on principles of equality and cooperation. By directly taking over the land and working it collectively, they sought to demonstrate their vision of a more just and equitable society. However, the Diggers faced opposition from landowners, local authorities, and even other factions within the Parliamentarian movement. 

Their occupation was met with hostility, and they were subjected to harassment, eviction attempts, and legal actions aimed at suppressing their movement. Despite the challenges they faced, the Diggers' actions at St. George's Hill and other locations inspired similar movements and left a lasting legacy in the history of social movements and struggles for land rights. Gerrard Winstanley's vision of a society based on communal ownership and cooperation continues to resonate with advocates for social and economic justice to this day. 

 The 1976 film, Winstanley, is available to watch on BFI Player.


Saturday 30 March 2024

Segmented Branding


As previously noted, the Labour Party has a flag problem, with some Labour MPs rejecting the party's campaign material because it is plastered with Union flags. In light of some of the comments this story has generated, I wanted to say a bit more on this.

One MP 'queried why the party could not use “segmented branding” for different voters'.

In fact, that is exactly what the Labour Party does already. Scottish and Welsh Labour candidates have their own Scottish and Welsh branding for election leaflets, as can be seen on Labour's 2024 branding guidelines (pdf).

There's the 'National' branding.

The Scotland branding.

And the Wales branding.

The keen-eyed among you will have noticed that there is no England branding, which leads me to this quote from a Labour Party spokesman:

“Keir’s changed Labour Party is positive, progressive and patriotic, the Union flag is something we are proud to carry.”

Given the absence of England branding, are we to therefore conclude that Keir's progressive and patriotic Labour Party is not proud of the Cross of St George?

Lord Blunkett derided the MPs who had objected to the flag's use on campaign literature. He told The Telegraph:

“Anyone who thinks in this way has failed to understand that pride in nation is a fundamental tenet of the working class community which the party seeks to represent.

What no one at the Telegraph, or any other paper, thought to ask is, what about England? Is pride in England a fundamental tenet of the working class community which the party seeks to represent?

Over on the platform formerly known as Twitter, Parliamentary Candidate for South Derbyshire, Samantha Niblett [great surname], asked:

Why on earth would we not [fly the Union Flag]? ! It’s ours.

You had better ask your Scottish and Welsh colleagues, Samantha. Or by 'ours' do you mean it belongs to the English? That line of thinking would explain why the Scots and Welsh have their own national branding while the English use the 'National' brand.


Labour is the party of English patriotism

The build-up to St George's Day 2024 was a busy one for Keir Starmer. His first offering was an  article proclaiming Labour to be the t...