England is losing its pubs, its post offices and its basic culture. Those on the left should stop being so ashamed of their own nationality
For the past 15 years I have been an environmentalist and campaigner for social justice. I have been a road protester and an anti-globalisation activist. I have worked for revolutionaries in Mexico, been tear-gassed in Genoa, joined protesters against the World Trade Organisation in South Africa and watched armies of the landless poor invade private estates in Brazil.
All of this means that those who want to categorise me politically should find it pretty easy. They would probably see me as a bit of a lefty and, mostly, they would be right. Which makes what I am about to say perhaps rather surprising. For as St George’s Day approaches, and brings with it the usual round of English agonising about “who we are” and what constitutes our “Englishness” and whether we should even be talking about it in our shiny new “multicultural” nation, I have a declaration to make.
It is a declaration which, even now, makes me nervous, as if I were committing some kind of sin. However, I am going to take a deep breath and make it anyway, both because it matters to me and because it is true. I am going to admit, finally, in public: I am an English nationalist.
And that’s not the end of it, because I want to argue that there should be many more like me; that England should matter as much to the left as it historically has done to the right – and as it does to the many millions of people across the country who do not consider themselves to be right-wing either. England, for reasons I will come to in a moment, is in dire need of an inclusive, forward-looking nationalist movement. Not only is this possible, it is desirable, necessary, and very timely.
The problem with making this argument is that, to the left, nationalism is anathema. It is everything, apparently, to which the enlightened stand opposed. It is backward-looking, paranoid, racist, chauvinistic, the very opposite of internationalism, which by contrast is enlightened and co-operative, forward-looking and just. Nationalism leads to the gas chamber, internationalism to the sunlit uplands.
There are certainly plenty of reasons to be suspicious of nationalism, and plenty of historic examples of its dark side. There are reasons, too, to be concerned about some of those who take on the mantle today, many of whom do come from a dark political place. But wait a minute: how have the Scottish managed to get themselves a government that is both nationalist and left-wing? How is it that the French are able to invoke ‘état from the left as well as the right? Why do the Zapatistas in Mexico, who talk proudly of their Mexican as well as their indigenous identity while conducting armed insurrections against the state, attract the admiration of young English radicals? Why is nationalism good in Venezuela or Cuba but not here? And why is talk of identity and culture admired among our ethnic-minority communities, yet when the English as a whole discuss such ideas, the spectre of Enoch Powell and the British National Party is immediately conjured up?
It is customary at this point to invoke George Orwell, who wrote, nearly 70 years ago, that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”. The average English liberal, he observed, was so out of touch with popular culture that he considered it “a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings”. Orwell is still worth the reference, because this attitude is one of the few things that doesn’t seem to have changed much in England in seven decades.
Still, among some of the more regressive strands of the English left, the self-loathing continues. We will probably see it on 23 April, Shakespeare’s birthday and St George’s Day, as ageing liberals are wheeled out to instruct us that “English culture” does not even exist, that everyone is an immigrant anyway, that morris dancing was invented by the Victorians, that St George was Lebanese and that, besides, we’re all “multicultural” now, so talking about it will probably offend somebody (though it will never be specified exactly who).
But decades of such cultural self-harm have had three dangerous consequences. The first is that the far right has been able to colonise Englishness for itself, conflate it with whiteness and make us all even more nervous about discussing it. The second is that the genuine political injustices under which England currently labours are not being addressed by the left. And the third is that the door has been flung wide open for global capitalism to gleefully tear up what remains of the English landscape, both physical and cultural, and replace it with strip malls, motorways, corporate farms and gated communities for the rich. England is losing its soul, and the left has had far too little to say about it.
I would argue that there are two strong cases for an English nationalism of the left: a political case and a cultural one. Since 1997, the political landscape within the UK has changed dramatically as a result of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These devolutions were the right thing to do. They responded to a desire, particularly in Scotland, for increased self-governance, a desire which sprang both from a sense of national identity and a sense of injustice and which was articulated in Scotland by the Scottish National Party and in Wales by Plaid Cymru, both nationalist parties of the left.
Yet the devolution process was flawed because it confused Britain with England. The UK contains four nations. Three of them now have governments separate from, though answerable to, the British government. The fourth – England – does not. The English, as a result, have a problem.
Instead of our own elected parliament or assembly, England today is governed by eight unaccountable, undemocratic and largely unknown “regional assemblies”, stuffed with corporate shills and political placemen, which make hugely important decisions on housing, spatial planning and transport. Meanwhile, at Westminster, Scottish and Welsh MPs are making decisions about the future of England for which they will never have to answer to their constituents – though English MPs cannot do the same in those countries.
This, the hoary old “West Lothian question”, has already had a gravely undemocratic impact on the people of England. In 2003, for example, Tony Blair’s controversial bill creating foundation hospitals, rejected by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, was imposed on the English despite the opposition to it from a majority of English MPs: new Labour drilled its Scottish and Welsh MPs into the lobbies to force upon the English something their own people had already rejected. The next year, university top-up fees (also rejected in Scotland and Wales) were forced down the throats of the English by just five votes – the votes of Scottish MPs.
England, the only British nation without any form of democratic devolution, is also, startlingly, the only nation in Europe without its own parliament or government. It receives less money from the Treasury per head of population than the other British nations (the poorest part of Britain, incidentally, is in England; it is Cornwall) and has fewer MPs per head of population, too. Despite devolution, the British government has ministers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but no minister for England.
Growing numbers of English people are angry about this, and Gordon Brown’s clumsy campaign to promote “Britishness” should be seen as a deliberate attempt to fend off growing English demands for political justice, which would torpedo new Labour’s (largely Scottish) power base. Yet the point here is not to criticise the Celtic nations, to be “anti-Scottish” or anti-anyone. The point is to be pro-justice and pro-democracy.
Then there is the cultural case. In today’s England we are losing what makes us who we are, at a frightening rate. Some of the world’s most rapacious corporations, in a cosy alliance with an overcentralised government in love with the notion that business values are national values, are tearing meaning and character from the landscape. The independent, the historic and the diverse are everywhere being replaced by the corporate, the bland and the controlled.
Consider some of the casualties. The English pub, probably the best-known international symbol of our folk culture, is dying; 57 pubs shut up shop every month. Under new Labour we have lost 30,000 independent shops (including half of our independent bookshops), half of our orchards, a quarter of all our post offices (with many more to come) and 40 per cent of our dairy farms. The number of out-of-town shopping centres has increased fourfold in 20 years. We are seeing the streets of our major cities sold off to private corporations. Inner-city markets that serve poor communities are being cleared to make way for executive flats. Property prices have risen so sharply since 1997 – in some places by almost 400 per cent – that entire communities have simply shrivelled and died. This is a huge, and in some cases irreversible, cultural loss, a loss of the everyday culture of the people.
Political justice for England, then, and economic and cultural justice, too: this should be the rallying cry for a new breed of English nationalists. Most of us, Tory or Labour or anything else, would agree that the BNP should not be allowed to hijack our national identity (the BNP, as the name makes clear, is a British, not an English, nationalist party).
But if this is the case, why should we also allow the more respectable right-wingers to have it all to themselves? English folk culture belongs to all of us; the political injustices of the current constitutional settlement are injustices whoever you vote for. Why should those who consider themselves “left-wing”, however they define that term, not be able to consider themselves English nationalists, too?
In truth, there is no good reason, other than fear and prejudice. It is time to reclaim both England and the proud tradition of radical nationalism, rooted but not chauvinistic, outward-looking but aware of our past, attached to place not race, geography not biology. The need to belong – the need for a sense of place and culture – is a basic human impulse. It should not be denied, and neither is it a bad thing unless it is perverted. If we don’t want it to be perverted we need to see that it isn’t, by claiming it for all of us.
Paul Kingsnorth’s “Real England: the Battle Against the Bland” is just out, published by Portobello Books (£14.99). For more details visit: http://www.realengland.co.uk