The first three terms of a Labour government have been constitutionally dominated by devolution. Whilst the English, at the outset of this process, mostly took a take-it-and-leave it attitude, the impact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been much more profound.
So much so that in May 2007 nationalist parties became a central part of government in each of these parts of our once united Kingdom.
Gordon Brown finally became Prime Minister just as Britain appears to be entering an irreversible drift towards some kind of separation. Although the time-scale remains uncertain, any idea that the moves towards devolved power will be reversed is an untenable position – whichever party wins the next Westminster General Elections. Yet Brown seems to be seeking to reinvent himself as the ‘Bard of Britishness’ (in a wonderful phrase from Tom Nairn).
Thirty years ago Tom Nairn was a lonely voice on the left in his argument about the Break-Up of Britain, and the democratic potential in bringing an end to the Union. Now it is Brown who appears the lonesome one when he urges us all to run a Union Jack up the flag pole in the face of the much greater appeal of identities framed by our English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish belonging. ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, Brown demanded, in front of a huge Union Jack backdrop at his inaugural Labour Conference as prime minister. This was an appeal to the most backward, defensive and narrow version of national identity, wrapped in a flag that increasingly lacks the unifying appeal he is so obviously seeking. One wonders how often Brown has been out canvassing back home in his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, urging voters to fly a Union Jack out of their window to celebrate their ‘Britishness’, or stuffing Labour Party leaflets adorned with the same flag through letterboxes. Just what kind of response would Gordon get if he tried?
Instead of retreating into a sour-faced jealousy of our Celtic neighbours who have achieved something denied to the English – a measure at least of independence and difference from the one-flag-fits-all politics of the Union – the English would do better trying to learn from our nearest, if not always dearest. It is time to embark on a process founded on engaging with what England might become, rather than what it once was. Not just a St George Cross to stick out the car window and a national dress of bri-nylon football jerseys, but the beginnings of shaping some kind of state of independence out of those summer tournament bursts of ninety-minute nationalism.
It is time to move on from a simple celebration of the enormous, friendly and increasingly multicultural flag-waving parties of football’s world cups and Euros, or the rugby world cup and Ashes series. Instead we need to consider the connections between these eruptions of Englishness and a broader cultural, social, and political emergence of Broken-Up Britain. My thinking here is in part a response to points made by Beatrix Campbell. Speaking at a discussion of Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot, Beatrix questioned the centrality often awarded to football in re-imagining Englishness: ‘By aligning football with national identity you are ignoring the fact that football has been connected with some of the worst things in English history. It’s a mistake to think that national culture is defined by football. What is it about the insecurities of masculinity? Why would anybody want to think that football should define in any way at all the new English sensibilities?’ England and football have certainly been responsible for some of the nastiest expressions of English patriotism, but they have also contributed to moments of a popular, inclusive, multicultural Englishness. Yet Bea’s point is essentially correct: if football is all we’ve got, what kind of nation do we imagine England might become?
It is the discontinuity between the current version of devolution and common-sense democracy that is most likely to create the momentum towards change. It is in this context we cannot afford to ignore the potency of the BNP’s appeal. Jon Cruddas has been absolutely correct when he has talked about the BNP’s capacity to mobilise support by defining national identity not only racially, but as the frontline against both immigration and Europe. This, of course, is an option not limited to the far right: such defence-mechanism politics is resorted to by a much broader constituency. But if we fail to engage with these arguments they will almost certainly come to define Englishness on their own terms – of insecurity in the face of difference.
Our engagement should revolve around imagining England as a new nation, though of course it comes complete with an ancient history. Our history and language isn’t simply constructed out of an imperial and martial legacy, though it is pulled into different shapes by these past episodes, and migration and colonialism add layer upon layer to the story. The full English isn’t to be found by trying to locate a pure, deep English – a task which is thankless and futile. It is the mix, the impurity, that is so distinctive.
Environmentalism adds a key perspective to this English imaginary; in an era likely to be defined by the imperatives of climate change, this is no longer an added extra but central to progressive thinking. The rubric of Green politics is basing our preservation of the local in our commitment to the global. Does this offer us a different way of settling national and international loyalties, to their mutual benefit? A green and pleasant England – a patchwork of particularities – is one route to Jerusalem; and perhaps it has the potential to merge the progressive and the patriotic.
We urgently need to make a start on connecting popular affiliations to Englishness with a political expression for the emotional investment that so many share. No one should underestimate the difficulties in such a process, but that shouldn’t stop us recognising its crucial importance. What is required is a soft patriotism – one that is open and inclusive, and hard to take for those who favour hate and prejudice. Its aim: an England which will be for all, after a Britain that was always for some.