The Better Together campaign may have limped over the line in the Scottish Referendum, but in no sense was this an enthusiastic endorsement of the Union. A recent poll declared that a majority of Scots now favour independence, and there have already been mutterings from the SNP of another independence referendum in the near future. Meanwhile the bad-tempered devolution debate in the House of Commons on the 14 October was dominated by the West Lothian question and ‘English votes for English laws’. It seems that the Union is destined to fragment further, and questions surrounding England and Englishness will be become increasingly pertinent in the years ahead.
The Scottish referendum revealed just how powerful a force nationalism can be in politics. Many of the discontents expressed by the Yes campaign were no different from those felt across the UK but draped in the flag of national identity, they captured imaginations and inspired people on an emotional level which has been so conspicuously absent from the contemporary political arena.
And yet Labour and the left have had an uneasy relationship with questions of English identity in recent years. Nothing encapsulated this more vividly than Emily Thornberry’s photographic excursion into Rochester. It is easy to frame Thornberry’s tweet as a symbol of the ‘working class/metropolitan elite’ divide so beloved of Nigel Farage, but it also revealed something deep-rooted about the way that the middle-class liberal left views Englishness and expressions of national identity. The tweet suggested that Thornberry found the image of the flag somehow comical, or even an object of disdain. It is not known whether or not this was intended, but for many it seemed to confirm the suspicion that Labour’s (rightful) embrace of multiculturalism has come at the expense of understanding, and respecting expressions of Englishness.
It is perhaps unsurprising that such a view has evolved on the left. Nationalism can be insular, reactionary and xenophobic, and often the English flag has been loaded with these connotations. But it doesn’t have to be. Nationalism can also be a progressive force, an expression of the social solidarity and collective endeavour that the left is supposed to stand for. Labour must articulate a vision of Englishness based on these values; if it does not, the conversation on national identity will become colonized by the myth-making nostalgia of Tories like John Redwood or, much more dangerously, the battle cry of the far right.
Reflecting on the collectivist achievements of the post-war government, Clement Atlee spoke of building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. Once again Labour must realize that evoking the spirit of nationalism is not antithetical to the social democratic tradition. In an increasingly atomized global economy, it must recognize the value of place and belonging, and the fact that state intervention and a redistributive tax system can only function if they are underpinned by a sense of collective identity. It cannot surrender discussions of nationhood to forces on the right. Labour’s conception of Englishness must speak for a pluralist tapestry of national culture buttressed by firm foundations of social cohesion, an England of multicultural North London alongside white vans in the suburbs.