John Denham on identity

Beyond the Brexit divide: the English question


This is the paradox: England and the English are ever-present in our culture and politics, yet England – as England – is barely mentioned in national political debate. If English identity is discussed, it is to be disparaged and abused.


The cost of ignoring England and the English has been high. To Remainers, the cost was the overwhelmingly English decision to Leave (with most support from England and from English-identifying voters). Labour has paid the price of lost votes in places and amongst English people once proud to be Labour. Those who want an inclusive society see the persistence - albeit amongst a minority – of an ethnicised and racist national identity.


National identities are much more than flags and football. They offer a ‘world view’; a narrative that explains why ‘people like us’ are the people that we are, why things happen in the way they do, and what we share in common. In a multiple identity society, different national identities have evolved to tell different stories about the experience of different groups of people.


England is diverse, and deep divisions of age, geography, wealth, education and values are reflected in different understandings of national identity. Put crudely, ‘Britishness’ sits more lightly on those for who the modern world – including the EU – works best. ‘Englishness’ has emerged most strongly for those at the rough end of economic and social change.  They were as likely to blame the EU than welcome its influence.


Most people say they are English and British, but the emphasis they give to each is significant. The ‘more English’ are also more likely to be rooted in a community, town, county or region, and less likely to see themselves as European. They are more patriotic, and more socially conservative. Less confident about change, their resistance to rapid migration is a reaction to the disruption of established communities more than simple racism. English identity is also strongly linked to powerlessness. They are most likely to want English laws made by English MPs, to resent the Barnet formula and to over-estimate the power of the EU.


They are not, though, ‘English nationalists’, the fantasy promoted by liberal commentators. There is very little English nationalism. Leave was certainly led by Anglo-centric Brits like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, but there is no evidence that English Leavers shared visions of ‘Empire 2.0’. Indeed, they tend to give the union itself low priority. The appeal of ‘take back control’ was the desire to be listened to for once, not a resurrection of past glories.


Many of those lost English voters are older, or poorer, or more working class, and are less likely to have been to university. They are economically precarious and least likely to think it is worth voting at all. If Labour does not exist to work with those people to change the world, it’s not clear what we are for. The good news is that many are on the left on economic issues. But these voters are also English: they are proud to be English (and British too). If Labour is not palpably proud to be an English party and proud to be a British party then we send a clear message: ‘we are not people like you’. Many will not even listen to our policies because most voters look for a party they can identify with before they will listen to policy.


In England more people emphasise their English than British identity, but Labour members tend to be British rather than English and to place little value on national identity or patriotism. Activists prefer to talk about policy and not identity but are often trying to avoid difficult conversations with people who are more socially conservative. We say we are ‘For the many not the few’ but it too often sound as though we don’t like a lot of the many.


We can build a majority to reform capitalism and make it work for the common good, but only if we can unite those who are on the left economically, including those English voters.  To do that we have to find common ground across cultural divides. Bringing England and the English into our politics is an important place to start.


To start with, the left must signal that it wants to represent those voters, and that we are willing to have the difficult discussions on issues like migration they want to talk about. We should work to end the marginalisation of England and the English in our political life. Why, for example, does Labour talk about Rebuilding British in England, but Rebuilding Scotland north of the border? Education and social care are devolved, so our national education and national care services are only for England. Why don’t we call them English national services? Labour should publish a manifesto for England, as proposed by the English Labour Network.


We should be at ease with celebrating an inclusive patriotic English identity. Shadow Communities Secretary Andrew Gwynne recently backed calls for CLPs to celebrate St George’s Day and support Labour’s plans for four new national bank holidays.


In turn, the left must challenge England’s double democratic deficit to make England’s nationhood and political identity a reality.  It is the only part of the UK where voters cannot elect representatives to make national laws, nor is there any forum for national political debate. The UK government has made England the most centralised state in Europe and given disproportionate investment to London at the expense of England’s regions. England needs both national democratic institutions and entrenched statutory devolution of financial and executive power to elected local leadership. Labour’s promised constitutional convention could bring this about, but it needs preparing now and to start with urgency.


Crucially, the left must learn to frame its radical ambitions for economic changes in the language of progressive patriotism, something that earlier Labour figures (including Attlee and Benn) took for granted. Challenging, for example, who owns companies, land, utilities and resources are national and democratic questions, not just socialist.


Brexit happened, in part, because no one wanted to listen to the English. Can Labour learn the lesson?


Prof John Denham, former Labour Cabinet Minister and Director of the English Labour Network.