April 23rd this year still looks likely to be the final St George’s Day before the UK leaves the European Union. These are not happy times to be an English social democrat; Brexit is a predominantly English misadventure, and the Labour Party has not won the most English votes in any general election since 2001. It is easy to feel despondent.
In the run-up to the 23rd, there will no doubt be articles written by leftist thinkers wondering what to do about England. Some may argue for new institutions; an English parliament, perhaps, as if what the nation desires most is another layer of politicians, as if this may somehow help England love social democracy.
Other pieces may seek to redefine Englishness in terms of some civic nationalism; they will point to notions of freedom and tolerance and claim that a new Englishness should learn to embrace such things. Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with this as a set of values, it feels like an attempt to fit Englishness to what the author wishes it to be; a mirror image of writers who, tired of some imagined metropolitan liberal elite, pretend that there is a “real England” existing in the shires or in post-industrial towns.
The truth is that neither argument is quite accurate. One cannot try and define Englishness by picking the bits you like and ignoring everything else. London and Wigan are both equally English; any reckoning of England must allow for the country village, the small town and the sprawling metropolis.
A better starting point might be to try and understand what Englishness already is. Rather than trying to push a square English peg through a round hole, to define England into something easier, can social democracy find a way to speak to the nation that exists? What is England?
Of course, there are huge problems with trying to talk about traits of a population of fifty-five million people. Necessarily, we must draw in broad brush strokes. But why is it that conservatism seemingly has such a stranglehold on England?
Perhaps more than anything, England seeks continuity and custodianship. We are a nation that instinctively recoils from the idea of revolution; any spasms of radical change need to be packaged up as common, hard-headed sense, and the Tories understand this well. English radicalism so often tends to be of a peculiarly conservative kind.
It is often a lament of liberals that we lack public intellectuals, but it is possible that this English disdain for intellectualism has helped prevent us from succumbing to political extremes. England eschews the big ideas, the grand schemes; it is perhaps no surprise in this light that neither communism nor fascism took deep roots here. We English aren’t averse to a bit of muddling through, and we don’t often look to our elected officials for great leadership and visionary ideas. Instead, we are a people who want to know that things are running as they should be, and beyond that generally don’t seek greater political involvement. All else being equal, the English will support the politician most likely to let them be.
This all feels like fertile territory for the Conservatives, particularly as Labour always has a tendency to present itself as the party of change, fizzing with revolutionary zeal. But all is not lost, because England also believes in a social contract of sorts. We still see England, rightly, as one of the great nations, and we believe that we should have a properly funded and supported public realm. As a nation, we prize the practicalities; we care if our local bus services are hopeless, our schools are going bust, or our local bank closes down. And we do see the damage the Tories are doing.
But it is about more than materialism. England is in the heart. In the 1930s, socialist campaigner Robert Blatchford wrote “The England of my affection is not a country nor a people. It is a tradition, the finest tradition the world has ever produced. The Labour Party do not subscribe to that tradition; do not know it; could not feel it”. It is a complaint which resonates today.
Too many on the left have an undeniable squeamishness when talking about England, seeing it as intrinsically racist and still bound up with imperial ambitions. On the latter point, they are the mirror image of the strand of conservatism which sees the country through the lens of empire; to think of England in such terms is to live in the past.
This is also why the attempt to redefine Englishness is doomed; it smacks of aiming to make Englishness something more palatable to the author, and hence an implicit rejection of what it actually already is. For sure, racist thugs may wave the English flag, but we are sadly hardly unique in having such problems, and a few yobs don’t get to define us as a nation. In fact, the St George’s Cross will only become a symbol of the far-right for as long as we cede it to them; the flag, and Englishness, belongs to each and every one of us, and there is no way we should allow racists to define what it means.
There is so much that is to be celebrated about our green and pleasant land. We are a kind, polite, welcoming nation, famous for our creative industries and our sense of humour. We are a compassionate country; we love animals, and we donate prodigious sums to charity. People come from the world over to live in England, because – weather excepted – it is actually a pretty great place to be.
If the left can’t bring itself to embrace England, it may want to ask itself why it is interested in governing it at all. Why should the English support a party which appears to hold them in contempt? Whether leftists like it or not, people feel a huge attachment to their community and their country, and failing to recognize and respect this is both morally wrong and strategically foolish.
It can often feel as though England is immutably Tory. The English can often be sentimental and backward-looking, and whilst progressives might think that this nostalgia hankers after a past that never existed, if it expresses itself as a longing for good and secure jobs, decent public services, beautiful public spaces, and a strong sense of community, there is plenty there for a progressive English left to align with.
Further, note that the combined votes of Labour and the Liberal Democrats have comfortably exceeded the Conservatives’ in England in every general election but one (2015) for over forty years. Despite how it can sometimes feel, there is a large pool of progressive, liberal social democratic voters across England. There is a big opportunity here for a left which is prepared to embrace England as it is, rather than try and wish it away or pretend it’s something that it is not.
Happy St George’s Day.