For for too long a version Of English has dominated British politics. Proud, white, confident and defensive, Often xenophobic, always anti-European, this Englishman has changed as little as the tabloid covers that have screamed it for decades. Brexit is one Of his biggest victories. The continued conservative ancestry is another.
Even formsidable politicians from other parties have struggled to popularize a different national identity. Gordon Brown missed out on well-meaning but unconvincing generalities about British national character: In 2007, he praised our “tolerance”, “decency” and love Of “fair play” and “freedom”.
Tony Blair tried to adopt the language Of conservative patriotism for Labor’s own purposes. One Of his electoral broadcasts in 1997 they interspersed promises Of a national revival with images Of an awake bulldog. Labor won the election, but the idea that national pride could only be expressed through such outdated Churchill symbols remained unchallenged.
For anyone alienated, or worse still, by the continuing control Of the right over our national identity, one Of the frustrations is that for a long time, and in many ways, much Of the country has not resembled the tabloid England, if at all. Ever did. Increasingly multicultural, globally connected and socially liberal, with no rEverence for the nation’s imperial past and instead immersed in our cosmopolitan popular culture, tens Of millions Of people have been living new formss Of English since the 1960s. The black British historian Paul Gilroy, who has nothing to do with England, calls this the “friendly” side Of the country. The components Of this alternative English have been there for decades, right under our noses. And yet politicians have rarely produced them.
Paradoxically, Brexit could change that. The disappearance Of the EU bogeyman, or at least its decline, removes much Of what has energized conservative English and held its factions together. Some predict that the right wing will simply replace its campaign against the EU with culture wars against liberal England. With all the recent attacks on racism and the “awakening” by the right wing, that change in strategy seems quite advanced.
And yet, as politically potent and socially destructive as these culture wars are, it can be difficult to define and maintain conservative English simply by attacking the English rather than the foreigners, attacking the imperfect but clearly functional multicultural life Of our towns and cities instead Of caricaturing it. bureaucrats in Brussels. And such culture wars run the risk Of making the other diverse England more clearly appreciate what they have in common. At the Black Lives Matter marches last summer, which were bigger and more multiracial than many expected, you could feel protesters and speakers looking around and thinking, “We are more than you thought.”
If, finally, this other English character is to be adequately represented in Westminster, then the Labor Party is for now at least the only plausible vehicle, thanks to its size, relative diversity, and continuing strength in many Of England’s towns and cities.
HowEver, getting Labor to think again in English will not be easy. Much Of the party’s energy and talent has historically come from Scotland and Wales, and English politics has been so associated with the right, and sometimes the far right, that Labor leaders have Often avoided the issue altogether. Of English.
But Brexit has made it difficult for Labor to sidestep the issue. Scottish independence feels closer now that Britain has left the EU. If it happens, Labor will become even more dependent on English voters and MPs. And even if the Conservatives succeed in denying Scotland another referendum, the necessary battles are likely to make them even more the party Of aggressive English nationalism. Realistically, Labor can’t be that, too, as much as the party’s most curious right-wing figures, disproportionately focused on getting patriotic voters back on the “red wall,” want to try. Trying to outdo conservatives in nationalism is likely to be as futile as trying to outdo them in crime.
Instead, Labor will likely have to Offer a different view Of England. In three Of the last four general elections, the Conservatives have won at least 100 more English seats than Labor. One Of the most effective tactics Of the Conservatives has been to warn that, in the event Of a hung parliament, Labor forms a coalition with the SNP – in other words, that a Labor government would be insufficiently English. If the Conservatives tell their Labor-SNP scare stories in the next election, Labor could use a story to tell about modern England.
The Cool Britannia phase Of the Tony Blair government, when Noel Gallagher was invited to Downing Street in 1997 and the “creative industries” became a ministerial cliché, is now generally remembered as a warning about the danger Of mixing politicians with pop stars. (Gallagher later bragged that he had taken cocaine in a Downing Street bathroom.) But at the time, it also felt like a breakthrough. At last, a government was recognizing the importance Of popular culture and, by implication, modernizing what was our national identity. Great Britannia certainly didn’t hurt New Labor at the polls. In the 2001 elections, it won 158 English seats more than the Conservatives.
During the best moments Of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, there was again a sense that Labor was drawing energy from alternative formss Of English, not just from the old dissident tradition that Corbyn embodied, but from the modern lives Of many young people and minorities. In the crowd at a Corbyn rally, you saw a DifferentEnglandd idealized by the tabloids.
HowEver, this England was not big enough for Labor to win. And the other England is resilient: a large minority Of voters still yearn for Boris Johnson’s English nationalism, despite all the disappointments and disasters it brings.
Social change, such as the increase in the ethnic minority population, can decisively weaken Old English in the end. But social change can be slow and unpredictable. A new Englishman will probably only displace the old if there is enough political will.
In the midst Of a pandemic, with American democracy under attack and the UK visibly fragmented, the future Of English may seem irrelevant, especially if you are a Scotsman anticipating independence. But the attempted insurrection in Washington shows what can happen when the right wing considers its version Of what a country is seriously threatened and sacrosanct.
England is not so divided yet. But the nature Of English is important, especially since a less thorny and authoritarian version would be better for our neighbors. And it could even prevent many English people from feeling like foreigners in their own land.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism