England – which England?

Paul Salveson on the fool’s gold of English nationalism

The quest for a ‘progressive English politics’ has become a growing trend recently amongst sections of the left in England, particularly in the South. Recent articles in the Guardian and Observer suggest that ‘recapturing’ English identity from the right could be key to Labour rebuilding its popularity in a post-Brexit world. Writing in the Guardian, Andy Beckett suggests that the nature of Englishness matters – “not least because a less prickly and entitled version would be better for our neighbours. And it might even stop a lot of the English from feeling like foreigners in their own land”.

In a subsequent piece in the Observer, Julian Coman is more specific about how a progressive Englishness could be articulated. Illustrated by a photo of ‘quintessential England’ – a rural English church with the flag of St George flying next to it – Julian takes us on an “English journey” which culminates in the idea of an English Parliament.

The implications of a unitary English Parliament are deeply worrying. It would stimulate what the Scots-born Irish republican James Connolly, in a different context, called “a carnival of reaction”. Not only would it even further institutionalise the political dominance of England’s South and embolden a very nasty strain of right-wing Toryism, it would also drive a very large wedge between England and Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Any sort of federal settlement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would inevitably be dominated by England, which numerically alone would vastly outweigh its would-be partners. It would leave the North of England even more marginalised and excluded. It would set in stone the supremacy of English Toryism at its worst. A left-wing, or even mildly progressive, English nationalism is fool’s gold and will end in tears.

We need to create a new England which is rebalanced, with the historic marginalisation of its regions reversed. Another England is possible, but it’s an England of the regions.

What could this mean in practice? The alternative to a unitary, centralised English Parliament should be a decentralised England which reflects the regional diversity of the country and sits comfortably with its neighbours. It could provide an umbrella for several different identities, all of which are ‘English’ but each is different. And it’s identity that is key. We need to rethink the regional map of England and not take the post-war regional boundaries (based on the standard planning regions) as given. People’s identities are as important as what works economically.

England as it is and its creation, the British state, will take some shifting. The catalyst for change could well be Scottish independence, which would result, by default, in what is essentially an ‘English Parliament’ with Wales as a reluctant appendage. This should be avoided at all costs and people on the left should have no truck with it. Starmer’s attempts to wrap us all in the Union Flag risk taking us down the road of an ugly nationalism which could lose Labour members and stimulate new political forces.

Cracks are already beginning to show in the North, with the emergence of small regionalist parties and, most recently, the new Northern Independence Party (NIP), which is essentially a civic nationalist party based around a national identity (‘Northumbria’) which currently doesn’t exist. But nations are created, and perhaps in the future a Northumbrian identity will emerge. There’s a very long way to go. In the long-term, an independent North might happen. For now, it seems a very long way off, but if NIP and other regionalist parties (the North East Party, Putting Cumbria First, the Yorkshire Party and others) can snap at the heels of Labour and push it towards a more pro-Northern approach, fine. Twenty years ago no one could foresee that Labour would be virtually wiped out in Scotland. A similar fate could befall it in the North, but it doesn’t have to be so. Why not a ‘Northern Labour Party’ working as part of a devolved Labour across the UK and building strong roots in the English regions?

A federal England within a confederation which includes Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland, with the Irish Republic as a close friend and ally, could emerge as an alternative to the complete break-up of the UK. But it should be a confederation of nations and regions, not a supposed federation in which Westminster remains in ultimate control.

For the time being, Labour, with the Lib Dems and Greens, should get behind the idea of regional democracy and move beyond the flawed city-region mayoral model. It’s undemocratic and unaccountable; only the figurehead is elected, a step back even from the days of the metropolitan county councils. Regional assemblies elected by PR, which can pioneer new forms of governance working with empowered local government, should be the way forward.

A longer version of this paper is available on the Hannah Mitchell Foundation website.

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