Identity is a complex thing and what someone draws from to forge their own sense of self varies. It can come from social groups, history or a person’s individual experience. In that sense, nationalism is an intriguing and often dangerous blend of a sense of belonging to a social group and a sense of blind pride in history and tradition. It ties itself to flags and borders, firmly wedded to continuity and carries a sense of exclusivity to it. Not everyone, try as they might, can join the club.
Englishness is the defining national identity in question within Britain, unsurprisingly. Not only because England has the largest population, but in an age of fractures within the union becoming clearer, self-determination for the Scottish and Welsh bubbling, the Irish always feeling separate, and immigration always in the air, Englishness has carried with itself a disturbing right-wing populist, anti-globalisation feel.
It’s become seen as a working-class thing and a problem for progressive circles, unable to understand patriotism, summed up by Emily Thornberry and the white van debacle. Some progressives view English flag-wavers as innately racist. Here the Labour Party has a difficult problem where its understanding of Englishness sets it apart from its traditional voters.
The rise in a sense of Englishness is not surprising. In a country of sweeping cultural changes, the sense of community can sometimes be strained. New traditions and values come about and in many ways, Englishness is today a reactionary phenomenon for many people seeking to hold onto what they feel are their identity. In some of their eyes, the very precepts of Englishness are being challenged, either by Liberalism, Islam or multiculturalism.
For the Left, a degree of honesty is required here. Not all English flag-wavers are racist and understanding why nationalism is so powerful is important. But English nationalism has never traditionally been an inclusive, tolerant concept as some are pushing. Englishness is many things but has often been rooted in far-right bigotry and steeped in horrible institutions. Reclaiming it by playing on the traditions of the Chartists, Levellers, and trade unionists is a noble idea, but one that unfortunately strips much of the ugly history away from what it meant to be English.
It was the identity of the far right who would attack minorities during the seventies and eighties, it became synonymous in many parts of the world for the British Empire and it has always existed as a racial identity as a response to other social groups. There’s a reason why a British Asian such as myself is that and not an English Asian.
Moreover, patriotism and the working class have created a skewed impression that the working class in Britain are mostly white, and perhaps migrants and minorities are part of the rich liberal elite. Working class Britain is the most diverse class phenomenon the country, so when working class patriotism is discussed, the Left has at times played into the hands of the Right by erasing the existence of individuals such as myself. Our voices in this count. Many of us are proudly British, but have never identified as English.
For the Left to reclaim Englishness cannot be done by ignoring the diversity of the working class it’s seeking to appeal to, nor by simply erasing what Englishness meant to many people. It means understanding that this identity meant many things, some were good, but many, unfortunately, were not.