This article was originally posted on Adam’s Medium blog here.
When Emily Thornberry tweeted a picture of a house adorned with England flags, with a white van parked outside, it caused a media nightmare for (then) Labour leader Ed Miliband. Twitter quickly concluded that “Thornberry looks down on people with England flags,” which soon extended to, “Labour looks down on England.” This exposed the extent to which the idea that “Labour hates England” had taken hold. Jeremy Corbyn has been our leader now for over a year, but he has yet to address Labour’s ‘English problem.’
But before delving into the tedious matter of recalibrating Labour’s identity politics so as to align us more adequately with many of those who we are supposed to represent, I want to recall one of my most memorable experiences of expressed ‘Englishness’ in recent years.
I was walking along Ocata beach in Catalonia, just outside of Barcelona. It was an incredibly hot day, and I was waiting to do my afternoon shift at work, when I spotted a topless man charging along the beach.
With the Mediterranean Sea glistening behind him, his huge belly was shaking and rippling like a great sack of jelly as he ran. He was shouting something. He was — as they always were — sunburned red raw. I could see he had a quite few stretched tattoos; looking a bit like when a balloon with a picture on it loses half of its air.
But it was when he got closer and I heard what he was shouting that the cringing truly began: “England! England!” He was hurtling across the sand towards a white tent. Above the tent flew a white flag, with a red cross on it. What he believed to be the Flag of St. George, flying above some kind of ‘England tent,’ erected upon the sandy shores of Southern Europe for a reason he was yet to ascertain.
He slowed as he reached the tent, swaying, obviously drunk, and trotted inside. Presumably it was bitterly disappointing when what he found inside wasn’t ‘England’ but a first aid station. Instead of Sky Sports Live and Stella on tap, he probably found some poor sod sat with their foot in a bucket of hot water to draw out jellyfish poison, and some bemused Catalan lifeguards.
One might question how patriotic a person truly is, if they cannot distinguish their national flag from the internationally recognised symbol for emergency health care — similar though they may be. I suppose you make exceptions for people on holiday.
Although this man was a ridiculous caricature, brought magnificently into existence through inhibitions jointly lowered by alcohol and the pure excitement of being abroad, what he represented for me was extremely familiar. A working class, or lower middle class English person, who isn’t remotely afraid to loudly proclaim their Englishness, and isn’t remotely ashamed of identifying as English. For Mr England, as he will now be known, his Englishness brought him happiness, and on that hot summer’s day under the Spanish sun, his drunken patriotic fervour got the better of him.
A number of months later, I experienced the polar opposite attitude towards England. I was at a Labour-related event in London. On the panel of this event was a number of high-ranking Labour politicians. One of them was a very important local politician in one of London’s Labour-controlled metropolitan inner boroughs. A question was raised about Labour’s ‘England problem,’ and her response was that she decidedly doesn’t consider herself English. She identifies firstly, with London, secondly with Britain, and thirdly with Europe. This is despite the fact that she herself — I’ll her call Cllr Betterthan — was clearly English. An English Labour politician, in the capital city of England, who insists on extricating her entire personal and political identity from England itself. I found this quite incredible.
I stupidly put up my hand and tried to question this. I made it very clear that I respected her right to identify in whichever way she wished, but I wanted to know why it was unpalatable for her to personally identify as English. Cllr Betterthan responded that it was her right to identify whichever way she wished.
A few minutes later, another Labour politician said that there was a hesitancy to align with Englishness because of its association with the far right. Cllr Betterthan nodded her head fervently. She didn’t have the guts to say it, but she had the guts to agree with it. She associates English self-identification with bigotry.
I can relate to Cllr Betterthan’s way of thinking, to an extent. There is a reason that I wouldn’t walk down the street waving an England flag around, despite being English. Every single time I have ever seen someone doing this, it has been accompanied by a can of lager and a placard espousing racial hatred. It is a subconscious wariness of brash Englishness rather than an active aversion to it. I can’t help but identify Englishness with negativity, because in my 25 years of England-watching, my experience of those who publicly express Englishness has been overwhelmingly negative.
I realise that the vast majority of those who identify with England are not the English Defence League, but there is an undeniable correlation between the force with which one asserts their Englishness upon the world around them, and the extent to which they hold hateful views towards people of other nationalities, religions and ethnicities.
However, at the same time, where I come from, in the South West, people overwhelmingly identify as English, in my experience. Contrary to Islingtonian fears, this does not always accompany racism or xenophobia. It is intellectually untenable to expect English people to continue seeing themselves as British rather than English when the Scots always seem to be heading in the opposite direction. People like Mr England are understandably outraged when they hear the likes of Cllr Betterthan signalling their virtue by rejecting the English identity altogether as though it is somehow an inherent wrong. It seems to them as though the Cllr Betterthans of the world consider themselves to be above the country of their birth and, by extension, better than the people who still have the gall to identify with it.
But we in the Labour Party are doing ourselves and the people we seek to represent a colossal disservice by failing to tackle this problem. England has an ancient culture, distinct from that of Scotland and Wales, and entirely deserving of the same honour and pride which the peoples of those nations bestow upon themselves. English literature, liberal political traditions, philosophy, sport, music, architecture, and so many other cultural inheritances are worthy of our pride and our attention. Are we really prepared to let a few racist hooligans in Luton high street take all of that away from us? Today, England contains many of the most dynamic and forward thinking people and organisations in the world. We are one of the friendliest countries in the world. We are one of the most charitable countries in the world. I still see myself as British first, English second, but it really should be a proud second — not a shameful addendum.
English identity politics will not fix roads. It will not build hospitals, or grow the economy. But consider this: Mr England and Cllr Betterthan agree on almost everything else. They both want a better-funded NHS. They both want good schools in every town in the country, and equal opportunities regardless of a person’s background. They both want a fair tax system. They both want to see ordinary people enjoy gradual improvements in their standard of living over time, not the sliding decline that we have seen in recent decades. On these issues and so many more, Mr England and Cllr Betterthan agree. Isn’t it a massive shame that rather than being able to make an offer that people like Mr England will vote for, Cllr Betterthan and her overly metropolitan party will instead alienate him through materially unimportant identity politics?
We need to align Labour with the identity complex of the ordinary people of England. If we don’t, UKIP and the Tories will just keep picking up the stray voters who we have repelled by means of metropolitan snobbery. We need Labour to embrace Englishness in the same way that it embraces Scottishness and Welshness. If we are unable to do this, then we have become terminally out-of-touch. If we are unwilling to do this, to relate to ordinary people on their terms, rather than ours, then we have to ask ourselves whether we deserve their votes at all.
With a bit of restructuring, rethinking, rebranding and perhaps a little re-educating, we could definitely create a situation wherein the likes of Cllr Betterthan could relate to England and Britain in a way which doesn’t repel the Mr Englands of our country. Ordinary people need to see themselves reflected in the Labour Party, not looked down upon by it. And if Labour were able to fully seize the mantle of Englishness, the Conservatives would soon be quaking in their British boots, as it will be far clearer for voters to see who the true snobs are in politics.