How progressives can reclaim Englishness

We need to talk about England.

For far too long, there has been a squeamishness on the left about ever discussing England in its own right. St George’s Day is in fact the only time of the year when English patriotism is even seen as acceptable, as politicians then try to out-compete each other in chest-thumping expressions of love for this country’s pubs, countryside and football teams.

Yet stray beyond such safe and popular common ground and the discomfort that still exists when talking about England in its own right remains palpable. Indeed, it is so engrained that we often don’t even notice when people muddle up England and Britain and fail to distinguish between them. Sir Keir Starmer’s recent article in celebration of St George’s Day was a classic case in point, as again and again, he slipped between England and Britain, using both terms interchangeably.

But such a conflation of complex, multilayered identities serves nobody, whether in England itself, or the wider United Kingdom. At a time of increasing division between the four nations, it is more important than ever that we do start to have serious conversations about England itself, which has so clearly emerged as the dominant political force behind UK decision making.

Nowhere was this seen more clearly than during the Brexit referendum, when England and Wales voted to leave, as Scotland and Northern Ireland opted to remain. This not only strained the myth of the United Kingdom as an equal partnership of four nations, but also cast doubt on the future of the union itself.

As the repercussions of Brexit unfolded, many Remainers lamented that they no longer recognised the country they were living in. And I was struck by two thoughts. First, frankly, that they bloody well should. If the views of so many people had come as a shock, then that was on us. But secondly, it was all too clear that the country they were referring to was not generally the UK. It was in fact England which had driven the decision to leave.

In a bid to understand and bridge these divides, I embarked on a journey across Leave-voting areas in England. Through face-to-face conversations, I discovered a common thread of pride in local identity juxtaposed with a sense of powerlessness. People felt unheard and ignored by the distant corridors of power in London.

And this wasn’t just about economics; it was about culture and identity. The notion of Englishness was complex, embracing diverse aspects of heritage and belonging. However, many people resented how political expressions of English identity were often met with scepticism and even hostility.

It was acceptable to love the English countryside, English humour, English music and English literature. But the moment Englishness took a political form it became anathema. Even mild forms of patriotism were frowned upon. The English flag was acceptable fluttering from a church tower in a picturesque village but was instantly interpreted as a form of racism if hanging from someone’s window on an estate.

It was these conversations that prompted me to delve deeper into the essence of Englishness and its role in shaping our collective narrative. What could Englishness be and how could we all be involved in shaping it? What kind of England do we want now and in the future, either within the UK or perhaps even as an independent state?

Will it be a smaller, diminished version of England? Will imperial delusions and exceptionalism continue to shape our identity? Will England inward-looking, resentful of lost glories, held back by social and economic injustice, and run for the benefit of a narrow elite? Or could it become a genuine democracy, confident, outward- looking and inclusive? Could it include a reckoning with the realities of our imperial past, and a recognition of the necessity of a future within Europe?

Each of us will have a different starting point. From the streets we walk to the literature we cherish, English identity is multilayered and ever-evolving. However, unlike other parts of the UK, there are no dedicated institutions to represent England’s diverse reality comparable to any in the other three countries of the UK. This void, the so-called English Problem, not only reflects a cultural challenge but also a democratic deficit.

Yet as we navigate the complexities of Brexit and the alarming rise of populism both in England and across Europe, the need to grapple with the thorny question of England’s identity has never been more urgent. The right has hijacked Englishness and they know, as they have always known, that English national consciousness is a powerful political force they can harness and turn to their advantage. The vision they present of Englishness cannot be countered by facts and evidence alone.

The challenge for progressives is to reclaim Englishness and tell bolder and more compelling stories about what it means to be English. Because a country without such stories can never thrive and prosper, and it certainly cannot rise to the existential threats of our time like the climate and nature emergencies. As the writer Ben Okri puts it, ‘Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.’

If progressives cede this ground, if we decide it’s too difficult and stay squeamish about even talking about Englishness, then we can’t be surprised if a regressive inward-looking narrative takes an even stronger hold. We need stories that unify, rather than divide and offer hope, not despair. We need stories which embrace inclusivity and acknowledge both people’s anxieties and their aspirations for a fairer, greener and better future.

That’s why I set out to write a book about what Another England could look like. And as someone who loves English literature, it felt like a natural starting point to turn to the writers I loved in the quest to discover some of those stories and explore our culture, society and politics. I revisited my favourite writers, from the anonymous Gawain poet who had helped renew my emotional connection with nature, to the passionate social justice of Elizabeth Gaskell, or the celebration of diversity of Bernadine Evaristo.

Finding and telling stories that speak to the truth of England’s past and present – that put the Diggers and Chartists and Suffragettes in their rightful place alongside Nelson and Churchill, for example, and that inspire us to imagine and pursue new and better futures – might turn out to be one of the most urgent and transformative acts we can undertake. And it could be one of the greatest contributions we could make to a healthier democracy, not just for England but for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Another England by Caroline Lucas is out now:

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