This is the first in a series of interviews with senior Labour figures, conducted by Cllr Sam Stopp, to mark the launch of the English Labour Network. Here an Irish-born council leader speaks of the importance of English identity in a Midlands target seat.
“We need to reclaim the flag of St. George from the racists,” Cllr Tom Beattie – the Labour leader of Corby Council in Northamptonshire – tells me emphatically.
Beattie is an Irishman and, although he spent the first 16 years of his life in Ireland, he tells me that he is proud to live in England and says warmly, “England has given me a lot. It has given my wife and my family a lot.” When he goes abroad, people often assume that he’s English. He always tells them that he’s not, but that he’s very proud of the country he has called home for most of his years.
It’s refreshing to get a supportive perspective on Englishness from someone who isn’t English. The stereotypical image of Stella-swilling football thugs which is often summoned up to deride Englishness seems far from Beattie’s mind. “I relate to Englishness very well”, says Beattie. “When I go abroad, people are very interested in, and fond of, the idea of England”, he tells me. “There is much to celebrate in English culture and history, and Labour should celebrate it”, Beattie insists.
Corby Borough Council is a Labour authority in a sea of blue. Beattie laments the fact that Labour has been unable to win the Corby constituency, despite holding the council. He puts this partly down to both the rural and particularly English nature of large parts of the seat. To Beattie’s mind, where Labour must appeal specifically to English-identifying voters in order to win, it struggles.
I ask Beattie how Labour can address the fact that those voters who identify as English seem reluctant to vote Labour. Here Beattie is adamant: “We need to embrace people who are proud of their English identity. A lot of English people – particularly working-class English people – don’t like middle class intellectuals belittling Englishness.” This is no doubt something Labour must guard against, given its increasingly middle-class membership.
I wonder if, to Beattie’s mind, there are people on the Left who have led the way in pushing for this kind of approach. “Billy Bragg is right on this”, Beattie tells me. Beattie says that, while he isn’t a fan of Bragg’s politics, the musician is an example of someone who understands the moving, compelling story of Englishness through the ages. More people in the Labour Party need to adopt the same mind-set, argues Beattie.
Beattie is recognised as a highly effective local government leader, as his shortlisting for the ‘Leader of the Year’ in 2015 attests. So, I ask him for his views on English devolution. “I’m a great supporter of proper devolution”, says Beattie passionately. I tell him that, when I spoke to former Labour minister, John Denham, he told me that England had got a raw deal from devolution. “England is the least devolved part of the country, and we can do better”, declares Beattie with a flourish.
But how? Beattie says local government needs to take a lead, because central government doesn’t seem to have the appetite. He bemoans the fact that, when he and three other Local Authority leaders met with a government minister to discuss a better devolution deal for Northamptonshire, they were asked why there were four of them at the meeting, rather than just one of them in a unitary capacity. “Because we’re not here for a unitary deal”, Beattie told the minister. “We want proper devolution for our local communities”, he insisted.
All of this leads me back to the frequent negative depiction of Englishness in the media – as something nasty, brutish and racist. Beattie tells me about his early days in England when, as an Irishman, he was acutely conscious of his own national identity in the midst of the IRA bombing campaign. But England is now and was then, says Beattie, “a tolerant liberal society.” That’s one the things he’s always loved about England, he says.
I have to ask him if he feels things have changed, particularly in the wake of Brexit and widespread concerns about immigration. Beattie says that England certainly feels less tolerant than it was when he moved here in the early 1970s. I ask Beattie what Labour can do to reclaim the mantle of Englishness from UKIP and other elements on the right. And this is where he tells me that we must take back the flag of St. George from the racists who, in recent years, have unashamedly wrapped themselves in it.
I couldn’t agree more, and as our conversation draws to a close and we commit to a pint at Labour Party Conference in September, I’m left with a singular thought – if a proud, left-wing Irishman can embrace the best traditions of Englishness, then surely the rest of the Labour Party can, too.