A shortened version of John Denham’s speech to The World Transformed in Liverpool (Sept, 2018):
It’s good to be discussing national identity and the left.
Let’s start by making one thing clear: There isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and there is no ‘must’ about identity. If national identity doesn’t matter to you, it doesn’t matter to you. If you don’t identify as English or British, that doesn’t matter.
My argument is not that there should be a national identity that everybody has to sign up to, but about how the Left should respond to questions of identity that clearly do matter hugely to large numbers of people. I will argue that the left, not just in this country but right across Western Europe, needs to learn to argue its politics, in part at least, in the language of progressive patriotism. Secondly, I will describe the evolution and importance of British and English identities today. And I want to share some thoughts about the Left’s response.
Let’s start from this thought. If our politics really are ‘for the many, not the few’ it raises the question of who are ‘the many’? For us on the left, ‘the many’ can’t just be a statistical construct; just a list of all of those who are not part of the 1% or part of the 5% at the top. For democratic socialists ‘the many’ – if we are going to change society at all – must have a sense of who they are; a sense of themselves as the many. They must have a shared identity, a sense of responsibility towards each other and a determination to work together to build a different society. Changing society cannot simply be a matter of electing a government to make things better (even if you can get your government elected in the first place).
For much of the Left’s history, the core idea of ‘the many’, that sense of shared identity, was fostered in the unionised industrial working class and the communities and collective identity that they shared. Because of economic rather than political change, that sense of a core class consciousness is much weaker today, and shared by fewer people.
But, as we see across Western Europe, people still crave a sense of shared identity, particularly in difficult and insecure times. Whether we like it or not, this emerging sense of identity is expressed as the identities of nation, of people and of place. And the problem is that the left across Europe have failed to respond or engage to this change. This is partly because of the left’s recent rather than historic distrust of patriotism and national identity. But as a consequence, it has been left to the populist right to engage. And, given that space, the right has been allowed to define ‘nation’ as inward looking and hostile, and ‘the people’, in ethnic terms. And the politics of the populist right has often taken root most strongly in places and amongst people who feel that they have lost most from globalisation.
The left’s failure to engage is a real problem because of a fundamental and inescapable feature of democratic politics. Before many people will engage with policy, or ideology, they ask a much more visceral question: ‘can I trust this person, can I trust this party, to stand up for people like me?’
So, what happens when people feel patriotic? (Whether this audience does or doesn’t isn’t important, because most people do feel patriotic) What happens when there are many people in England who feel English more than they feel British? If Labour comes across as anti-patriotic, if Labour seems to ignore English identity or worse, disparage it, then we fail to make that very important initial connection. We send a not too coded message that these people from the Labour Party will fail to stand up for people like me because they are not people like me. And Labour often does come across like that. Very often we feel distant from people we should want to represent because they have suffered most from globalisation. We also need them to vote for us because they live disproportionately in the smaller English town that will determine the next election.
These issues of identity are not important to all voters, of course, but they are important to many.
But that means thinking about identity more cleverly than we often do. Identities are complex. Both the major national identities in England – English and British – are contested between right wing exclusive notions of identity and progressive inclusive interpretations. The left often underestimates the progress we have made in those battles.
I’d argue that, compared to 40 years ago, we’ve had significant victories in the argument about Britishness: I’d also argue that we are much closer to winning arguments about Englishness. Even 30 years ago many on the left side thought that Britishness would never be open to BAME people because of its association with imperialism and racism. Yet today it’s the minority ethnic communities who are more likely to identify as British the country as a whole.
That change was largely brought about not by the actions of white liberals but by people who are not white demanding the right to be British on an equal status as everyone else. This was partly an argument about an equal citizenship in which everyone is fully included. Englishness is not a citizenship – you cannot be an English citizen – so English identity is more purely a cultural struggle. And we have to acknowledge that Englishness is widely seen as a sensibility bestowed on people who are born here; (Not being born to white parents but by being born here). As a result, Englishness has been less accessible to newer migrants. But this is changing with every new generation. As we saw with the World Cup and Gareth Southgate’s young diverse England team, the idea that you have to be white to be English is already a minority view and one that is less widely held amongst the young.
The Left, though, has often just followed behind these changes; it’s been sceptical about them. It certainly hasn’t led them. By doing so, it has actually slowed progress and made things worse. In the 1970s and 1980s the left wouldn’t use the union flag because they said it belonged to the far right. But however dangerous and unpleasant, the NF had relatively few members. There often seemed to be more people on the left saying the flag belonged to the NF than there were NF members claiming it belonged to them.
Today we are in danger of doing the same thing with the St George cross: allowing a tiny minority to own it. We’re in danger of allowing a populist criminal like Tommy Robinson to claim the St. George Cross. For goodness sake!
It’s ridiculous. Over 80% of the people who live in England say they feel strongly English. Now, either there is an awful lot more fascists than most of us thought, or the vast majority of people who feel English are proud to be English but certainly are not and don’t want to be associated with the far right.
The left needs to engage in helping to shape English identity, and positively and openly wanting to represent people who feel English, and those who feel both English and British and don’t want their Englishness ignored.
There is a lot more to this, of course, than being willing to use the St George Cross and the union flag. It’s about how we talk about our politics and our vision. Much of what the left wants is about a different sort of country. One ‘for the many, not the few’. Yet we rarely talk about that ambition in progressive patriotic language, though early Labour generations did so instinctively. We need to find that language again.
As we do, we enable ourselves to access that long strand of English radical history that has inspired our predecessors and can inspire us. England today has been shaped by the demands and campaigns of ordinary English people, organised to defend their own rights and those of others. This is my 42ndLabour Party Conference. When I used to come in the 1970s and hear to Tony Benn, he often rooted his contemporary ideas in English radical history. It was an explicit part of his socialism. It’s a story we can ill afford to forget.
John Denham is Director of the English Labour Network and Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester