Daily Mirror journalist Ros Wynne-Jones recently chaired the English Labour Network’s ‘Politics of England’ event in Parliament on 3 March. These were her introductory remarks…
Labour lost 48 seats in England at the general election and 65 of Labour’s target seats are in England. You might be wondering why someone with the surname Wynne-Jones is taking about Englishness, which is a good question. I’ve been interested in the issue of Englishness and progressive patriotism for a long time. I first started running democratic engagement campaigns for the Daily Mirror with Hope Not Hate as far back as 2004 and we were involved in the Battle of Barking & Dagenham in 2010 when the BNP almost seized control of the council there. Sam Tarry was also very much involved in that campaign, and it became abundantly clear that there were swathes of the country that felt abandoned by Labour, even back at that time, and that there was a metropolitan government distant from them, not speaking for them.
I think that’s grown over the years, that people sense a patronising contempt, almost a queasiness about some of their views, a snobbishness which has only grown since Labour’s grown its metropolitan base. It feels there’s even more distance between those different groups that’s catalysed over Brexit. When we’re asking ourselves the question why has the brickwork fallen out in the red wall, we have to look back to that division.
For the last three years, I’ve been running the Wigan Pier Project which has brought us into a lot of contact with people who define very much as English ahead of British. We’ve met a lot of people in that category, people that are described in the English Labour Network’s latest report.
Also I’ve read a lot of George Orwell, and we’ve discussed a lot of Orwell and the resonance his ideas from 80 years ago has for people today in those communities. Orwell said that the nearest one can come to describing England in a single phrase is a family with the wrong members in control, which I think we can all agree is very much where we are at the moment (in March 2020).
It seemed to me that bottling up the issue and the question of Englishness is causing us a problem. It’s like bottling up the issue of immigration; the more it gets bottled up, the more angry people feel about it. People have a right to a sense of national belonging and the meaningfulness that comes from it, something that people seem to find more easily in other places like Wales or Scotland or Catalonia.
With Britain Talks, we’re looking at all sorts of different divides, not just Brexit – inter-generational, north-south, the divide between towns and cities – and across different culture wars. It’s clear that Englishness and a sense of identity cuts across all these different issues. I think that this issue is only going to become more exposed as the Union comes under increasing pressure, as we move forward.
Englishness is a signifier but it’s more than that because if we get it right Englishness could also be a unifier between north and south, BAME and white, and young and old. It is interesting, because if someone like Sadiq Khan can start a sentence with “as a proud Englishman” that opens up a space where lots of us can talk about Englishness in a way that maybe hasn’t been possible in the past.
So, some questions we need to answer: How do we find a way to talk about Englishness that doesn’t just mean whiteness?” How do we do a Danny Boyle for the England flag, like we saw during the Olympics? What do we even mean by Englishness? And what on earth is a “patriotic breakfast”?!
We’re be posting more articles throughout this week from speakers at our 3 March event, to mark St George’s Day on 23 April.