Who cares about England?

The left needs to engage in the debate about Englishness, argues Vron Ware, drawing on two books which explore alternatives to the ethnic, 'indigenous' whiteness of the far right's definition

June 12, 2008
5 min read

It’s two days before the May elections and I am looking through the junk mail that has stacked up behind the front door. As I read through the official pamphlet on the London choices I am startled by the big red cross on the page of the English Democrats. Their slogan ‘Putting England First’, with a big black tick next to the words ‘English Parliament’ suddenly looks less like a spin-off from the nether world of ultra-nationalists.

The appeal of the English Democrats illustrates perfectly that nationalism is defined most sharply in opposition to those deemed to be outside. But unlike the xenophobic ‘England for the English’ rhetoric of the far right, the main enemy for these self-styled Democrats is Scotland: the prospect of paying ‘tartan taxes’ and being ruled by a Scottish-run government. The fact that this lot don’t mention immigration on their leaflet is a pleasant surprise.

Of course the English Democrats didn’t make anything like the advances of the British National Party in the London Assembly elections, but their emergence does stoke the chorus asking who represents England in a so-called United Kingdom that looks increasingly fractious and unbalanced?

Labour’s catastrophic slide across the whole country is just one reason why the subject of England is becoming a contested political terrain once again. Many of those whose anti-racist politics are blended with a strong dislike of nationalism are understandably finding it hard to feel any enthusiasm for entering into the fray. But if England is to be represented in political terms within a devolving Union, then this squeamishness may be a luxury. In the light of the Tories’ regrouping, and in the context of the atrocious media celebration of Enoch Powell’s contribution to English history in 1968 (and the dismal opportunism of BBC2’s White Season), it is clear there are plenty of other forces busily defining and reclaiming England on terms that will make it a far less hospitable place.

Imagined Nation

Aside from electoral politics and the constitutional imperatives pressing on England’s political future, there is also the vexed question of who counts as English these days. Since sport offers more satisfying and fluid opportunities to define tribal affiliations, it has become a vital space in which new collective identities can emerge.

The change in composition and demeanour of England’s football supporters over the last decade is the perfect symbol of this process, one that has helped remove the venom from the red cross of St George. As Mark Perryman suggests in his edited collection, Imagined Nation: England after Britain, ‘Perhaps football, draped in St George, gives to a fair sprinkling of England a sense of belonging and well-being that party politics so patently fails to provide.’

The attempt to specify what is distinctively English can easily turn atavistic. It is not only those who live outside political borders who can be defined as outsiders. For this reason alone it is important to pay attention to an English lament that articulates a wounded and overwhelmed national essence. But what are the alternatives?

The spirit of Imagined Nation argues against the association of Englishness with an impenetrable, ethnic, ‘indigenous’ (and sometimes Christian) whiteness, echoing the struggles to transform Britishness as a white-identified category in the 1980s. Touching on a wide range of topics, from sport and culture to political and constitutional issues, the contributors address themselves to imagining a more pragmatic identification with the land many of us live in, native or otherwise. In these pages the debate about England’s postcolonial future looks a bit more interesting.

Add this to Paul Kingsnorth’s recent contribution from an environmentalist perspective. He castigates the English for being so nervous of discussing national identity that they have ceded any sense of regional culture and local distinctiveness to the forces of capitalist ‘modernisation’. But the anti-globalisation message applies to many other countries besides England, including the USA. It is not clear why a nationalist response is appropriate, particularly when the emphasis is on the very local and the regional.

The English Democrats gained barely a handful of votes in London, begging the question: in what way does London represent England? The changing composition of English identity has its own momentum, however contested, although it remains important to press for ever greater openness and inclusion. In a word, it is important to care what happens in this country and to fight for more accountable forms of representation.

Connecting the politics of anti-racism with arguments for sustainable economies is further evidence that nationalism is unable to offer any kind of solution. In the face of the multiple crises facing the planet, the task is to develop political ecologies that look beyond artificial national borders.

Vron Ware is a research fellow at the Open University working on culture and citizenship. Her last book Who Cares About Britishness? A global view of the national identity debate was published by Arcadia in 2007

Mark Perryman Ed (2008) Imagined Nation: England after Britain (Lawrence & Wishart)

Paul Kingsnorth (2008) Real England: the battle against the bland (Portobello)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.