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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)

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