Looking For A New England
The political narrative of the 2010s has been dominated by threats to the United Kingdom’s multinational union. The moderate SDLP has been supplanted by Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, independence dominates the agenda in Scotland, and the looming weight of Brexit could still place an unbearable strain on the ties that bind the union together. But all this obscures another, quieter disintegration. England itself is a nation held together with pieces of string, as the institutions which formerly held it together continue to crumble. The political upheavals of the next decade might well spare the unity of the UK, but the unity of England is another matter.
England has become so inextricably connected with the union it dominates that the very fact of an English identity outside that of the UK is easy to forget, at least when there isn’t a World Cup on. There is a void where we would expect an English identity comfortably nested within a larger one. In recent decades, far-right groups have attempted to fill this gap, promoting an idea of ‘Englishness’ as xenophobia. While this is nothing more than a branding exercise – which we need not accept – there is no getting away from the fact that they have had some success. While it is a cause for optimism that ‘British’ seems to be growing as an inclusive identity – about half of people with black or Asian ethnicity identified as British in the 2011 census, for instance – there also seems to be a backlash: only 14% of white respondents to a BBC and YouGov survey last year identified as British. 61% of those who described themselves as white identified as English, against only 32% of ethnic minorities. Does Englishness have any meaning now beyond simply acting as a photographic negative of ‘British’, rejecting the diversity that term now implies?
The problems of Englishness are the problems of England’s troubled institutions. To start with the most obvious, the Church of England has historically had a crucial role to play in giving England a distinctive sense of itself – a uniquely English thing, which initially set it apart from Continental Europe and then continued to mark it as distinct within the UK. Even as churchgoing declined in the 20th century, the Church of England remained there in the background, a reassuring bulwark. Now the deterioration seems to be terminal, as only 800,000 people attend services with any kind of regularity – out of a population of 56 million. As this group gets older and older without much replenishment, a key part of traditional English identity will drift even further into irrelevance.
The Anglican Church was famously once described as ‘the Tory Party at prayer’, and the current woes of the Conservative Party are a neat display of how tattered the nation of England is. The Conservative Party has always had its heartland in England, with its competitors establishing strongholds on the perimeter. The importance of England to the Tories was made abundantly clear in 2014, when commentary on the Scottish referendum had to reckon with the fact that David Cameron might well not have wanted his own side to win all that much, since removing Scotland from the UK would significantly improve Conservative electoral prospects.
But the limitations of this strategy were displayed for all to see in the 2017 election. The Conservatives called that election because they thought that the Brexit vote which had so clearly divided the UK could unite England behind them (and pick up some seats in Wales along the way). If the Conservatives could become the party of England as surely as the SNP had become the party of Scotland, seats like Bolsover which had never elected Tories could finally be in contention. I doubt he would have put it in these terms, but Nick Timothy’s goal in 2017 was surely to fundamentally realign British politics, positioning the Conservative Party as the representatives of the working class while maintaining its dominance in the Home Counties and among the wealthy, and thus limiting Labour to metropolitan liberals – not a winning base since universal male suffrage in 1918. The failure of this plan is enough to show that in fact Labour were the more adept at grafting together a coalition, but also provided definitive evidence of the bitter divides splitting England. As it turned out, socially liberal young people were now a sufficiently powerful anti-Conservative grouping to mean that the only historic shifts were places like Canterbury and Kensington swinging Labour. But this growing polarisation will not always work in Labour’s favour, and its own struggle to meaningfully address questions of Englishness is obvious. In the long term, the party surely needs answers to this fundamental dilemma – but none are really on offer. There are certainly mantras like ‘we need to reclaim Englishness’ on offer, but these phrases aren’t the magic spells their advocates seem to think, and just saying them achieves very little.
This all exposes England’s larger crisis; the division between the south-east and the rest of the country has become so intense that it’s hard to see what the two have in common anymore. Politically, the distance between the two is fraying both major parties; divides over Brexit are symptoms of a growing schism, not the cause of the splits. Unfortunately for simple answers to this, the schism isn’t just between Northern towns and Southern cities; notably, the wealthy and leafy streets of Ashford – a town with a direct train link to Brussels – had a higher Brexit vote from a slightly lower population than post-industrial Darlington. Culturally, as education becomes an ever more important factor in outlook and attitude, London’s dominance as a destination for graduates is crucial – causing a brain drain of 310,000 graduates from the North between 2006 and 2016, for instance. Economically, the future direction of the British economy seems inevitably turned towards high technology and automation – industries already prospering in London and Cambridge, but requiring massive change and investment outside these thriving centres. Already, no English city outside London and its orbit is more productive than the European average. Outside urban areas, the picture looks, if anything, even bleaker. Cornwall is the second most deprived region in the northern EU, and the economic disparity between the people living in leafy parts of London and the towns they see out the window as they drive to a Cornish beach seems likely to continue to increase.
Nevertheless, it is the areas outside the major urban centres that are at the core of most people’s conceptions of Englishness – the England of the village green, the thatched cottage and the country pub. Much of this self-image was deliberately fabricated in the nineteenth century, as a country becoming the world’s most powerful constructed a past for itself as the Merrie England of pastoral idyll. Now we not only don’t have this imagined green and pleasant land – a situation which will only be exacerbated by the continuing slow-motion collapse of the agricultural sector and the imminent cessation of EU payments targeted at alleviating rural poverty – but the dark satanic mills have gone too, and in their absence, we don’t seem to have anything at all.
Finally, the great structures which were built out from the ruins of the Second World War – the welfare state, the NHS, public housing – are under unprecedented strain, fracturing another chain in the links holding England together. There are no easy answers on what can be done to offer a new sense of Englishness, particularly because that sense of Englishness has to be an alternative one; part of the reason the village green image has been shattered is the fact that the UK has become a diverse and multicultural society, which is unquestionably a positive development. It’s hard to think of any big or inspiring answers, because the problem is precisely that big, sweeping narratives of English identity are relevant to fewer and fewer people. Perhaps the only place to start is small – with our attachments to local community.