What is Englishness?

English bulldog
English bulldog

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the London Olympic Games, the European Football Championships, and the looming question of Scottish independence have all got people asking: what does it mean to be English?

Or at least, Ed Miliband is asking. In a speech praising the "multiple allegiances" of English, Scottish or Welsh Brits, the Labour leader said we need to have a conversation about "who we are as a people".

The voices of Scottish, Welsh, and, needless to say, Irish nationalism have always had a place in the mainstream dialogue about Britain's identity, but some feel that English nationalism has been confined to minority voices. It is even associated by some with far-right extremism. As Miliband himself said in his speech: "For some it [English nationalism] was connected to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Union flag was reclaimed from the National Front. Since Euro 96, English football fans have helped to reclaim the flag of St George from the BNP."

The speech attracted much debate, but what does it all mean in practice? Will Ed Miliband try to find a workable solution to the West Lothian question - perhaps even an English parliament? Some talking heads think so. And his reference to the role Scots played in fighting the poll tax in the 1980s, as well as his attempt to tie this notion of Englishness in with his own policies, such as the introduction of a Living Wage and his call for "responsible capitalism", gives the impression he is trying to evoke a kind of anti-Tory solidarity across Britain. We are, he seems to be telling the huge numbers of SNP voters who rejected Labour in 2010, all going to be a stronger force for resisting Tory austerity together, within the union, than apart. This may ring true for the English left but it's uncertain whether it will be a convincing argument to many of those on the left in Scotland. They complain that they are, despite having elected only one Conservative, facing huge cuts in spending and services, inflicted on them by English politicians in Westminster.

Some say Ed Miliband's Englishness speech shows the fingerprints of Jon Cruddas, recently promoted to replace Liam Byrne as chair of the Labour party's policy review. Some even say it indicates a return to the Blue Labour philosophy, the brainchild of Lord Maurice Glasman. The idea of Blue Labour was officially dropped after a controversial interview in which the peer floated tentative support for a policy of halting all immigration entirely for a period, which critics denounced as unfair, impractical, and potentially illegal under EU law and other international commitments.

The speech closes by pondering the "paradox of patriotism"; being proud of a culturally rich nation and therefore being suspicious of nationalism. Whether or not the speech marks a return to the politics of Blue Labour, the influence of Cruddas, or something else altogether, Ed Miliband is certainly trying an interesting tactic with the electorate. He seems to be trying to reclaim patriotism as a progressive doctrine, by taking pride not just in military or royal achievements, but in equal pay, suffrage, and community spirit. In doing so, he perhaps hopes to paint the Tories, the austerity agenda, and even the unpredictable turbulence of global capitalism itself, as unpatriotic.

But will it work? Does nationalism contradict progressive politics? Will the Conservatives always be the party of patriotism? And, perhaps most importantly of all to the Labour party, is Ed Miliband convincing enough as a leader to change the way we consider concepts as difficult to define in the first place as patriotism, national identity, and Englishness?


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