Caroline Lucas: ‘Extremists on the Right have hijacked Englishness — the Left must reclaim it’

I read Keir Starmer’s recent article claiming Labour is the true party of English patriotism with rising disbelief, both at his lack of vision for our country, and also his apparent reluctance to even name it.

Because for all his stated expressions of love for the English flag, our football team and pubs, Starmer referred repeatedly to Britain instead of England, muddling both together as if the two terms were interchangeable.

Perhaps he did not even notice himself doing it, so ingrained and automatic is the Left’s squeamishness to even talk about the concept of England and Englishness directly.  As a result it seems that the only people willing to do so are cheerleaders for Brexit, imperial nostalgia and exceptionalism.

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But this repeated and long-standing failure of those on the left to address the question of our English identity has serious consequences – not just for people here in England, but across the United Kingdom as a whole.

At a time of growing division, as we witness the rapid rise of the populist right and when the future of the United Kingdom itself looks increasingly in doubt, it has never been more important that we explore who we are – and who we want to be.

And that is a conversation which is happening in every other nation within the United Kingdom bar England itself, the one nation which, despite its cultural and political dominance, has no democratic institutions or mechanisms of its own to discuss English affairs.

This so-called English problem has long gone unaddressed by parties on the Left, despite the problematic consequences of such a democratic deficit. But worse still, is the failure not only to lead but to even be part of a conversation about Englishness.

Instead we have entirely ceded that ground to extremists on the right, who have hijacked, dominated and defined our national story to such an extent that many English people in this country who hold progressive views would now never even countenance flying the St George’s cross, for fear it would be perceived as a symbol of racism, exclusion and bigotry.

Starmer blames the Tories for that dismal state of affairs. But he also lashes out at such people who do now ‘flinch’ at the sight of the English flag – people he claims he has “no time for”.

Frankly, he should make some. Because if progressive people in England feel excluded from participating in Englishness, that is not just a reflection of the right’s success in telling a more compelling story about our country, it’s also a reflection of the Left’s failure.

It’s not enough to wave the flag and declare your patriotism – what’s needed now are more inspiring, inclusive and hopeful stories about what England is and what we could be. Yet even in the very article in which he claims Labour as the true English patriots, Starmer offers no alternative vision of England for people with progressive values to rally behind.

Where were the stories of a fairer, greener and more inclusive future that people would actually take pride in?  We have a rich history of radical movements for land reform, for example, from the 1217 Charter of the Forest via the seventeenth century Levellers and Diggers to today’s reinvigorated Right to Roam Campaign, which could be celebrated, as well as the history of efforts to achieve wider human and political rights for all, and to acknowledge and reckon with our imperialist past.

As the writer Ben Okri said, “Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

If Starmer really is a true English patriot, it’s time he told better, more truthful and more hopeful stories of what England is – and could be. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.