Another England is Possible

Another England is possible: a Northern response to ‘The English Question’

by Paul Salveson

This paper argues that the quest for a ‘progressive English’ politics that doesn’t recognise the nation’s regional diversity is a dead-end. It makes the case for an ‘England of the Regions’ with a new democratic settlement founded on regional assemblies elected by PR. It makes the case for developing new , progressive policy networks (‘ideas mills’) which may be regionally-based – but which talk to each other and similar fora in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. These networks must have deep roots in their communities, reflecting regional distinctiveness. Keir Starmer’s apparent tilt towards ‘patriotism’ is unlikely to win support in the North but could well lose members across the UK. There is an alternative, based around progressive regionalism which embraces the strong radical traditions in different parts of Britain.

The Holy Grail of ‘Progressive Englishness’

The quest for a ‘progressive English politics’ has become a growing trend recently amongst sections of the English Left. Recent articles in The Guardian and Observer suggest that ‘re-capturing’ English identity from the Right could be key to Labour re-building its popularity in a post-Brexit world. Writing in The Guardian recently Andy Beckett suggests that the nature of Englishness matters – “not least because a less prickly and entitled version would be better for our neighbours. And it might even stop a lot of the English from feeling like foreigners in their own land.” [1]

There’s much to agree with Andy’s arguments, which recognises that the nature of England has changed dramatically in the last few decades and our relationship with a potentially independent Scotland needs to be carefully defined so that a vindictive and reactionary nationalism doesn’t take hold in England. In a subsequent piece in The Observer [2] Julian Coman is more specific about how a progressive Englishness could be articulated. Illustrated by a photo of ‘quintessential England’ – a rural English church with the flag of St George flying next to it – Julian takes us on an ‘English Journey’ which culminates in the idea of an English Parliament which would sit, comfortably we must assume, with devolved or independent governments for Scotland and Wales.

Professor John Denham of the Centre for English Identity at the University of Southampton joins in, condemning ‘the Left’ for its neglect of English identity suggesting “That this more liberal Englishness still lags behind multicultural Britishness is in large part because the Left has shunned English identity or promoted reactionary caricatures of it (perhaps like the photo used in The Observer story). Where British multiculturalism combined grassroots demands for inclusion with state endorsement, Englishness has had no such support. The surprise is not how little Englishness has changed, but how much. But it has too often been left to sports people – most recently Marcus Rashford, perhaps – to embody this developing Englishness. The engagement of political leaders and the state in shaping English identity – as Scotland’s leaders have done with Scottish identity – is long overdue.”[3]

To a limited extent they are right, though the deeply embedded conservatism within ‘English’ culture can hardly be blamed on the Left for failing to engage with it. It’s inherently reactionary, reflecting England’s ‘great’ imperial past and all that went with it. One of the strong slogans of the Leave campaign was ‘take back control’. But for most of us, we were never in control in the first place. It was England’s ruling class that had control, and still largely does, though how ‘English’ it is in these days of global capitalism is questionable.

The political conclusion of their arguments for ‘progressive Englishness’ is deeply worrying. A unitary English Parliament would stimulate what the Scots-born Irish republican James Connolly, in a different context, called “a carnival of reaction”. Not only would it even further institutionalise the political dominance of England’s south and embolden a very nasty strain of right-wing Toryism, it would drive a very large wedge between us, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  Any sort of federation between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a unitary England would inevitably be dominated by England, which numerically alone would vastly outweigh its would-be federal partners. It would re-inforce the current concentration of power in London and the south-east and leave the North of England even more marginalised and excluded. It would set in stone the supremacy of English Toryism at its worst. A ‘left-wing’, or even mildly progressive, English nationalism is fool’s gold and will end in tears.

 ‘The Left’ and questions of identity

Much is made in all three contributions about what is seen as a coherent view of ‘the Left’ assuming a coherent political movement embracing a particular set of attitudes, including hostility to ‘England’ and ignorant of ‘place’ and ‘identity’. I’d argue that’s mistaken in many ways. Hostility to ‘English nationalism’ doesn’t have much theoretical underpinning, but is an understandable reaction to the re-emergence of a nasty form of right-wing Toryism. There isn’t, and probably never has been, a cohesive ‘Left’ with an agreed set of values, ideas and assumptions, at least in England. Scotland and Wales do have their networks and institutions which are developing some exciting approaches to their national political debates, such as Common Weal in Scotland and the Bevan Foundation in Wales. But what of England itself?  Perhaps the Communist Party came nearest to providing it but that has long gone as a serious political force.  E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, A.L. Morton and others celebrated the radical strand within English history which sat comfortably with progressive traditions in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. [4]

The Labour Party itself has never really cared for intellectuals, still less a cohesive grouping of them that might influence policy. The Independent Labour Party tried to develop that role but its decision to ostracise itself from the mainstream in the early 1930s consigned it to irrelevance. Subsequently, groups around The New Reasoner (former CP’ers like E.P. Thompson, John Saville and others) did good work in developing a ‘British’ democratic socialism in the late 1950s but its influence didn’t stretch very far. The same goes for the work of intellectuals such as Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn in the early days of New Left Review. Both were highly scathing of the narrowness of ‘British Labourism’.

Today, what thinking there is amongst socialists tends to revolve around those bastions of London-based middle-class progressivism, The Guardian and The Observer as well as New Statesman. And there are some talented writers, including Paul Mason, Andy Beckett, Julian Coman and others.

But it’s very much a ‘metropolitan Left’ centred around London and its social networks.  There’s not much else; you’d struggle to think of a left-wing magazine in England that isn’t published (and largely written) from London. As Marx said, your material being – including where you live! – determines your consciousness.

What often strikes me about much of this London-based Left is its general lack of understanding and knowledge of the country in which they live, outside of the capital. This was evident during the referendum on Scottish independence and subsequent attempts to rebuild Labour support in Scotland, typified by Starmer’s very poor speech on devolution recently, which seemed entirely about winning back support north of the border. In a way, London political commentators (of the Left Centre or Right) have at least as limited an understanding of England as they do of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

This lack of understanding or empathy with the English regions runs deep and isn’t compensated by pleas from some London-based political writers about their ‘Northern/Scottish/Welsh’ (delete as applicable) roots. They exemplify what has been termed by David Goodhart as ‘people from nowhere’, counter-posed to ‘people from somewhere’, who had a real identity with their place. [5]Goodhart overstates his case by equating ‘people from somewhere’ too closely with Leave voters – reality is and was more complex. But he has a point.

Much of the media reporting of the North by the London media is often a condescending and stereotypical  ‘day return journalism’ with writers doing their best to spend as little time as possible away from home. The demise of most ‘regional correspondents’ in the national media has been a further nail in the coffin of balanced and intelligent reporting of the North and other English regions. Patronising and stereotypical views of ‘The North’ remain entrenched and acceptable within a London media culture that would think twice before patronising black or gay people. The North of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, remains ’fair game’. We are seen as Leave-voting, socially conservative born-again Tory voters, grovelling amidst the ruins of the ‘red wall’ (see below).

Good and bad nationalism

Let’s step back a bit and compare different ‘nationalisms’. I’ve some sympathy for the classic Marxist analysis which drew a clear distinction between the nationalism of ‘oppressed, colonial nations’ (good) and the nationalism of the colonising nations (bad). Crude maybe, but not wrong.  England, not by any means a small country with a population of 56 million, has spent centuries dominating and robbing other countries, including its immediate neighbours. The sun may have finally set on the British Empire but many of the attitudes, and racial stereotypes that went with them, are still very much alive. They were given a fresh airing during and after the Brexit campaign and have not gone away. Its politics is right-wing English nationalism and its institutional expression would ultimately be found within an English Parliament. We already see the visceral hatred of the SNP and the hatred of Nicola Sturgeon by the Anglo Right.

It will get much worse. For progressives within England, the last thing we should do is to help with this demonization of Scottish nationalism. [6]If Scotland wants to become an independent nation, that is for Scotland (and not the UK as a whole) to decide. But we can have a view – mine would be that many of the advantages of independence – and more – could be gained by a confederal British Isles with each part of the federation being equal. That would mean the English regions having separate representation, but clear protection for Scotland, Wales and Ireland who would otherwise be outvoted by ‘England’ in its regions. In reality, the Northern regions may decide to align more closely with Scotland and Wales than the southern English regions. Who knows, but I suspect there is more sympathy for Scotland across the North than we often assume.[7]

Nobody is saying England is awful (but it could become so)

Like many northern regionalists, I love many aspects of England including its rich diversity and radical history which includes but goes well beyond London. The North can take credit for much of what was and often still is good about England, but by no means all of it: the beauty of its landscape, its ingenuity and industry; its music, painting, architecture, science, literature and engineering. Many of these achievements were not seen as specifically ‘English’ so much as part of a Great Britain and an empire which had emerged triumphant but drastically weakened in its war against fascism.

A strong British economy with major centres of industry in the North of England, South Wales and the central belt of Scotland compensated for the structural inequalities, including the centralisation of political power, between London and the rest of the UK. When that traditional industrial base collapsed, from the 1980s, it marked the beginning of the end for ‘Great Britain’, at least as we know it. The end of Britain, whether we mourn it or not, does offer real opportunities, with a very different ‘England’ working positively with Scotland, Wales and Ireland (north and south, but re-unification is beginning to look like a serious possibility) as well as Europe.

We must not succumb to an England of the stereotypes – of the village green and the quaint church with the flag of St George flying high. That awful term ‘quintessentially English’ has no room for the North, nor for urban, multi-cultural London and Birmingham. And a ‘North’ which is patronisingly referred to, in lower case, as ‘the north’, the land of what was ‘the red wall’ (but never really was, except in the imagination of London journalists. [8]

We need to create a new England which is re-balanced, with the historic exploitation of its regions reversed. The germ of a decentralised, progressive England is already there and it has been highlighted – perhaps clumsily – by the proponents of ‘progressive Englishness’. Here I can agree with Andy Beckett and Julian Coman. Another England is possible, but it’s an England of the regions.

An England of the Regions

What could an ‘England of the regions’ mean in practice? The alternative to a unitary, centralised English Parliament should be a new, de-centralised England which reflects the regional diversity of the country and sits comfortably with its neighbours. [9] Could ‘English regionalism’ be just as reactionary as English nationalism? Experience from elsewhere in Europe, suggests not. [10]

Regionalism tends to be inclusive and socially progressive, with no imperialist baggage.  When I was campaigning for the small regionalist party Yorkshire First (now The Yorkshire Party) I found that regional identities were predictably strong in white working class communities but also in working class South Asian communities. Regional identity can be a very unifying force.

And it’s ‘identity’ which is key. We need to re-think the ‘regional’ map of England and not take the post-war regional boundaries (through the standard planning regional structure) as given. People’s identities are as important as what works economically. Some English regions form an obvious shape – Yorkshire and its neighbour the North-East being perhaps two of the most obvious. Others, including the North-West, don’t. We should be careful of drawing arbitrary distinctions which ignore people’s strong sense of identity – which is one of the biggest cards that regionalism has to play. And there’s no doubt that ‘identity’ is a tricky thing, with people having identities that are national, regional, local and neighbourhood; as well as ‘European’ and wider.

Within ‘The North’ regional identity is often strongest at a lower level than ‘The North’. As Ian Martin has argued: “…it is important to recognise that for many people in Yorkshire, their primary sense of identity is not Northern or English, but Yorkshire. English parliament supporters often point to the 2011 census and use it to suggest increasing numbers of people in Yorkshire feel primarily English. In reality however, the census doesn’t give people in Yorkshire a fair opportunity to identify with identities other than ‘English’ or ‘British’. When the option to identify as Yorkshire is given, as described by Pete Woodcock[11], the overwhelming majority identified as ‘Yorkshire’ with only a smaller proportion identifying as ‘English’ as well. The most common identity was ‘more Yorkshire than English’ and around 15% of residents surveyed rejected the idea of English identity completely.”

My gut feeling is that a similar response would come from Lancashire (including some of  those parts which are now in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cumbria), if people were asked. The mayor of ‘North of the Tyne’, Jamie Driscoll, captured a sense of regional versus ‘English’ identity in the North-east when he said recently “Up here, we talk about defending the North-east. Bringing up the union – well, that’s a reminder of the Establishment down south, isn’t it?”[12]

So perhaps a revived and enlarged ‘Lancashire’ alongside Merseyside and Cumbria would be an option instead of a ‘North-West’ region which few people identify with. The obvious solution is to ask people, using citizens’ assemblies and other grassroots participative approaches rather than the blunt instrument of a referendum which would easily be swayed by the media, as we saw in the North-East in 2004 (still held up by centralists as a reason why ‘regional democracy’ is not wanted).

Re-balancing Britain

England, and its creation ‘The British State’, will take some shifting. The catalyst will be Scottish independence, which will result, by default, with what is essentially an ‘English Parliament’ with Wales as a perhaps unwilling appendage. Cracks are already beginning to show in the North, with the emergence of small regionalist parties and most recently the new ‘Northern Independence Party’ (NIP) which is essentially a civic nationalist party based around a national identity (‘Northumbria’) which currently doesn’t exist.  But as we know, ‘nations’ are created and perhaps in the future a ‘Northumbrian’ identity will emerge. There’s a very long way to go. In the long-term, an independent ‘North’ might happen. For now, it seems a very long way off, but if NIP can snap at the heels of Labour and push it towards a more pro-Northern approach, fine. For the foreseeable future, I could live with the idea of a ‘federal England’ within a confederation which includes Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland – with hopefully the Republic as a close friend and ally.

A confederal Britain could emerge as an alternative to the complete break-up of the UK. But it should be a ‘confederation’ of nations and regions’, not a supposed federation in which Westminster remains in ultimate control. [13]

For the time being, Labour, with the Lib Dems and Greens, should get behind the idea of regional democracy and move beyond the city-region mayoral model. It’s undemocratic and unaccountable; only the figurehead is elected, a step back even from the days of the metropolitan county councils. The role of cross-party regionalist groups such as Hannah Mitchell Foundation and ‘Same Skies West Yorkshire’ are particularly important in winning broad support as well as developing new ideas and different ways of thinking/doing stuff.

The North needs its own ‘left’ that can develop new approaches to regional politics and culture, but a very inclusive ‘left’ that goes beyond just the Labour Party. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation is an example of one attempt to do that, Same Skies (in Yorkshire) another. It’s about collaboration and learning from elsewhere – the civic nationalism of Scotland and Wales, but also progressive regionalism in other parts of the world. London itself, with its vibrant culture and socially liberal politics, should be a positive partner – but not an over- dominant one – in a re-alignment of progressive politics. We need to talk to each other more, even if it’s by zoom.

In turn, a regional Left needs to feed in to regional consciousness through very practical means, through regional institutions including parties, unions, voluntary sector and universities. This is a contemporary take on the Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, and his idea of ‘the organic intellectual’. In his case, the organic intellectual was the Party which brought together the industrial working class and the intelligentsia, with political theory translated directly into the party’s practice. It wasn’t a particularly democratic model – but we could make it so.

The threat of an English Parliament is real. As Ian Martin of Same Skies said “we must take every opportunity to build our capacity now so that we are prepared for the day when an English Parliament refuses to look our way.” Fair point Ian, but we must do our best to prevent that happening at all. This means arguing strongly against the lurch towards English nationalism which Keir  Starmer appears to be toying with. As Jamie Driscoll commented, “there’s no way he can do that flagwaving better than the likes of Nigel Farage.” Labour can appeal to the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies in the North, but attempting to cloak itself in the Union Jack will be seen as opportunistic and slightly ridiculous. Yet the North has its own strong progressive traditions based around co-operation, community solidarity and a distinct form of ‘ethical socialism’ which is waiting to be interpreted for the 21st century.[14]

In the North, we need to develop a regional culture and consciousness  which includes an alternative body of thinking that is progressive and inclusive. In effect, a kind of collective ‘organic intellectual’ which is part of a regional community/ies and not dependent on the patronage of London-based media. Less a ‘think tank’, more an ‘ideas mill’. The North – and the regions within it – are slowly starting to wake up and the recent spat between Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson, and the huge groundswell of support which Burnham generated, shows that a regional consciousness is starting to stir. As yet, it struggles to find a political expression but it’s there for Labour to grasp. If it doesn’t , others will. The journey might just end with an independent Northumbria. A big part of me hopes it doesn’t, but I’d love a confederal British Isles.

[1] Guardian, January 8th 2021

[2] Julian Coman ‘Proud to be English: How can we shape a progressive patriotism?’ The Observer January 17th 2021

[3] John Denham, Guardian January 12th 2021

[4] E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 1963. The title itself is revealing, so too A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England, 1938). Thompson had an acute understanding of regional distinctiveness and his book is strongly based on working class struggles in the North, particularly Lancashire and the West Riding.

[5] David Goodhart People from Somewhere 2019

[6] See the thoughtful piece by Neal Lawson https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/scottish-independence-labour-party-union-future

[7] Following the independence referendum there was some on-line polling which showed a lot of support amongst people in the North of England for the North to merge with Scotland! Probably not the right answer to the North’s problems, but interesting all the same.

[8] See Paul Salveson in Chartist, April 2020  https://www.chartist.org.uk/whats-all-this-red-wall-stuff/

[9] See Paul Salveson Socialism with a Northern Accent – radical traditions for modern times 2012. More recently, Alex Niven in New Model Island (2019) has argued for progressive regionalism.

[10] See Ian Martin A Journey that ends  in Northumbria, 2021

[11] https://theconversation.com/cornwall-and-yorkshire-show-regional-identities-run-deep-in-england-too-41322

[12] Quoted in The Guardian February 3rd 2021

[13] See https://www.diffen.com/difference/Confederation_vs_Federation for basic differences between a confederation and a federation

[14] See my Socialism with a Northern Accent – radical traditions for modern times 2012

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