Hello, my name is Ben Cobley. On this blog I hope to share some of my better thoughts on politics, philosophy, society, and the Left, in addition to some other interesting stuff.
The name A Free Left Blog comes from a concern that the political and cultural Left is dominated by forms of ‘group think’ which shut down free thinking rather than encourage it. I want to challenge this while promoting a Left which is genuinely liberal but rooted in time and place.
21 September 2014
The English problem
Around 45% of people voting in Scotland’s independence
referendum voted for a separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and
therefore a severing of the Scottish from the British.
As media interviews with Scots during the campaign seemed
to show, this desire for severing and separation came largely from a resentment
of, dislike and contempt for ‘the English’, who have been perceived to be doing
all sorts of nasty things to the Scots from their remote base in London or
This is quite an interesting phenomenon on a number of
levels, not least for how it shows how similar feelings north and south of the
border can be funnelled in different directions by the action of opinion – otherwise
known as politics. The Scottish nationalists have shown how effective they are
at this, though alas not effective enough to win the referendum.
This distaste for ‘Westminster elites’ as spat out by
angry Scots is actually largely shared, though not in such organised, directed
fashion, in England and Wales and – I presume – Northern Ireland. We have a lot
more in common than the nationalists would like to admit, but down here in
England we differ in not having found much of an organised voice for it. UKIP is certainly making a play to be that voice, but at present it shows itself
mostly as a protest party, with little chance of articulating a positive vision
of England or Britain beyond a narrow, right-wing version focused more on what
we are not rather than what we are or what we can be.
On a personal level, I have always considered myself
British, but this referendum has made me reconsider and think about Englishness
a lot more - no bad thing.
Englishness is a problem though, no doubt about it.
For a start, there aren’t many positive associations with
England and Englishness out there. While Scots and Welsh have stirring national
anthems and attractive national folk traditions (like the male voice choirs of Wales and the pipes and drums of Scotland), England retains the same anthem as the United
Kingdom (the plodding ‘God Save the Queen’) and what folk traditions remain are
mostly either specific to regions or have been subsumed into wider British traditions.
The iconic Union Jack
Probably the most common demonstration of definably English
identity – as with many other countries - comes with sport, and in particular football.
But, while British sports teams, with their diverse associations, and the
attractive Union Jack flag, offer plenty of space and scope for pride, this is
generally not so with English teams (the cricket, with its charming,
open-hearted traditions, is a welcome exception).
Especially, I personally remain wary about the
association of England and Englishness with the sort of boorish, drunken and
borderline violent fans that still follow the England football team. I would
love to go abroad and watch my team
play, but I would never do it at present. I know I would feel ashamed of myself
and my country that these fans are the ones who are visibly representing
England, and that I am going along with them. Seeing them falling over each
other on TV is bad enough without having to spend time with them. Things may
have improved, but the old racist and far right associations of England football
fans are also clearly still there.
Without strong, attractive alternatives, these symbols
and signifiers of Englishness extend to the English flag, which in any case is
not a great flag – such a contrast to the iconic Union Jack. Those who join in
with and associate themselves with the drunken boorishness of the football fans
are clearly more attracted to the English flag.
The charmless Flag of St George
But I am not one of them. I feel more like one of the
Scots or Welsh or Spanish and indeed the ethnic minority Britons who look down
on these people.
This is where Englishness is at its most problematic, for
rather than being a simple representation of where you come from, it has different
connotations that feel stronger. It has disturbed me to hear disparaging
remarks made about ‘the English’ by Scots, (other?) foreigners and ethnic
minorities who live in England – not least because the definition often has an
ethnic edge to it. Also, there is sometimes a nasty or contemptuous aspect to
this which is generally tolerated and even shared by middle class white people who
might be considered English themselves.
But, in truth, I can understand these sentiments and
partly share them. What is more, so does the wider political and cultural left,
which is one reason why Labour has been losing support from the old white
working class in England.
England and the English are not fashionable. We are also not
a confident, united bunch. We are uncomfortable with politics and are miles
away from any sense of shared citizenship and a shared destiny.
This may all sound rather gloomy, and to a great extent it
But there is opportunity here – in the normally
meaningless political jargon, to “build a country”. England has been largely
neglected over the years, and now seems like a good time to stop neglecting it.
It is surely time to stop drifting apart from each other and start to come
A few ideas to start with:
1) A new English flag, replacing the Flag of St George
with something more colourful and interesting that somehow acknowledges
different regions of England and the different backgrounds of people who should
consider themselves English (me included).
2) A new English national anthem. William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’
is normally suggested as a good one, but there are plenty of alternatives, not
least from the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose compositions have a peculiarly
English quality and indeed are partly built out of old English folk songs.
3) More effort from all of us to talk about England and Englishness
in a positive fashion, and associate it with good things, good spirits,
inclusivity and generosity.
4) The most difficult part: to develop an English or
British politics that means something and is patriotic, but that avoids the
worse sides of nationalism. I have written a lot here before about the need to curb immigration from a leftist point of view,
one reason for this being that it would help existing immigrants to integrate better
without the disintegrating pressure that significant further incomings bring. England
and Britain needs to settle down and start to like itself again, and that means
starting to know itself better. You can't do that when everything is in flux.