On English identity and Labour

The language of human ‘identity’ often misleads us into thinking about it as something out there which matches something in here – a literal ‘it’ which is identical in both, rather like in a mathematical equation.

In this way you would have an English identity for example if you somehow matched up to a list of English identifiers which we can measure you against. There is an ‘it’ of Englishness out there in this sort of account, and whoever has access to it can decree how English you are by comparing their checklist to you and your likes, dislikes, activities etc.

My point here is that someone else other than you can carry out this operation of identity without involving you at all. It is an authoritarian relation, attained by someone with authority matching their knowledge of what an identity is against you and coming up with a result on their terms of what these ‘its’ - of identity and you - are.

The same goes when we measure up any sort of identity – to Englishness, to the Labour Party or to the left more generally for example – it is our ‘it’ we are measuring up to and it is us doing it. The activity of measuring up and prescribing what measurements apply is what makes the identification.

We might see here how identity is better thought about as a relation. We can administrate it to ourselves and to other people and we can accept the administrations of others, but the essence of it lies in a relation, and relations don’t have to be grounded in any type of authority doling out knowledge and prescribing what ‘it’ is. I may have an intense attachment to the land and/or the music of England for example without wanting to wave the flag around or support the football team or without living in or having been born in England at all.

John Denham

For the Labour Party now, Englishness and England have become live issues that many in and around the party have started to concern themselves with – better late than never we might say. During the week I attended the first seminar of a series at Westminster being run by the former Labour MP John Denham, who has been on the case for a while now and is pushing it further from a new position as Professor of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. You can see John’s reflections on this first seminar (entitled Does England Matter?), on his website the Optimistic Patriot.

There were some interesting contributions from Labour politicians including Lisa Nandy MP, Camden Council leader Sarah Hayward and other MPs including Caroline Flint, Jonny Reynolds and Gavin Shuker – plus others like the academic Mike Kenny and the Labour research expert Lewis Baston. I also garbled out a few words offering caution on getting too prescriptive about identity and favouring a new English national anthem as a great way to open up the space of identity - in terms of something to be explored in a democratic process rather than administered from above.  Toby Perkins, another Labour MP, has a Private Members’ Bill on a new anthem going through Parliament, but there was little if any mention, let alone support for this, from our gathered politicians.

It is early days, and the whole point of such processes is to get where you’re going through discussion and reflection and further discussion. But I couldn’t help but feel that old politician’s instinct and drive to administrate hanging in the air. We can’t quite help ourselves in trying to nail these things down – to assert and administrate who we are, what it (our version of Englishness or England) is and see who goes along with it and who doesn’t. It therefore becomes subsumed into the political process of drawing dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, friends and enemies, demarcating who belongs and who doesn’t. In turn this defeats what should surely be the object of letting more positive, inclusive versions of Englishness flourish (than those which are commonplace at the moment).

There are significant dangers for the wider Labour and liberal-left families here, for Englishness as identity at the moment often manifests itself as a negativity (both in relating others and ourselves to it), a defensiveness and as victimhood. Moreover, that defensiveness and victimhood is largely directed at things that the dominant factions in Labour and the wider liberal-left world uphold –particularly continual mass immigration. Labour’s tendency in talking to itself and fixing its own identity relations is often one which goes directly against a large body of the population. Simply positing those on to England and Englishness and saying that what we are is what England is/should be would be disastrous.

In that respect I think it’s important that we shouldn’t be in the business of fixing what Englishness is. However you try and do it, what you fix would not accord with what a great many people feel about themselves and their world – indeed it could easily alienate broad swathes from the start. Rather it is best to seek to open it up, challenge narrow definitions where and when they appear but not fall into the trap of prescribing or defining ourselves around particular alternatives. Among other things this means avoiding the tendency to always revert back to how important immigration and immigrants are to Englishness. There is certainly some truth in this account, but unless you emphasise how important those of non-immigrant backgrounds are too, you find yourselves inevitably narrowing to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that excludes as well as includes and defeats the whole purpose.

These existential questions are inherently delicate and difficult to deal with, but for Labour they are fraught with difficulty, which perhaps partly explains why so many in the party want to avoid them altogether.

Nevertheless, with polling showing how a consciousness of English identity has risen significantly in recent years, they need to be taken on by any political party with national pretensions, let alone one like Labour which has been showing signs of possible extinction across much of England.


  1. 1. I agree with you in rejecting a 'tick box ' approach.
    2. I think you can self-define yourself as English.
    For example, Irish immigrants may live 'here' for a long time but never call themselves English whereas their children might do so(but still referring to their parents' nationality)
    3.Immigrants may be integrated,anglicised but not 'English' ???
    4.English/British society at large will take its own,varied,views on 'strangers'.5.English/British ?

  2. Astute as ever.

    I keep up with John Denham's blog and have had some interaction with him via email. As you have noted, the attempts by numerous Labour pols to try to tell us what 'Englishness' is, is deeply irritating. They simply cannot stop their control tendencies. A tendency which tends not to go down that well with the English!

    Lisa Nandy is no bright spark.

  3. To me, this smacks of deathbed repentance and assumes that none of us have memories that stretch back further than 2010. The last Labour government clearly loathed the whole idea of Englishness and English patriotism, Emily Thornbury’s Rochester tweet was, to my mind, no aberration but the fairly accurate representation of how Labour’s elite really feel. Over the last 30 to 40 years the liberal left has thrown bucket loads of crap over anyone who even vaguely suggested the English might have a) an identity and b) the right to protect or even manifest their own culture. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read or heard that there are no such people as the English and no such thing as English culture. There is a limit to the amount of times you can insult people’s identity before they will turn on you and that limit was passed some time ago. If you want to see how far the rot has progressed imagine the Guardian's reaction to Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” if it were published today. Watching most Labour politicians talk about Englishness has the same slightly cringe making appeal of watching senior management doing one of their ‘let’s get down to the shop floor and talk to the real workers’ stunts. People know they’re faking it and they, rightly, feel patronised. As the late great Bill Hicks used to say about rock stars ‘Play from your heart’ but most Labour politicians can’t do that because, deep down, they don’t feel they are, in any real sense, English. Reactionary politicians in Weimar Germany used to say "Treason against the Republic is loyalty to Germany”. Modern Labour politicians give every appearance of thinking that loyalty to the liberal left entails despising England and the English. I know your reasons for staying in the Labour party and admire your determination to change it from within but I feel, more and more, it’s a lost cause. Perhaps after the referendum is over and everything has been shaken up a new mildly patriotic left of centre party can emerge from the ashes.

  4. I was watching Matthew Goodwin, psephologist type bloke @GoodwinMJ on some impartial programme the other evening, on differences between remainers and leavers.
    Leavers "do like their tabloid newspapers" (sic) whereas leavers "tend to read the mainstream press". Explaining that remainers tend to self-identify as British, while leavers tend to self-identify as English, his intonation and demeanour barely concealed his contempt.


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