My comment piece to mark the launch of the English Labour Network can be found here.
Identity is one of the most powerful forces in politics today, yet in England Labour has danced around it – until now. The launch of the English Labour Network is bold and overdue. Its radical potential needs mining fast.
In the last Labour government, I was a leading advocate of “Britishness”, in a debate led by Gordon Brown with much passion and merit. But we were swimming against the tide. The truth is that Scottish and Welsh devolution, the pace of social change and the decline in trust, which we can see accelerating across the west, has provoked a crisis of Englishness. Rather than avoid the issue, Labour needs to address, shape and draw rejuvenating energy from it. That’s why I am a passionate convert to the debate.
The Brexit vote was a sign that there is no time to lose. The need for collective solutions is going up – yet levels of social trust are going down. This is an existential problem for Labour because we are the party in British politics that believes we achieve more together than we achieve alone. Labour is a “we” brand. We believe in doing stuff together. But how do we inspire people to cooperate in a world where people feel cooperation is making them poorer? How to refresh fraternity in a country that seems to be turning inward?
Connecting with English identity is one way that will help. As Yuval Noah Harari put it so well in his bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “Imagined orders [like national identity] are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.” And more cooperation, not less, is what our country needs today.
Now, we are wise to be wary and careful. We have to be clear that patriotism and nationalism are two very different things. Our patriotism, our Englishness has to be by definition, inclusive, true to its radical traditions, and as much about our future potential as our past. Charles de Gaulle put it rather well when he observed that patriots were people who loved their country first; it was nationalists who put their hatred of others first.
Nor should we have much interest in dusty history, when it is English ideals that can furnish us with so much renewing energy. These are things we should debate.
England is a green and pleasant land. So English Labour should be green Labour in every way, championing conservation, low carbon energy and control of climate change. English Labour should author a proud, bold conservationist project that defends the countryside and greens our towns and cities.
The best of the English politics was its radicalism about power. English Labour should be ambitious for the radical diffusion of power, through devolution and cooperatives. Our parliament should champion England effectively – not merely with English votes for English laws but by finding ways to champion England, from Cumbria to Cornwall, with full-time regional ministers, a committee of English regions and – one day, I hope – Lords reform that enshrines regional lists of representatives.
We should be great champions of the English language, and care for it so much that we want it spread, here at home with proper funding of English for speakers of other languages, and around the world, with serious investment in the BBC World Service and the British Council. Because we’re one of the world’s most important homes of the scientific revolution, a country that has buried its scientists with its sovereigns since we interred Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, we should be the greatest champions of science.
We should be imaginative about inclusion. For me, as a Birmingham MP, that means working hard to stop extremists defining Englishness as opposed to Islam, and instead help create the space to foster an English Islam. This is the spirit championed by thinkers such as Timothy Winter, who recently put it well: “Muslim-ness”, he wrote, “is always hyphenated, because no religion can exist naked, without the clothes supplied by time and place.”
Finally, let’s not forget the need to party in pursuit of progress. A new bank holiday to celebrate what we have in common should be Saint George’s Day. You might have a different list of traditions and ideals. But this is exactly what I hope the English Labour Network can help debate.
It was George Orwell who wrote: “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past.” It is that bridge to the future that I think the English Labour Network can help create.