Progressives could do well to capitalise on English identity politics

While not fought on the same terrain as last year’s independence referendum, the general election has served as a sort of proxy war for the survival of the Union. With the surge of SNP MPs soon to be heading to Westminster, albeit under no mandate to dismantle what remains of our ‘United Kingdom’, every controversial move the Tories make will be subject to the vociferous opposition of the representatives of a very confident nation. We can rest assured that none of these voices will be louder than that of firebrand former First Minister, Alex Salmond, whose combative debating style will ensure that PMQ’s will be nothing if not entertaining. The scale of this rift – between a party which can legitimately claim to represent Scotland, and one so perfidious that, after campaigning to keep her inside the Union, it aimed the cannon of English Nationalism at her in order to win an election – is only set to grow.

Once the irreconcilability of the two sides is considered, it is impossible not to hear the death knell of the British state. It won’t be long before the thistle and the rose finally start to feel each other’s thorns, particularly as Trident comes up for renewal and the expected in/out referendum on the EU beckons. After five years of this sort of antagonism, the accord which led to the 18th of September 2014 will be unimaginable, having given way to discord and mistrust, and when Scotland does eventually leave, it will be a messy affair.

Yet amidst all this pessimism, all the fractiousness which is to come, there is also a glimmer of hope. If the English realise that the end of the Union (at least as we know it) is a foregone conclusion, and demands for an English Parliament grow louder, then England can undergo the same sort of national, cultural renewal as Scotland has, and finally cast off the ill-fitting imperial garb of Britishness. As everyone who was in Scotland for the referendum campaign can attest, nation building – or rather, rebuilding – can be an exciting, inclusive, and extremely enriching process.

Therefore, those opposed to the Tories would do well to learn from them, forget this sitting-duck Union, and begin appealing to an incipient English civic nationalism. In its present form it is at its most malleable, and its most potent – it arguably stole victory from Labour’s hands – and the race to forge these New English Values can still be won by progressives. If nothing is done then England risks emerging from the Union a reactionary backwater haunted by memories of imperial glory and might; a situation with many alarming European precedents.

Doubtless there will be those opposed to such a project, with Channel 4 News’ economics editor Paul Mason among the advanced guard. ‘One person’s Englishness is another person’s racism,’ he declared in an article in The Guardian. The problem with this point of view is that it presupposes that the question of English national identity politics can be indefinitely postponed. But with what is about to occur in the Westminster arena, it is a question which all the constituent nations of these islands will soon be forced to address.

English nationalism, now unleashed, is not going to go away. Far better for progressives to pick up the baton and wield it, than be bludgeoned into the dustbin of history by it.

 

Image: Steve Webster, Flickr

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