by Anthony Painter
The Labour party approaches the politics of Englishness rather as Perseus would have approached the Medusa – best avoided if at all possible and if it has to be encountered then no eye contact should be made at any cost. Last Thursday, Ed Miliband talked confidently about the Medusa but thought it best not to enter the cave.
Unfortunately, the Medusa still must be slain.
The speech had quite a nice pace to it and succeeded in many of its rhetorical flourishes. If in doubt, talk about common humanity, Morris, Ruskin and pulling together. This will always be safe ground for a Labour orator – and it does provide some significant crossover into English romanticism too.
No harm done – it can’t, as Miliband argued, be all pounds and pence. The romantics would have been distraught at the omission of shillings but time moves on. On the negative side, we can only hope that the phrase ‘progressive patriotism’ will never be uttered again. Overall though, I’m glad he made the speech – it needed to be done and was long overdue from a Labour leader.
Miliband skidded between the cultural and the political as if there was no distinction between them when it came to his analysis of Scottish nationalism. Unless I’ve misread modern Scottish nationalism I’m not sure if Alex Salmond is really in the business of forcing people to choose between their Scottishness and Britishness. That would certainly seem to sit rather oddly with the passage from his Hugo Young Lecture of early this year where he argued that there would always be a ‘social union’ based on ‘our shared economic interests, our cultural ties, our many friendships and family relationships’. He is asking Scotland to (with notable exceptions such as the currency and the monarchy) choose Scottish political institutions over the British state.
The speech was rather more definitive when it came to distinguishing English culture and political institutions. For Miliband, English cultural expression is “not about an English Parliament or an English Assembly.” So wave the flag of St.George like Bobby Moore was still captain of England but don’t get all political about it. We’ll have none of that.
In this argument was the speech’s central weakness. This would have been a good speech in 1996. Things have moved on considerably since. It is now clear that Scottish devolution was not only the culmination of one process – a creation of institutions to match a rejuvenated civic Scottishness – but the beginning of another process. The claim on ever greater powers for Scotland may or may not result in independence.
The smart money has to be that it will not in 2014. That is unlikely to be the end of the story though. Greater fiscal independence will step in should full independence be off the table. Given our ‘social union’ none of this is going to go unnoticed in England.
And the more we ‘celebrate’ English culture – as we should – the more it could well begin to emerge from the shadows. At this point the stunted chauvinistic English nationalism is swept away just as ‘there ain’t no black in the union jack’ Britishness was after the 1970s. But it will not stop at the line marked ‘political’. It will traverse it without even stopping to look. None of this is Miliband’s doing. It’s already quietly happening. Most people favour the creation of English political institutions as the IPPR’s recent poll has shown. They just don’t really care that much about it at the moment.
Labour is now banking on that lack of concern locking in the status quo. But the constitution is lop-sided and unstable. It will actually take a force of will for it not to topple. It may not be in 2014 but it is by no means unimaginable that a strong argument for a political expression of Englishness will succeed beyond then. Already we have a shadow English parliament.
Take a look at a piece of legislation such as the Academies Act 2010 and see to where it applies. It is England alone. The oddity is that non-English representatives get to vote in this English Parliament. Don’t ask the West Lothian question or ‘it’s a bit messy but it will have to do’ won’t necessarily suffice forever.
So the line between the cultural and the political has a Maginot-esque quality. England’s cultural pluralism is clear. Individual identities mix, morph and flow. Nationhood in our case is not mono-ethnic, mono-religious or mono-cultural. Nor is it without fixed points of reference; though nor is it fixed. Nothing is more un-English than the extremists who attempt to use it as a weapon with which to lash out at certain minorities.
To attempt a cultural discussion without acknowledging that this may provoke demands for more significant constitutional change than some unspecified degree of devolution is to seek a greater degree of control than can realistically be hoped for.
To have acknowledged that our constitution is not settled and there is much that needs to be understood and determined – and this may at some point include English political institutions – would have been more with these times and their unresolved quality. His own support for the union and scepticism about future English institutions could have been made perfectly clear in this context.
As it is, a little more political space has now been opened up. The Tories will wait until after the independence referendum but then it would not be at all surprising if they make their move.
This all feels like the immigration issue again – Labour never being able to catch up with the argument. Labour will still be celebrating Englishness when the Tories will be contemplating political action. This speech was the first rather the last intervention that Miliband will have to make on the English political question. The Medusa still awaits- or is it a dragon?