Sunday Review: Ed Miliband on Englishness

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?

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic. His Soundings Journal essay on political Englishness can be read here.

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8 Responses to “Sunday Review: Ed Miliband on Englishness”

  1. A foreigner says:

    “Nothing is more un-English than the extremists who attempt to use it as a weapon with which to lash out at certain minorities.” Maybe, but this phrase has been hatched sometimes in the 80’s or beginning of the 90’s. I reckon that the interesting bit starts when the majority becomes the minority as it is clearly visible today in certains part of England.

    I wonder also, how much this social change is impacting on Scottish and Welch nationalism. Ironically, it could be argued that they are becoming increasingly British, whereas England is turning, well, un-British.

  2. swatantra says:

    Its the first time I can recall that Ed has actually talked about his Jewishness and being proud of the multicultural heritage of Britain. Ed could be the first Jewish PM, discounting Disraeli who I think was a convert and a Tory. And that is the point, and there is no going back. And we shouldn’t pander to the English Nationalists or the Scots or Welsh for that matter. Britain is an item, made up of many settlers over the centuries; there is a huge diaspora not just in the UK but all over the world. And Britain is a complex developing organism, rather in the same way as Gaia. So I don’t think there is much value in talking about what is ‘englishness’. But there is a way to appease the Nationalists and that is to move towards a Federal structure, and a Constitution based on Regional Parliaments with a great deal of autonomy, but still being a part of Greater Britain. That would I think satisfy the rebellious Scots and do away with the need for ‘independence’.

  3. Charlie Mansell says:

    Totally agree with Anthony’s analysis. I’ve never felt the “English Parliament would cover 80% of the UK and thus would be too dominant” is a strong argument against seriously addressing this issue. In fact what we need is to work out what a British Parliament would be responsible for first and then decide how much of the English public policy agenda requires a mix of strengthened English local government, city-region, or England wide institutions. In the end a 200-250 member English Parliament, authorised by a referendum and elected by AMS with initially the same powers as the Welsh Assembly could be a starting point and would not mean a Conservative dominated England.

  4. swatantra says:

    We already have an ‘English Parliament’ … if only the Scots Irish and Welsh would stay away when it came to voting on Bills relating solely to England. There’s absolutely no point in electing anoter body to represent the ‘english’; they’re represented enough as it is. It also gets a bit complicated when you say have Scots irish and Welsh Members standing for English Constituencies, and they have a perfect right to do so. There also happens to be a strong body of BAME members representing Scots Irish and Welsh Constituencies as well as English constituencies, and there should really be more.
    But there is no escaping the fact that independence and separation could lead to permanantly Conservative dominated English Parliaments.

  5. Charlie’s suggestion is one starting point and definitely the type of positive proposal that is ultimately needed. AMS is the only system of PR that I think has any chance of acceptance (it is used in GLA elections). Actually, there is an opportunity for Labour to embrace this, drain the poison from the well of those who deploy Englishness for hatred, prevent a massive strategic defeat and defend the union. This is why I wish the door had been left slightly open.

    Btw, we have to stop thinking about Englishness in racial terms. It’s a national – and diverse – culture. Britishness was seen in these chauvinistic ways before it was salvaged. The same is necessary for Englishness- to express it as the rich and varied culture that it is.

  6. Terry says:

    1. We DO NOT have an ‘English Parliament’ … that’s the point
    2. It DOES NOT get “a bit complicated” when Scots, Irish and Welsh Members stand for English Constituencies, because it is about representation and not about one’s birthplace
    3. Independence and/or separation WOULD NOT lead to permanently Conservative dominated English Parliament. Absence of Scots in the UK Parliament would not have altered ANY election since WWII, just the size of the majority

  7. David Kelly says:

    Swatantra – an independent England would not be ruled permanently by the Tories. Haven’t you noticed that politics in England is cyclical? So let’s bury the ‘permanent Tory rule’ myth. Don’t forget that Scotland was, until a few years ago, a near-permanent Labour fiefdom. Who’s to say what Scotland’s political landscape will look like in the highly unlikely event that they vote for independence? Devolution can change things significantly, so Labour should embrace the idea of an English parliament positively, because it has plenty to gain. As United Kingdom citizens and taxpayers, the least the English people deserve is to be asked what governance we want for England, just as our fellow citizens in the devolved nations are consulted.

  8. uglyfatbloke says:

    Perhpas federalism is the answer. Scoptland was – largely – a Labour fiefdom because of the electoral system – 35% of the vote, but 85% of the seats. The prospect of a ‘yes’ majority in the referendum is still slim, but Labour certainly need to do something to make the running on the ‘no’ campaign, and saying ‘there will be better devolution if you reject independence’ just will not do. That has been promised too often in the past, and not just by Labour. The problem is that labour in Scotland is way, way behind the electorate and it is time to catch up with the current. not try to swim against it. The gnats can still be stopped in their tracks, but Labour needs to offer something credible and drag the other parties along to a solid commitment of a worthwhile extension to devolution and then convince the electorate that it will be delivered.
    The signs are not good; choosing Darling to head the ‘No’ campaign is positively suicidal. Does anybody honestly think that he can be a match for Swinney or Sturgeon let alone Salmond? In any case his appointment says ‘we’ll yield as little as humanly possible’ – it does n’t say ‘we are ambituous for positve reform’. The fact that he has the support of the tories and the glib-dumbs will not be great advantage when campaigning in Scotland any more than it would be in Manchester or Newcastle.
    It does n’t help that Darling was a dreadful chancellor. The current situation was not all his fault, but he does bear a good deal of responsibility if only through his failure to stand up to Gordon Brown. He really can’t campaign on the economy, so what can he campaign on? If the ‘no’ campaign is to get traction among the people (most of whom really want a federalist/devo-max/indy-lite siutation) they have to offer something that the people want, not what Cameron, Miliband and Clegg would like them to want. If not, the devolutionists will be pushed into the ‘yes’ camp along with the separatists. Hiow clever is that?

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