Former MP John Denham considers the return of the nation state, British myths and how the Coronavirus crisis could help forge a new national story for England.
It will be a strange St George’s Day. A lockdown society kept going by key workers who were barely noticed two months ago. Most can only help by staying at home or through a bit of volunteering; some will risk their own lives to save others. At eight pm we will clap, applauding carers and key workers, but also looking for the reassurance of solidarity, community and common bonds.
In truth, even the English rarely make too much of England’s national day. But the events swirling around us will have a lasting impact on our understanding of who we are. National identities are created by the shared stories, memories and images that speak to common experiences. We will all have pandemic stories – of what we did, how it touched our lives and those we love. They will change our ideas of ourselves and of how ‘people like us’ behave.
England’s Brexit divide owed much to contested ideas of nationhood sovereignty and identity. Beneath that binary split we led very different lives, fragmented by age, class, wealth, geography, education, race and power. In reality, we haven’t been a single nation united by a broadly similar experience of life and a shared view of the world for a long time.
We can’t yet say whether the Coronavirus will make us more united, reinforce our divisions or create new ones. This is just the first impact of the coming storm; the ‘new normal’ has yet to begin and its influence maybe even greater. It’s not just our experiences that count. It will be how events are turned into memory and myth that really matters. But we can still sense the issues around which our new national stories will turn.
Our fondness for wartime imagery is less nostalgia for lost empire and more the folk memory of great solidarity. But it became corrupted into the myth of our power always to stand alone. As we head for the highest death rate in Europe, the confidence that ‘we always do things better here’ is taking a blow. The palpable and disastrous decline in the competence of the state, loss of industrial capacity and our vulnerability to external shocks has been growing for decades, not a few years. Yet, this is still a nation of great and able people. We may cling to our last vestiges of exceptionalism or we may ask how better to make the best of all our abilities.
The failure of international cooperation, including the EU, has cost many lives. The crisis will renew the desire for more effective institutions. But even the most die-hard internationalist has seen the nation-state become a focus for politics, popular mobilisation and action across the world. The nation is back. But the pretensions of Global Britain, the buccaneering free trader needing no nationally owned industry or agriculture, loses allure in a world of collapsing supply chains and national priorities. Perhaps COVID-19 asks us what sort of nation can be strong enough at home to be able to cooperate effectively abroad.
On paper, the nation is the United Kingdom, but the virus has further exposed the creaking relationship between its nations. Calm leadership in the devolved governments contrasts starkly with the hapless union Government running England. England has fallen victim to the chronic cross-party love of Whitehall centralisation: top-down, incompetent, unaccountable and incapable of taking advantage of the innovation and flexibility shown in so many communities, councils and businesses. A lingering memory of the Coronavirus may be of fear and powerlessness when nothing seemed to work, yet we lacked the ability to change the way things are done. As we move towards the new normal, will we still be content for power to lie in so few hands?
The carers that we applaud on St George’s Day, and the nation applauding, are both visibly rooted in our diversity. Few people are arguing today about who belongs when so many are contributing so much. The steady opening of an inclusive Englishness has been rapidly accelerated. All are now starting to be seen by all as part of England’s future (even if not all yet call themselves English). Perhaps the question of who makes up the national community is being settled in front of our eyes.
And yet. The possibility of change has shimmered in front of us before. Are we really ‘all in it together?’
Surely the different experiences of the middle-class, working from home, garden-owning, Ocado-delivered family; the family with four kids in a tower block; and those who have no choice to stop working in dangerous conditions just reflect the unequal and fragmented lives we lived before? Saying we ‘all did our bit’ can have a powerful resonance, but it can also gloss over our differences. It may be used to mask the gap between the powerful and the powerless and pave the way for the return of the status quo.
A new national story is possible. An England that comes through this crisis valuing its people more but united in saying that things must never be the same again. An England that learns to find a new place in the world and a confidence in itself. An England that places trust and power in the people who have earned it.
But, that won’t just happen. If that’s the story we want to hear in years to come, we will have to have tell the story ourselves.
Professor John Denham was Labour MP for Southampton Itchen from 1992 to 2015. He is director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton. The centre is currently running an online survey on the impact of COVID-19.