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‘A Disunited Kingdom? Reclaiming an Englishness Hijacked by the Right’

At the heart of our political crisis is how England, in particular, has struggled to find its way in the modern world, writes MP Caroline Lucas

English flags covering an abandoned storefront in Margate, England, in 2019. Photo: Michael Mann/fStop Images GmbH/Alamy

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While the death of the extraordinary Tom Nairn this year was widely acknowledged in Scotland – with Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown all sharing fulsome eulogies about his significant influence on their own thinking – strangely it barely registered among England’s political leaders.

That’s a particular shame since much of his analysis was actually about my homeland and its seemingly permanent state of political crisis. 

Perhaps it reflects the fact that few of England’s political elite are willing to accept they are just English, let alone to contemplate the logic of Nairn’s argument: that the break-up of Britain – the mutual liberation from the crumbling political construct which he famously called “Ukania” – might just be good for all of us.

What’s the nature of the democratic crisis we face?

Seen in one way, the problem is our political institutions.

The archaic and undemocratic ‘first past the post’ voting system; an over-centralised governance system; the unelected House of Lords; the populist abuse of sovereignty; the vast networks of patronage; the stuffy and outdated conventions and public school atmosphere – the whole damn lot of it.  

But, seen in another way, it is about nationalisms and identity. And specifically about how England, in particular, has struggled to find its way in the modern world. How we cling to our delusions of imperial grandeur, pretend that we’re so much more than just English – and how the devastating consequences of that are all around us.  

It was English exceptionalism that drove Brexit, for example. In one way, the EU Referendum campaign seems a lifetime ago. We’ve gone through so much since then and, if anything, the alienation and polarisation are much greater today than they were back in 2016.

But the truth was clear even then: that Brexit was the result of division, and would make those divisions worse. And it has deepened the democratic crisis within the United Kingdom.

The fact that England and Wales voted to leave, and Scotland and Northern Ireland to stay, has put incredible strain on the myth that the United Kingdom is an equal partnership of four nations. 

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The Government in London decided what form Brexit would take without any reference at all to the elected governments in Edinburgh or Belfast, or indeed, in Cardiff. Unsurprisingly, as a result, support for the reunification of Ireland has grown. The pressure for a second independence referendum in Scotland remains strong. And in Wales, a new sense of national identity is on the rise. The future of the United Kingdom itself is now in doubt. 

Yet we left the EU, primarily, because of what had happened in England. Outside of the capital, every single English region voted for Brexit. It is no disrespect to Wales, I hope, which voted by a majority of only 80,000 for leave, to say that it was an English vote that drove Brexit.  

In the months following the referendum, I travelled to as many leave-voting areas in England as I could to hear from people first-hand and face-to-face why they had supported Brexit. Sometimes this was difficult. One reason was that those who benefitted economically from EU membership, and from the UK becoming a more open and diverse society, did not do anything like enough to share these gains fairly and often sneered at those with a more traditional view of England.

But these conversations were also refreshing and reassuring because there was so much more that we agreed on than held us apart. Many people were angry. Of course they were. But if you took the time to go, and paid them the courtesy of listening, then common ground could emerge.

One theme that continually arose throughout this listening exercise (which my small team filmed and shared as best we could, and which came to be known as ‘Dear Leavers’), was about people’s sense of pride in the places where they lived, but – simultaneously – their feelings of powerlessness.   

I was told countless times that London, and the power that was held there, was so far away that it might as well have been on another planet. They felt unheard and ignored.

This was about more than an economic complaint, however corrosive this country’s grotesque inequalities of wealth and opportunity undoubtedly are. It was also about culture and identity.  

Many resented how some expressions of Englishness were allowed, while others were not. It was acceptable to love the English countryside, English humour, English music and English literature, and to see these aspects of Englishness as welcoming, humane, full of energy and creativity. But the moment Englishness took a political form, it apparently turned into the opposite. 

Even mild forms of patriotism were frowned on. The English flag was acceptable fluttering from a church tower in a picturesque village, but was instantly interpreted as a form of racism if hanging from someone’s window on an estate.

Yet Englishness should not be something to be scared of. Or suppressed within the notion of ‘Britain’ as if this will contain it safely. On the contrary, as Brexit shows, it doesn’t.

We need to recognise that many people who see themselves primarily as English feel they are without a voice, including a political voice. There are no institutions that represent England equivalent to those in the three other countries of the UK. Nothing to give political expression to our complex, rich and sometimes raucous reality, or where differences can be expressed and, perhaps, resolved. 

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A New Story

The so-called ‘English problem’ is not only one of culture and identity, but also – profoundly – one of democracy.  

And we need to ask ourselves what kind of England do we want now and in the future, either within the United Kingdom or as an independent state, a reborn Kingdom of England? 

Will it be a smaller, diminished version of what we have now? Will imperial delusions and exceptionalism continue to shape its sense of itself? Will it be inward-looking, resentful of lost glories, held back by social and economic injustice, and run for the benefit of a narrow elite? 

Or could it become a genuine democracy, confident, outward-looking, inclusive and recognise our future necessarily involves being part of Europe? 

These questions have taken on an even greater urgency as xenophobic nationalism continues its rise across Europe, from the success of the Sweden Democrats and True Finns to the growth of the far-right in France, Italy and Hungary.  

At the same time, propelled by the outcome of the Brexit Referendum and the 2019 General Election, in the UK the populist-right strengthens its grip on an increasingly extreme and out-of-touch Conservative Party. 

If a progressive alternative to this national populist agenda is to be successful, it needs to do more than offer bolder, more ambitious policies, vital though those are: it needs to unify, rather than divide; to offer hope, rather than despair.  And one of the most effective ways of doing that is by telling more compelling stories of who we are and who we can be.

And so my answer to the question of how do we get out of the current democratic crisis is not only about constitutional answers. It’s not just about a proportional voting system, an elected House of Lords, an end to political patronage, the drafting of a written constitution. It’s also about telling more compelling stories about who we English are so that we might – finally – be more comfortable in our own skin, less intent on subduing our neighbours, whether they be within the UK or across the Empire.

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Because I would wager that, when we English do finally settle with our own identity, we’ll discover we’re much more progressive than we’re ever led to believe.

Right now, Englishness has been hijacked by the right. The dominant version of our national story solely serves their interests. The only people who dare speak of ‘Englishness’ are cheerleaders for isolationism and imperial nostalgia.

But there are other stories, equally compelling, about who we are: about the English people’s radical inclusivity, their ancient commitment to the natural world, their long struggle to win rights for all. Stories that put the Chartists and the Diggers in their rightful place alongside Nelson and Churchill. That draw inspiration from the Agreement of the People, from Tom Paine, and from Shelley, Milton and Blake. That draw on medieval writers and Romantic poets who emphasised the sanctity of the environment. That recognise and celebrate England’s ancient multicultural heritage.

My forthcoming book, Another England, sets out to tell those stories. Because I believe that rediscovering those stories of an England at ease with itself and with our past – forward-looking, open, more equal, diverse and multi-ethnic – and identifying the policies that can help to realise them, has become a political project every bit as important as investing in infrastructure or levelling-up. 

A country without a coherent story about who and what it is can never thrive and prosper, it can’t extract itself from its own democratic crisis, and certainly can’t rise to the existential threats of our time – the climate and nature emergencies.  

As the writer Ben Okri puts it, “nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings”.  

Finding and telling stories that speak to the truth of England’s past and present, and inspire us to imagine and pursue new and better futures, might turn out to be one of the most transformative acts we can undertake. And one of the greatest contributions to a healthier democracy across all of these islands.

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion. Her book ‘Another England: A New Story of Who We Are and Who We Can Bewill be published in 2024. This is an edited version of her speech at the ‘Break-Up of Britain? Confronting the UK’s Democratic CrisisConference in Edinburgh on 18 November 2023


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