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The 'progressive' case for England

Why leave the English question to the political right?

Comment is Free, 26th August 2008

It’s not easy being a progressive – for want of a better word – English nationalist. Everybody hates you. People on the left hate you because they think the word ‘nationalist’ means you are keen on uniforms and highly-co-ordinated rallies (perhaps they’re confusing us with Seb Coe). Meanwhile, people on the right hate you because you’re not nationalist enough.

In the last few months alone I have been accused by a left-wing enthusiast for multiculturalism of being ‘complicit with racism’, and by a far-right ‘ethnic nationalist’ (read: white supremacist) of being a ‘race traitor.’ And those are the edited highlights. It makes you want to give up.

But I’m not going to, for the simple reason that if I do, these people win. And besides, I think we may be rapidly approaching a moment – modishly known these days as a ‘tipping point’ – when the ‘English question’ may become a mainstream concern.

I won’t explain the question again – I’ve done it here before and many others have done it elsewhere. Suffice it to say that England is the only one of the four UK nations without a government, and that this is causing real problems. Problems which people on the left ought to have a very real stake in tackling.

Those problems can be broken down into two categories: cultural and political. Culturally, England losing the things that link its people to their historical culture, and which ground that culture in the present, at a frightening rate. They are being replaced by the grubby detritus of global corporate consumerism, whose purpose is to turn us into placeless, listless consumers rather than rooted, concerned citizens.

Politically, because the English, unlike the Scottish, the Welsh or the people of Northern Ireland , have no political focus for their concerns, they have nowhere to turn to express them. What can happen when such a focus does exist can be seen north of the border. The last decade has seen a transformation of Scotland , as a direct result of the creation of a Scottish parliament. Politicians there are now forced to directly address Scottish concerns. There is a Scottish political class, a Scottish media, a Scottish arts scene. The same is true in Wales , whose politicians are focusing on, among other things, the rebirth of the Welsh language and the teaching of Welsh culture in schools.

The English, meanwhile, are governed by unelected regional assemblies, directed by a Prime Minister elected in Scotland . Their children are taught ‘Britishness’ at school. The British government, currently personified by a man so obsessed with ‘Britishness’ he even wants a GB football team, seems to have an allergic reaction to all things English. There is no mainstream English political party. Consequently, English concerns have no repository save the BNP and the Daily Mail.

Which is why I won’t be giving up any time soon. What the English need is their own parliament; one that matches Scotland ’s in power and purpose. At a stroke, this would transform the landscape. The English would have somewhere to turn, and an institution which reflected their concerns. They would be forced to put their money where their mouth is and decide how their country should be run. Best of all, an English Parliament would destroy the influence of the far right at a stroke. They, too, would have to put up or shut up. They would soon find out how marginal their true support is without the sense of frustration that currently feeds it.

Still in doubt? Still wondering what this has to do with your instincts as a ‘progressive’? Consider this. The British government has announced its intention to create a UK Bill of Rights, codifying the rights of all its citizens. The latest report on this proposal suggests that, once the UK-wide Bill is completed, the governments in Wales , Scotland and Northern Ireland should be able, if they so wish, to add extra rights of their own, for the benefit of their citizens. And the English? We’ll be stuck with what New Labour have given us.

Fewer rights for the English! Doesn’t sound like much of a rallying cry, does it? If it’s one that doesn’t appeal to you, you might want to think about supporting the growing calls for democracy for England . Your support comes with the added bonus of undermining, not to mention infuriating, the racist loons who have been claiming England for their own for far too long.

Sounds pretty 'progressive' to me.