It is inevitable that there will be a debate about our English identity, and the values that we wish to embrace in our culture. The left needs to participate in that debate, and fight against the Little Englanders. However, we will be greatly aided in this if we recognise that the British state, and the imperial project it entails, greatly disadvantages our people. … the economic policies of the British state, in promoting London as a major financial centre whatever the cost to the underlying economy, and encouraging economic growth in the South East at the expense of the rest of the country must also be challenged.
Andy’s excellent post reminded me of something I wrote for the Socialist Society back in 1988 (yes, that is quite a long time ago, isn’t it?) A version of this piece appeared in Radical Wales; a different version appeared in the Soc Soc’s own magazine Interlink. Needless to say, I don’t hold exactly the same views now as I did in 1988. At the time I wrote this, I was still reeling from the discovery that there are places in England which aren’t blighted by being in London’s cultural rain-shadow. A suburban upbringing will do that for you.
Here’s the article, anyway, fresh from the vault.
The final assumption of Labour’s campaign is ‘Britishness’. In a sense this follows naturally from assumptions about power and the party (…) Just as power disenfranchises the individual and the party neutralises the pressure group, so the nation state marginalises the regions. The whole is structured to fail the sum of its parts. (…) In Chesterfield  one question being asked was not whether Wales and Scotland get decentralised powers, but how to do the same for the English regions. The Irish/Scottish/Welsh ‘problem’ is being recognised for what it has always been: the ‘British problem’.
(Peter Keelan in Radical Wales, Summer 1988)
And there was London, spread out before us like a great capital city and major financial centre.
Looking out from London, as most of the news media do, England is made up of two places: London on one side (where things get done) and “the regions” on the other (where things happen – floods, motorway pile-ups, mass pickets). Between the centre and the regions, though, there is a grey area, neither central nor provincial: towns widely considered – by their inhabitants as much as anyone – to have nothing going for them except ease of access to London (“it’s amazingly cheap considering”, “it takes no time in the car”). The significance of this is that, from my own experience of living south of London, when you look at “the regions” from London what you see is the grey area: there is London and there are the other towns, and the other towns are probably all awful places with a cinema, two car parks and no soul. Said in the right tone of voice, Preston sounds as funny as Woking.
Of course, where towns like Woking are concerned, it is not just metropolitan snobbery that reduces the town to the role of base for London workers. The subordination of the civic life of these towns to the priorities of the capital is a real and continuing process. But this process – this acceptance, as if by the town itself, of a position of subordination to London – does not apply to towns outside the grey area. It is not that being outside commuting distance of London somehow grants independence from the London-centred economy or the London-based state: indeed, the Scottish experience shows how little cultural autonomy depends on socio-economic autonomy. It is a matter of how easy it is to attempt – or to formulate – alternatives to the economic and cultural hegemony of the British state; and of the extreme difficulty of doing this in a place with too long a record of unchallenged exploitation by the capital of that state.
It is a question of history. On one hand, there is the long concentration of wealth and power in London, and its effect on the rest of the country. On the other, there are “regions” which have never been either wholly independent from London, or wholly reduced to raw material for London. The grey area, appearing to prove that only London is culturally alive, in fact shows the deadening influence of London’s drain on resources – which, in the grey area, has had its full effect. Elsewhere social and cultural resources, and the degree of freedom for new developments, are not so circumscribed. It may be true, as Londoners will assume it is, that Penrith and Dudley and Ipswich are “stifling”, “socially impoverished” “cultural backwaters” whose young people make for the metropolis at the first opportunity. What is certain is that the apparent barrenness of these places (which should not be over-stated) is the result, not of an original sin of not being London, but of their own histories – histories that will supply, if anything can, the means of overcoming that barrenness.
I am arguing against two very British assumptions: that England is composed of a metropolis (definitively English) and a periphery (regional English); and that an English social and political culture – culture of any sort, indeed – is not to be sought in the latter. We need to break with these, not only by denying the superiority of London, but by re-evaluating – and downgrading – London: prising the large city in the South-East of England apart from the home of Britain’s State and most of its Establishment. An English challenge to Britain is needed; and, as a first step, the development of an idea of Englishness rooted in the lives of the actual people of England, most of whose relations with “Britishness” are relations of vicarious participation, indifference or exclusion.
Nor is this only a cultural question. Nothing will impede the development of a politics of England more than continuing to organise nationally from and in London. Our political organisations should at the very least be articulated across England. Their activities should take place as much in Coventry or Newcastle as in London, not out of a desire to “build a presence in the regions”, but because to continue to do otherwise is to reproduce the centre/provinces, government/governed split at the heart of British politics.
A couple of disclaimers. It is easy to over-emphasise the regional issue, either by ranking it above those of class and economic power or by assuming that they are the same thing – “Manchester people will take no shit from no one”, as a Moss Side-born friend once said to me. This is mysticism. The idea of England I am proposing and the received, patriotic-pastoral version are polar opposites. I am not talking about pride in being English, but awareness of being in England: nationalism growing from a sense of common purpose, rather than a sense of common purpose drummed up out of nationalism. The SNP’s poll tax campaign exemplifies this approach.
We can understand the potential of the English perspective by thinking about internationalism. Maybe it is possible to feel international, to “support our lot” in exactly the same way regardless of country. Alternatively, maybe it can be proved that feeling ashamed of the British government is simply a sign of wounded chauvinism. If so, the old axioms hold good. The working class has no country; nationalism is inherently reactionary; progressive forces throughout the world have one allegiance only – the international proletariat. (Hooray!) It seems to me, though, that national feeling can be neither denied nor reduced to its reactionary uses – that the nation is not simply a hangover from the past, but one of the arenas in which history continues to be made. It follows that socialist internationalism is not an indivisible class’s loyalty to itself, but a pooling of national class loyalties; and support for national struggles which does not spring from a nationalistic solidarity is ultimately only dogma or philanthropy. Raymond Williams once described himself as a “Welsh European”. It is that combination of national and international perspectives which we have to realise.
“Nationalism? But I’m English!” Britain is a young nation – not 300 years old yet. There is no genuinely British nationalism; instead, we grow up speaking the nationalism of England’s governors, re-labelled “British” as a reminder that we run the whole island. This lack of a distinctively British national identity has led to the widespread feeling that the British are somehow post-national – “past all that”, too mature as a nation to bother with tribal relics like loyalty to your own turf. This is an illusion: British nationalism is as strong now as when it was first fabricated. The English have the worst of both worlds: a learnt loyalty to the tribal symbols of the English ruling class, and no means of voicing an alternative.
Which is where we come in. It is not just that the project of a Socialist Enlightenment cannot succeed in England unless it provides an alternative to Great British Old Corruption. The English situation merely accentuates a universal phenomenon: the need, integral to the socialist project, for a new national culture rooted in the experience of the people. This is why organising nationally, for those of us in England, must mean organising throughout England; and why we must take on board the sense that there is an England which, as much as Scotland and Wales, potentially has a political agenda other than Britain’s. To quote Raymond Williams again, “Ingsoc is no more English socialism than Minitrue is the Ministry of Truth”: English socialism, a radical politics of the people of England, has still to be developed. And it will be developed outside London, because that’s where England is.