It was a real privilege last Monday to chair an event held in Westminster called ‘Reimagining England’ to mark the publication of Dr Rupa Huq’s important new book, On the Edge: Contested Cultures of English Suburbia. In the book Rupa pointedly asks about the place of Englishness in our national identity and our politics, questions that have had an unfortunate tendency of getting brushed under the carpet. But at least this event served to give them an airing that, I hope, can contribute toward some prolonged reflection. Joining Rupa and I on the panel were Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh, and the writer, Paul Kingsnorth.
Paul’s opening emphasised the neglect of England and Englishness. He recalled how devolution for Wales and Scotland allowed for a proud, positive flourishing of their identity; and the bravura evocation of Britishness during the Olympic opening ceremony. But this picture misses any idea of England and it goes unremarked and unnoticed by the political elite. Paul suggested that Englishness is tied to a sense of place in ways that Britishness is not – the latter, he remarked, is more about the identity of the UK state. Englishness weaves its way through the fabric of the land and its communities. As far as he was concerned, the invisibility of Englishness is a source of discontent that cannot be ignored any longer. His immediate advice to Ed Miliband was to make a speech about England specifically and open a conversation about its place within his One Nation idea; and think about addressing the anomalous position it occupies in our constitution.
Rupa began her contribution by suggesting that the real England is found in our suburbs. They, not the much more glamorous city centres, are the sites where the changing social landscape of England is playing itself out. They were conceived as aspirational places; “true happiness and tranquillity in Hounslow” was typical of the slogans promoting suburban developments after the war. But the moment of their expansion was presaged by the national pastime of sneering at suburbia. Those quintessentially English writers, JB Priestley and George Orwell, attacked the suburbs as torture chambers full of ghastly people whose lives were circumscribed by petty concerns, insularity, and lifelessness. While this may have passed radical muster before the war, when suburbs primarily accommodated the professional middle class fleeing the cities, today 80% of our population live there. Perhaps this dismissal of suburbia is the root of the casual ignorance of Englishness by the political class. But it is something we – as Labour Party members – cannot ignore, as Rupa spells out in <a href=” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2013/feb/04/rupa-huq-suburbia-politics-election-video” target=”_blank”>this interview</a> with The Guardian.
Mary took a different tack in her contribution and talked about the English landscape and how it is in danger of irrevocable change. From the threat of ash die back, the government’s lackadaisical attitude to green development, and its complacent approach to climate change, these issues matter to how the land ties in to the way the English and England see themselves. Therefore to address environmental concerns – as Labour’s One Nation aims to do – shows that the left is quite capable of talking to and engaging with Englishness.
There followed a number of audience contributions that addressed an English parliament, a lack of a specifically English politics, the relationship between national identity, ethnicity and class, whether London is different from England, and if Conservatives are better at speaking to suburbia and Englishness. None of these questions can yield hard and fast answers and they tend to beget further questions. For example, is a distinctively English political space best served by a dedicated parliament (with or without London), or regional assemblies?
If politics in general and the left in particular are to grasp the challenge of Englishness, Rupa’s book is one of the best ways of introducing these thorny issues.