BLOG: English Nationalism for the Common Good?

Probably most contemporary English nationalist movements are associated with support for right-of-centre economic and social policies. There is an assumption, perhaps not surprisingly after the EU membership Referendum, that English nationalism is racist, inward-looking and ethno-phobic. Nationalism is right- wing, ugly and nasty.

But what if there was another form of nationalism that instead of being close-minded and narrow, was open-hearted and generous? What if there was party or movement south of Hadrian’s Wall that reflected the progressiveness of the nationalists in Scotland?

This would not be the nationalism of aristocracy and privilege, or of Euroscepticism or fear of migration. Maybe more Billy Bragg than Billy Bunter.

So what might this look like and does it give grounds for hope at this apparently hopeless time for those on the left in England?

I would suggest a different take on nationalism could be built around four more positive strands all of which are very real in English history and still tangible in many, even most, communities today.

The first is multi-culturalism. From our very beginnings we have grown from a mix of ethnic differences. From Celts to Romans, from Saxons to Vikings and Normans, from refugees to freed slaves, from other European nations to migration from the Empire. Our food, our language, our architecture, our landscape have all been influenced by diversity. We need to rescue Englishness from the confines of white, middle-class Protestantism and recognise the true mix of genes in our bodies and in our communities.

Secondly, there is a huge stream of social justice in our culture – from Danelaw and the Presentment of Englishry; Sanctuary; the early Charters; Reformation; the rights of women, children, slaves, BME communities, older people; Diggers and Levellers; the origins of Trades Unions; the rights of access to home, health, work and legal representation. These are embedded in our history yet carelessly forgotten or ignored.

Surely there is a darker side to the past (Crusades, Torture, hereditary abuse, abject poverty and disease) but these should not trap us into thinking our history only rewards the violence or excess of a few. We have come a long way since the blood feuds of previous millennia.

Thirdly, there is the wealth of participating and sharing in community life at a local level. This is found in various expressions even today – voluntarism, philanthropy, a strong community sector, thousands of mutual help and support structures, community resilience, good neighbourliness, ‘random acts of kindness’, arts and social clubs, community businesses, cooperatives, citizens groups and so on.

We should not take these for granted. They are not found in the same way across the world. There is a uniqueness about the voluntary and community sector in England that is to be celebrated and developed.

Fourthly, an environmental awareness and sensitivity that, even now, reinforces a sense of a ‘green and pleasant land’. The membership of plant, animal and habitat preservation groups dwarves the membership of political and sporting organisations. English people want to conserve and protect nature and the ecology of the planet in their millions. We love our parks, gardens, green spaces, landscapes, farms and biodiversity – all of which are under threat by the global economy which pervasively denies the value of the Earth.

On the whole, we are committed to recycling, to developing renewable energy systems, to electric vehicles, to community green projects, local currencies and regional produce. These aspirations are high on people’s minds (if not on politicians’) and point to a kind of creative green nationalism which should not be overlooked.

Together these four overlapping strands point to a different approach to nationalism, and one which takes pride in who we are without resorting to prejudice or fear or hatred of the other. These are the filaments which could create a new national conviviality and a deeper political engagement, just as has happened in Scotland.

What would an open and generous form of English nationalism look like?

It would:

  • value diversity as a natural part of Englishness (who here is not a migrant or a descendant of a migrant?!)
  • recognise equality and human rights as enshrined in the Magna Carta and in the struggles for forms of emancipation
  • welcome fair and just trade as developed in the Commonwealth
  • be as self-sufficient in resources as possible, as during the World Wars
  • affirm creative activity and community endeavour as found in English arts and science
  • think long-term for future generations as did our Victorian engineers and philosophers
  • maximise the potential of natural renewable resources as exemplified by our industrial revolution
  • develop resilient communities who share with one another and support people at times of vulnerability (in the spirit of the Welfare State)
  • reject the obsession with short term economic gain for the few whilst imposing austerity on the many, as our collectively minded ancestors did before us through laws, customs and ethics (look at how profiteering and racketeering used to be viewed by the populace during the 1940s)

The Domesday Book, Trial by Jury, Runnymede, Parliamentary Democracy, Religious Freedoms, governance by consent, artistic flair, scientific inventiveness, environmental carefulness are all examples of more inclusive, integrated and inviting forms of an evolving nation. They are not complete or perfect but they do symbolise a community of caring, sharing, living well together for the benefit of all not just an advantaged few.

The question we now face outside of the EU (and I firmly believed we should have remained) is do we let the nationalist agenda be shaped entirely by the political right and extreme right, or can we rescue it and put it in its place at the centre of a nation trying to rediscover its own identity and its own future that engages us all together - and is not dominated by exclusives, elites and warlords?