In the aftermath of December's general election, Alex Niven's latest book, though a welcome contribution to an often tedious debate, feels like a product of another time.
Alex Niven, New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England, Repeater 2019
Debates about Englishness are a constant - often tedious - feature of the never-ending culture war in our politics. The tortured relationship between the British left and patriotism cuts a seam through its history, up to and including Emily Thornberry's ill-advised tweeting, annual overblown stories about Jeremy Corbyn's participation in Remembrance Sunday, or the countless slim copies of Orwell's Lion and the Unicorn sold at the Waterstones counter.
I therefore mean it as high praise when I say Alex Niven's New Model Island is a welcome contribution to this debate - in part because of its sheer breadth and ambition, incorporating as it does personal biography, a wide span of culture, and a genuinely radical and fresh perspective on the political and economic geography of the United Kingdom. The book fits comfortably alongside friend and fellow Repeater author Joe Kennedy's Authentocrats (2017) in a body of work, heavily influenced by Mark Fisher, which seeks to contest the assumptions underpinning frequent gestures towards working-class conservatism, community and patriotism. (1)
Where, and what, is England?
New Model Island is full of the kinds of sharp cultural insights and connections that characterised Fisher's work. The book opens with an extended discussion of Alton Towers - the theme park and the medieval estate that still exists nearby - and from there Niven extrapolates some of the central motifs of Englishness. Along the way, he interweaves commentary on the Nairn-Anderson thesis, John Ruskin's 'Nature of the Gothic', Arthurian myth, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. This yields a bleak vision of a non-country, preoccupied with ideas of curses, of having never truly existed, of confinement, and above all by emptiness: 'from its makeshift ethereal Constitution, to the unresolvable ambiguity at the fundamental level of its relationship with adjacent countries in the islands, the English un-nation is everywhere defined by a bizarre feeling of lack and emptiness' (p42).
Niven roots this crisis (or disintegration) of English identity in empire. At the same time as 'modern, romantic forms of nationalism' developed elsewhere in the world, 'England was engaged in a radically countervailing campaign to make itself an inchoate, denationalised entity, capable of absorbing other localities, tacitly and without accompanying democratic or romantic agitation' (p38). With no clear historical or common cultural basis to unite its disparate counties, Niven contends that England 'is, at best, a vague anachronism, and at worst, the recent cultural daydream of a neoliberal order which really operates on the basis of finance capitalism, hierarchy, and the denial of more radical popular hopes and dreams' (p7).
Insofar as England does exist in any meaningful sense, for Niven it is in 'Little England', the south-east corner of Britain, marked out by its political Conservatism and by the geographical concentration of Britain's wealth and power. Thatcherism, he writes, not only 'relied on the electoral support of the relatively prosperous and suburban districts of Little England ... What is more, the core programme of Thatcherism included a vision for empowering London as a global mega-city and ever-expanding centre of an economy based on financial services'. And where New Labour's ambition for regional devolution ran aground, it was in the incompatibility between its accommodation with Thatcherism's 'vigorously centralising economic project' and 'a more abstract, idealistic discourse that argued for the redistribution of power away...