Labour and the new Englishness.

Author:Robinson, Emily

In the mid-1930s, with the encouragement of the Comintern, British communists attempted to assert their claim to represent an indigenous line of English radicalism. This was intended as a counter to fascism's practice of 'rummaging through the entire history of every nation so as to be able to pose as heirs and continuers of all that was exalted and heroic in its past'. (1) In response, communists--particularly in Britain--were encouraged to 'enlighten the masses on the past of their own people, in a historically correct fashion' (p129). The CPGB responded enthusiastically to this suggestion, not only through the work of its Historians' Group, but also by staging a number of Marches of English History--in London, Lancashire and Sussex, as well as Pageants of Scottish History in Glasgow and Dundee. However, this led to arguments about whether it was acceptable to appeal to liberal-radical traditions and sensibilities, or whether communists should focus solely on the proletariat and its predecessors. (2)

These debates have re-emerged in Blue Labour's provocative re-telling of both English and Labour history, and in fears of losing the 'white working class' to UKIP, as well as, more recently, Jeremy Corbyn's marked antipathy to the symbolic politics of the British state. This latter point is particularly interesting because of the tangled history of English, British and 'Anglo-British' identities it invokes--more of which later. Those insisting that Labour needs to develop its patriotic appeal have tended to focus on the idea of 'reclaiming' Englishness 'as a positive statement of national expression and pride in England--not as negative, divisive and dangerous'. (3) They challenge the reading of the icons of patriotism 'as symbols of oppression, imperial domination and exploitation', and point to an alternative lineage of English history, rooted in the stories of working men and women. (4)

This is an admirable and long-standing project, which stretches back through Raphael Samuel and E.P. Thompson in the latter half of the twentieth-century, to the CP's Popular Front. It also resonates with the recent renewal of interest in what has been called 'deep Englishness'--cultural explorations of land and folk memories, often with a radical or at least anarchic edge. (5) We might think of the music of P.J. Harvey, the novels of Nicola Barker or the films of Ben Wheatley. Robert Macfarlane has described this as the rise of 'an English eerie' and underlined its connection to 'a dissenting left politics', seeing it as 'an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism'. (6)

However this has always been more convincing as a way of reconciling the left to English patriotism, than winning English patriots to the left. The kind of events that we most associate with expressions of radical Englishness--such as Levellers' Day or the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival--focus less on creating a cohesive national identity than on disrupting dominant conservative notions of England and Englishness. The political resonance of Levellers' Day, for instance, comes from the incongruous procession of communist, anarchist and socialist banners through a picturesque village in Conservative-dominated Oxfordshire--within David Cameron's constituency, no less. It invokes a deliberately alternative narrative of Englishness, which sustains a lineage of...

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