Friday 8 February 2013

Englishness and Suburbia

There is a spectre haunting the Union, the spectre of Englishness! I was down in London Monday evening for the launch-cum-discussion of Rupa Huq's new book, On the Edge: Contested Cultures of English Suburbia. Having skimmed the first 50 pages by way of preparation, Rupa argues the suburbs have long been the repository and incubator of the tensions and characteristics that one can find condensed in English national identity. For example, chatting with an ex-trot comrade yesterday, we mused how we didn't define ourselves as 'big E' English, but there are certain eccentricities and quirks we share that are quintessentially English. Perhaps this self-denying ordinance is a peculiar feature of Englishness? If that is the case, it probably counts toward explaining the unremarked presence, or the absence of an 'out and proud' Englishness in the Britishness our state and culture industry projects to us and the rest of the world. What Englishness is, why it is seldom mentioned outside a sporting context, and the anomalous position England occupies in a jury-rigged constitutional set up that conveys political life on Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London are all matters politics in general and the left (from the centre to the fringe) in particular do not talk about. Rupa's book, and the meeting that launched it lifts the lid on these issues and invites us to take a deeper look. Rupa was joined on the panel by Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh, and the writer, Paul Kingsnorth. Proceedings were chaired by Tristram Hunt.

Paul’s opening emphasised the neglect of England and Englishness. He recalled trips around the American deep south and the ubiquity of the General Lee - a flag still flown some 150 years after the crushing of the Confederacy. He thought it acted as a reminder, a message to those who would prefer to forget another United States exists that "we're still here". He believes the St George's Cross plays a similar sort of role here. For instance, devolution allowed for a proud, positive and mainly inclusive flourishing of Scottish and Welsh national identities. Years of official multiculturalism promoted by the government reached its finest, most explicit and deeply moving expression of self-projected modern Britishness at last summer's Olympic opening ceremony. But for the millions who stubbornly enter 'English' instead of 'British' on their census forms, it can appear that political and media elites are content to forget England. However, it is neither gone nor forgotten. Paul suggested that Englishness is tied to a sense of place and weaves the fabric of the land and its communities tightly together. Its unremarked subsumption beneath Britishness and the places afforded Scotland and Wales in the multicultural firmament can and is becoming a mote of discord, a speck of disenchantment that can accrete and roll with all kinds of discontent and negativity. We, as in the centre left and the labour movement, don't so much need to 'reimagine England', but rather rediscover it. That isn't an exercise in trying to impose a fluffy, civic-minded Englishness a la Scottish and Welsh nationalism, but rather an exercise in political listening. His immediate advice was for Ed Miliband to make a high profile speech about England specifically, 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 saying the real England is found in our suburbs. With 80% of England living there, this gives us a good idea about what Englishness looks like. And, if you like, the untold story of modern England is synonymous with the tale of the suburb. Musical movements from punk to dubstep, the teddy boys, the indie kids, and the emos, these were not born out of the English equivalent of downtown Detroit or Brooklyn - their self-identification with inner city cool masks their roots in suburbia. They decry the environment that gave birth, nurtured, and listens to them. This cultural scepticism is the latter day inheritor of the way suburbia was spurned by the likes of George Orwell and JB Priestley. In the inter-war years, suburbia was the safe domestic spaces carved out of the English countryside by the middle classes. They were quickly likened to torture chambers of pitiless monotony and conformity. Suburbia was the place the human spirit went to die - a gulag fronted by prim and proper gardens. Perhaps this denial of the authenticity of suburban space maps onto the self-denying core of a certain sense of Englishness? But what do I know, I'm a village-raised bumpkin turned inner city slum dweller. But the contradiction of a place and a national identity in tension with itself places suburbia on the edge of changing Englishness. The reaction represented by the BNP and UKIP are both English and suburban phenomena. The 2011 summer riots were mixed race and suburban, and suburbia conceived in optimism as safe havens from the rigours of modern life, are at the forefront of the human costs of austerity. For Rupa, Labour needs a strategy that can speak to the suburbs, as she spells out in this interview with The Graun.

Mary's contribution concentrated on the English landscape. Most of us may live in suburbs, but their inauthenticity allows the vision of England to be tied with neatly parcelled fields, orchards, and woods swaying above babbling brooks. When one speaks of England, the national parks are more likely to spring to mind than a 70s semi in the commuter belt. But this traditional sense of place and with it the Englishness tied up within it is under significant environmental pressures. Climate change, frequent flooding, food processing scandals, the complacent and light-minded attitude the government has to the countryside Toryism has traditionally championed, all of these demand effective collective action to mitigate and repair. All of these, for Mary, are amenable to One Nation rhetoric and, if you like, present a back door way the centre left can address these (easily coded) English issues.

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. One point that particularly struck me was how the silence greeting Englishness within British multiculturalism has allowed an opening for a pernicious ethno-nationalist identification of Englishness with white people, an identity the BNP and the EDL have tried to capitalise on. A rediscovery and engagement with Englishness has to preserve the anti-racism and tolerance of the now hegemonic sense of Britishness while ensuring it is a positive, not a reactive identity. But for this outcome Englishness can no longer hide in the shadows. As Labour articulates One Nation ahead of the 2015 election, England and Englishness must not only be acknowledged - it demands practical recognition lest it becomes a rallying point for the forces of reaction against the kind of society 21st century social democracy wants to build.


Phil said...

I spent a couple of years banging on about England and the Left back in the 90s; nobody really listened then, and in retrospect I don't much blame them.What did for my argument was that, although I could say what the Left in England weren't doing, I could never articulate why we ought to do it or what it would actually gain us. It didn't help that I was generally making the argument at meetings in London, held by organisations based in London, attended almost entirely by people who lived in London. An example (or several) of English-but-not-London-centric Left organisation would have been far more powerful.

As for "England and the Left" now, your last sentence says it all: nobody at all is rallying around ideas of England and Englishness, so if we grab them we may be able to claim them before the Right take an interest. Well, maybe, but I think there are more (materially) pressing issues.

Anonymous said...

HHHmmm, not sure I agree with comment above but interesting post Phil BC. Englishness always seen as a bit narrowminded compared to more inclusive "Britishness" but then even the latter when I was younger was viewed with suspicion by some eg the way union jack flag used to be seen as NF/ British movement logo. I do think suburbia is a very English concept as I understand it. Yes there are US variants but the white picket fence version with detached houses of vast square footage does not really hold everywhere in UK eg in Scotland there are other models like the tenament blocks of Edinburgh/ Glasgow. In England nonetheless people cling to their small overpriced houses with notion that an Englishman's home is his (sic) castle.
The environment is of key importance to our planet but I can't help thinking it may be seen as a luxury by most voters in a reccession/ is a bid anoraky, rather like constitutional reform...

Anonymous said...

Wrote a longish comment only to see it disappear! Anyway good post Phil BC. Englishness long been viewed with suspicion by left but no reason why it shouldn't undergo a rehabilitation a la Britishness or even union flag which in my youth was considered not much more than an NF/ British Movement skinhead logo. We should seek to fashion a left version of both - I think it';s already happened to some extent with Danny Boyle's championing of alternative institutions to empire like NHS and BBC. Ok about to hit return (fingers crossed this time)

Evan said...

Eric Hobsbawm wrote about this is in Marxism Today in the early 1980s around the time of the Falklands War, which tapped into the CPGB historians' long use of English traditions as an alternative form of national identity - such as the Norman Yoke, the Peasants Revolt, the Chartists, etc. Paul Gilroy critiqued this in the 1980s in There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack.

Phil said...

I agree with you all that England and Englishness is important. When I was a Trot I was all for trying to hijack or do something with radical English traditions - but sadly it never really got beyond a bit of pub talk.

But Phil is right, while there are other pressing things Englishness is there for grabbing.