2007 - 2021

England After Scotland

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In a recent Counterfire article on the Scottish referendum campaign Alex Snowdon used a rarely mentioned phrase, the ‘English Left’. Apart from a few mavericks, amongst whom I number myself, who have been arguing for a progressive Englishness for the past few years, this is a prefix that up to now the Left seemed distinctly uncomfortable with.

While language is important, politics cannot be reduced simply to the words that we use. But, in the aftermath of Scotland’s historic referendum, recognising a break of the Union as a vital stage in transforming Britain’s ancien regime of establishment, monarchy and privilege must in part define Left politics north and south of the border (Wales and the North of Ireland too).

A 45% vote for independence is quite extraordinary. All three parliamentary parties, with UKiP following close behind, the entire media establishment (with the solitary exception of Scotland’s Sunday Herald newspaper), the full weight of the business and finance sectors, were ranged against Scottish independence. We now have a Scotland in which 45% of the population no longer want to be part of Britain.

On the ‘No’ side substantial parts of that vote voted against independence but for increased devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. The pressure will now be on Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to implement their ‘vow’ of increased powers, in the face of fierce Tory backbench opposition and some from Labour’s backbenches too. In short, after yesterday, the process towards a break-up remains irreversible.

The Left in England’s temptation will be to return to ‘business as usual’, the last few weeks treated as a temporary aberration. Nothing could be more mistaken. Scotland’s political discourse is now not only markedly different to Westminster’s; the trajectory towards a break-up will continue to have a decisive effect on English politics too. The Left in England should be at the forefront of recognising and encouraging this reality. We can do that by not only celebrating and encouraging the Scottish Left’s efforts in the direction of independence, as many of us did during the Referendum campaign, but by recognising that if we favour the break-up then an English Left is what we are not a British one.

How might that process begin? The vocabulary we use for starters, but something deeper too. We have a rich tradition of new Left writers on the subject – including EP Thompson, Benedict Anderson and Tom Nairn (more recently Gary Younge, Linda Colley and more too). There is a rich tradition of Left historians engaging with and exploring England’s radical past, including Christopher Hill, Brian Manning and many others. Knitting such ideas into our politics, renovating them for the post-referendum era, would be a good starting point.

To drop the long-held default position of throwing our hands up in collective horror at any mention of English identity would be another. To seek creative, popular ways to shape that identity of purpose, most crucially to give it a civic dimension divorced from the racism it has traditionally at least in part been shaped by. Migration and race will be core to any English politics, in a way they are not in Scotland, for the foreseeable future. An Englishness which celebrates our multiculturalism, our history as a ‘mongrel nation; shaped by trade and empire, is no mean feat but if we don’t try then what kind of future are we not looking forward to?

Of course England’s politics will never be shaped by the ‘national question’ in the same way as Scottish politics are. But the post-referendum terrain will see the Union and its doleful consequences continue to be a key issue. Labour Unionism has sided, as always, with the defence of the status quo. Brown, Miliband and Darling were bag-carriers for Cameron during the course of the Referendum campaign. A Scottish Left will undoubtedly continue to challenge Labour Unionism north of the border with real prospects of an electoral breakthrough under Proportional Representation in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections.

In England we also need to be challenging Labour Unionism, not in the first instance in the electoral arena but through ideas and actions. Any English Left needs to learn lessons from the Scottish Left’s imaginative embrace of the cultural dimension through such referendum initiatives such as the National Collective. Going way beyond the ‘ninety minute nationalism’ that has seen football, the England team, offer almost the only visually popular way of identifying with England.

A dynamic and youthful Left, inspired by a national narrative but not trapped by it. Look at the Radical Independence Campaign happily not only co-existing but co-operating with the creative pluralism, of thinkers such as Gerry Hassan, without much, or any, of the mutual suspicion or jockeying for position in England leftist politics is more usually associated with. The simple process of learning from others will help to de-centre Englishness from its London and south-east cultural fortress in the most radical and unpredictable of fashions.

And where do we start? By recognising who we are: an English Left, not the British Left. Internationalists to the core, we have a world to win, and our nation to change for the better too.

(Mark Perryman is the driving force behind Philosophy Football, author, and editor of anthologies such as Imagined Nation: England After Britain.  This article was first published in Counterfire and reprinted with kind permission of the author).

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  1. jo says:

    After attacking the inherent regressive qualities of ‘left nationalism’, Owen jones tweeted this https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/514420053861998592. Let’s be honest though, the main reason the Union Jack is a more comfortable flag is that the English flag is a cross soaked in blood.It’s pretty hard to recast that as friendly, just get a new flag.

    1. JimnArlene says:

      Mosley, was a careerist politician; jumping on whatever band wagon suited or would let him join. The union flag for many is the proverbial “butchers apron”, so not so much of ” a more comfortable flag”. There is nothing wrong with English nationalism, as long as ( as is the case with any nationalism ), the extremists don’t hijack it.

      1. jo says:

        Yeah, I realise the reactionary nature of flags in general. Britain is just short for Briitish Empire though so the union jack should logically be more associated with imperialism. My point was just that I think this superficial aspect, reflecting the foundational role of the crusades, is probably to blame for the English flag seeming more frightening(I only realised this a couple of years ago myself, I think its mostly an unconscious echo.) I don’t really think it’s any more nationalistic to refer to England rather than Britain, in fact most liberal people in England tend to call themselves English, but the union flag is definitely more acceptable, you see it everywhere, but the St George flag (who slayed the serpent of Islam) is usually associated with ethnic exclusivity. I do think there are problems with reclaiming national identities in a progressive way, even ‘The People’s History of The United States’ has certain unwelcome moments of mythologising naivete, though there are also positive aspects. A different system of law, education, NHS etc constitute enough of a different situation to make the distinction, doesn’t neccessarily mean it’s routed in nationalism of any kind, though it often will be.

    2. Niall Truklen says:


      Your refusal to see the result for what it was will only keep you nights.
      I genuinely feel for the folks who voted yes but the people of Scotland have spoken and it should be respected.
      Banging on about tories and media bias will result in you being stuck in a room with Jim Sillars.

  2. Clootie says:

    An important correction ” …only the Sunday Herald supported independence”
    The Herald is a disgraceful unionist rag.

    1. bellacaledonia says:


  3. Valerie says:

    I think there is a huge amount of work to do in England, with regard to building the Left. Any cyber Nat will tell you of the huge amount of bile felt towards the Scots in this referendum. I was posting on Welsh and English political left leaning forums, from a selfish point of view, that all voices clamouring for change could only be for good. The page owners understood the point, but the comments were quite vile. About 2 weeks before the vote, Yes pages, who had a very broad censorship policy, were literally overrun with English trolls. You should look at how membership to UKIP has increased. I consider myself lucky that I live in Scotland, which has a clear Left, I would struggle living in the South, but more than happy to support etc. We should explore how we can do that.

  4. JimnArlene says:

    Who are the “left” in England, certainly not the Labour party. This is demonstrable by their actions, over a number of years. Perhaps the English need a new left leaning party, to give voice to the socially minded, the working classes, the vulnerable and the weak. Today’s Labour party, to use an Americanism ” ain’t it”.

    1. Valerie says:

      I think the only Left could be said to be the Greens, but not sure if they have a branding issue. It was very telling that most in Scotland hadn’t really heard of Patrick Harvie, but after his performances on platforms, he was getting rave reviews, which has resulted in a big jump in their membership. That was the great thing about the broad church of Yes. I’m sure the Greens are going to be very excited to get organised for May, 2015.

      1. jo says:

        Yes, the Greens are certainly the most left. There is a party called Left Unity, but they are quite ironically named, and need a lot of lessons about left unity. I’m sure they have the best intentions but they seem to spend a lot of time attacking the Greens, despite having a lot of similar policies.Not that there’s anything wrong with attacking Green policies, but there is a large contingent among them who left the SWP in the last couple of years, and the SWP hasn’t left them , so there’s a lot of posturing about who’s the most leftist, and doctrinaire arguments where people use quotations from their favourite Victorian socialists to prove it’s definitely them. There’s no hope of this middle class posturing rubbish achieving anything unfortunately, though at least they have a democratic constitution, so could be changed, but it looks pretty useless right now, and doesn’t deserve to be popular if it carries on like this. They should be forming common cause with people like Caroline Lucas, the only WM politician fighting the austerity agenda, and take it to the working class rather than forming a little academic bubble. They’re not.

  5. Abulhaq says:

    America, THE rogue state currently doing what it does best, with BritState backing… boom! boom!

    1. JimnArlene says:

      No real surprise there, America’s lapdog; jumps through more hoops.

  6. indywisdom says:

    Has anyone seen the ONS figures out today ?

    Another £100 billion added to the national debt the last 12 months. April-Agust borrowing is up 6% same period last year. Debt now stands at £1.44 Trillion – nearly 100% of GDP while GDP growth is at 1.7% (thanks only to Cameron &co sub-prime mortgage pump-and-dump scheme).

    Just to put the starkness of this into perspective:

    Annualised GRP Growth = 1.7%
    Annualised Borrowing Growth = 6% (On a debt of 100% GDP !!)

    Looks like UK was the titanic and Scotland was the lifeboat. If I was Salmond I wouldn’t have even bothered trying to get a currency union – who cares about the Bank of England when all they can to to “back” anything is print more money. I’d just have gone straight to Sterlingisation and dump our share of the debt at their door.

    Far better to “back” your currency with oil, fish and land than worthless “Guvpaper”.



  7. John says:

    Unfortunately the poor definition continues. The current state we live in is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, abbreviated to United Kingdom or UK.
    Great Britain and Britain refer to a geographic area.
    If we are going to discuss territorial issues, it would be useful to be consistent and correct in our usage.

  8. MBC says:

    I’m surprised you think Linda Colley is a Leftie. She is fairly hostile to Scottish independence, she’s a BritNat, the author of Britons! Forging the Nation.

    If the English do engage in a long overdue debate about English identity I think you will find it is very pluralistic. The Englishness of Russel Brand and George Osborne or Alan Titchmarsh is inhabiting very different Englands.

  9. Billy Carlin says:

    The SNP need to start exposing the massive fraud involving all of the unionist parties that is causing the collapse of the pension funds, banks and most countries as has been exposed by Professor George Lees etc as reported here and on it’s way to every single Scottish MP and MSP :


  10. I am coming to the conclusion, that from a practical point of view, progressive politics in England can’t really be done at the national level at this stage. England’s population is too big and our national solidarity is too weak. We need to do it regionally or locally, in line with established local loyalties e.g. Yorkshire, Birmingham, Cornwall.

    This probably means that the forthcoming sudden round of constitutional reform in England might need to be written off by progressives on account of the fact that not enough work on the ground will have been done to engage the people in real democracy.

    Thanks for the article, to Bella for hosting articles about England, and for comments from friends in Scotland.

  11. topherdawson says:

    A long time ago I phoned in to a talk programme on Radio Scotland on independence. I said, jokingly, that England had the political maturity to face life without Scotland and could do well in its independence.

    I’ve come to realise that it’s pretty important that England prepares for its independence and to do that it will have to work out what English nationalism is all about. It does not have to be football thugs, there are admirable people and attitudes to be found in England, and without the British imperial past to get in the way you might get back to the appropriate mindset for a medium sized European country.

    Many Scots, I among them, want to try life in an independent Scotland. England without the Britishness could be a good neighbour to us.

  12. tartanfever says:

    Sorry guys, there is no effective left in England.

    In 2011 the AV vote returned an 76% No vote. There is absolutely no desire in England, let alone the whole UK for any electoral reformation of any kind in Westminster, except for reducing the number of Scots MP’s and their influence. Nor is there any chance whatsoever of any reform being offered. FPTP will not elect one single ‘alternative’ MP in 2015

    What we are witnessing in Westminster is not the disintegration of it’s central power – the devolution they are talking about is a disassociation with Scotland. Westminster is to become both the English and UK Parliament all rolled into one. They are hardening their control, and delaying the Scottish devo-max issue until it just runs out of steam. It will be tied up in legal and political red tape, thrown around a bit, obfuscated and manipulated until it finally resembles nothing. By that time all eyes will be on the general election, the rise of UKIP and the demand of an in/out EU referendum. We will complain, the media will ignore it and that will be the end of it.

    Today on Radio4 I heard a Labour politician wheel out all the initiatives you heard about first during our campaign – especially the aspects of localism – all to be run under a Labour party banner. Give people the idea that they control but retain the real power in Westminster. It’s a deception.

    1. I’d agree with that. From what I can see, the SNP agenda appeals in large measure due to the strength of solidarity that Scots have with each other, across your nation. I know it’s not the only factor but it’s crucial. It’s not just a dry ideology supported by disparate groups. This is why I think a similar programme in England needs to be built on the foundation of natural regional loyalties.

      Ultimately, grassroots democracy has to be about working for the interests of the people we care about and live alongside, otherwise whatever system we politicos and constitutional anoraks come up with will not engage people. This is why this round of constitutional reform won’t give the people what they need.

    2. Dean Richardson says:

      The reason we turned down AV is not because we didn’t want change, but because we could see AV for what it was – window-dressing. The Westminster classes offered us AV because it was the ‘reform’ to the voting system that would have caused the least change to the status quo. They also knew that we probably would have bitten their hands off if we’d been offered PR or something else that’s a lot fairer than FPTP, so they made sure PR wasn’t on offer, because it would have meant the LibLabCon sharing the Commons with MPs from parties they consider verboten. Westminster isn’t going to become the English and UK parliaments rolled into one. It’s been a de facto, if not de jure, English parliament from the day the devolution process began, not that anybody in Westminster or Whitehall will ever say so publicly. Of course, the conflict of interests means that Westminster makes a complete bollocks of governing England in particular and the Divided Kingdom in general (where its remit goes beyond England’s borders).

  13. kate says:

    But there is an effective left in scotland.
    if scotland gets more taxation powers & the left can make a case for progressive taxation reform (and better wages) – which broadly speaking allows the scandinavian type welfare net – further cuts from westminister will not be as damaging. The argument for progressive taxation & increased wages would have been necessary to win with independence anyway, for any redistribution of wealth or change to levels of poverty to occur.

  14. Crubag says:

    “St George flag (who slayed the serpent of Islam) is usually associated with ethnic exclusivity.”

    St George predates Islam by quite a long way…he’s estimated to be late third century. And with a Greek father and a Palestinian mother serving in the Roman army he was rather cosmopolitan.

    The iconography of slaying the dragon is considered to be good triumphing over evil.

    1. I personally would oppose getting rid of my national flag because of unfortunate associations with ethnic exclusivity. If our nation changes and we do much we can be proud of, then the associations with the flag will hopefully shift. I think if we got rid of our flag now for political reasons, this would alienate quite a lot of people unnecessarily.

      1. jo says:

        Fair enough, Saladin and Islam in general was often symbolised by a serpent or dragon, though I suppose my interpretation is putting the cart before the horse. I accept I was talking rubbish here, Crubag, thanks for the correction. But Michael, honestly, how flexible do you think the Red cross is as an image, it’s never going to be disassociated from it’s origins in the crusades because it graphically illustrates it (though apparently it wasn’t meant to symbolise blood but was still a reference to the crusades, and I can’t get it out of my head when I look at it.) It’s about as flexible as this http://www.oddee.com/_media/imgs/articles2/a96845_Benin.jpg

        1. I hear what you say about the historical connotations of the St George’s Cross and I looked at the image you posted. But I don’t think most people will feel the same way. It’s not something I had thought about until you (quite reasonably) mentioned it. I can’t predict accurately people’s reactions but my instinct is that it will be counter-productive to make an issue of it. At the end of the day, it’s just a red cross on a white background and has no weapon or aggressive symbol.

  15. jo says:

    Actually I take it back. St George may have predated Islam but his modern use came about during the crusades, and he was pictured as a crusader. Check it out.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Cross

  16. English identity or British identity? The matter is very complex. The English leaders at Westminster, and some of the population, consider England to mean Britain. They are constantly asserting this, from Cameron’s ludicrous assertion in Russia that “England is the greatest country in the world” to the ubiquitous reference to the head of state as ” the Queen of England” There is no queen of England. The queendom (kingdom) of England does not exist. The nation of England does exist. But recently I’ve heard politicians talk about “the British nation”. There is no British nation. There are three and a bit nations.

    So where does this leave the question of English identity?

    1. TP says:

      No national identity is entirely homogeneous and that’s just as true for the smaller UK nations as for England.

      Our identity is the current one related to anyone living within the area of the UK known as England, whatever form it takes or from whatever part of the world it came. Cultures tend to merge and always have.

      Moreover, those who claim that England is ‘too big’ ought to bear in mind that there are many, many nations with far larger populations and bigger territories, yet they have adequate amounts of homogeneity to hold them together.

      The real problem is weening many English people away from Britishness which is a artificial concept, as well as an imperial one. It embarrasses me when I hear English people (whatever their ethnic or religious roots) proudly calling themselves ‘British’ and waving the Union Jack.

      In one sense we ARE British, but only in the same way that Danes and Swedes are Scandinavians or Kenyans and Nigerians are African.

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