New Model Island
‘New Model Island: how to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England’ by Alex Niven, 2019, Repeater Books.
‘New Model Island’ presents a socialist northerner’s take on the current political zeitgeist in the Britain and Ireland. Namely, the widely anticipated break-up of the UK state; Scottish independence, Irish unification, Welsh independence. The author takes this further, by arguing that England is redundant as a political and cultural concept, and by putting forward an alternative to England – regional devolution, distribution of power, decentralisation – with a proud northern bias.
However, Niven does not present any tangible proposals for regional devolution until the final chapter. The earlier sections of the book primarily cover cultural issues. These are punctuated with staccato-like assertions that the English national psyche is warped beyond repair and that the concept of England must be left in the past. For example, ‘abandoning England as a lost cause, and cementing its status as a vanished kingdom, is a necessary precondition for the coming egalitarianism of the 21st century’.
For much of the book, the reader is left hanging on tenterhooks. Suspense comes through not knowing whether Niven’s regional devolution is to be confined to England; whether Niven also considers Scotland, Ireland and Wales as politically redundant concepts, despite their more advanced progressive national movements; whether New Model Island is a sophisticated work of sophistry intended to undermine democracy, and support the union through quasi-socialist ‘one nation’ federalist proposals. (See the RSP’s previous articles on federalism here, here and here). Thankfully, this is not the case. Niven writes that he is ‘not advocating a form of unionism’ and that ‘unionism [has] blighted Scottish and Irish existence’. However, that this answer comes so late in the book, makes for nervous reading up until that point.
Throughout these earlier, less political chapters, Niven – a self-proclaimed champion of the peripheries – unfortunately makes several howlers. For example, Skye is listed as a ‘fictional island’ alongside Father Ted’s Craggy Island, because it featured in a Virginia Woolf novel. Britain and Ireland are simply referred to as ‘the islands’. In Scotland, Niven would be asked which islands he meant; northern or western, inner or outer. Citing Yugoslavia, he warns of the possible violent consequences of breaking up political unions. But there is no mention of peaceful dissolutions, such as in Czechoslovakia.
The book’s title gives a nod to the New Model Army, the anti-Royalist, English Parliamentarian force raised in 1645 during the English Civil War. Due to that army’s very mixed legacy, the title presents both positive and negative connotations.
The New Model Army can be remembered fondly by socialists for the following reasons;
- They were republicans who successfully overthrew the absolutist King Charles I. This forced the transition from royal sovereignty to parliamentary sovereignty.
- Left-wing proto-socialist factions like the Levellers went further, advocating popular sovereignty.
- The ranks gained concessions from their own commanders, forcing tight-fisted Westminster MPs to stop withholding payment from the troops.
- This dispute about pay led onto the Putney Debates in 1647 where the Levellers were able to face the Parliamentarian rulers, and set out their independent proto-socialist democratic vision for a post-war constitution.
Despite the positive legacy outlined above, in other respects, the New Model Army does not resonate well with Niven’s regionalist vision for England.
- The New Model Army was the first national army of England; breaking tradition with the regional militias which had preceded it.
- Their fighting forced Scotland and Ireland into an Anglocentric Commonwealth state, ruled by Cromwell, who envisioned that the peripheries would be subdued by the many citadels that were built, and transformed into ‘little Englands’.
- Many of the Levellers sought communal property ownership, and thus looked sympathetically upon the clans of Ireland. In solidarity with the Gaels, in 1649, the Leveller faction heroically mutinied over the planned mobilisation to Ireland… However, these mutinies were crushed, and the mobilisation went ahead. The New Model Army conducted Cromwell’s Protestant Crusade of Ireland, 1649-53, ending Irish self-government, and carrying out bloody massacres. Estimates of the drop in the Irish population resulting from this campaign range from 15-83%.
- The New Model Army seized Jamaica from the Spanish Empire. This ‘contributed mightily to the expansion of the English (later British) promoted chattel slavery and further reinforced large-scale landed and mercantile capitalism through the development of plantation-based agriculture in the colonies’ (Armstrong, p.100).
(For more details on all of the above, see Allan Armstrong’s Internationalism from Below, Volume 1, part 2b).
A variety of English thinkers have advocated associating the English national identity with what they call the English radical tradition (the above pre-industrial history, as well as the rise of socialism). These include Billy Bragg, George Orwell, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, much of the Labour Party, republican socialist Steve Freeman, and Anthony Barnett, who recently organised the Europe for Scotland initiative. Niven quotes Barnett’s calls for Scottish and Welsh nationalism to be used as a template which the English should follow. ‘A European-facing England might be counterposed to the narrow Britishness of the Brexiteers’.
Despite his book’s ‘New Model’ title, Niven distances himself from the positions of the above. Whilst recognising the value of radical English history, to Niven, ‘resuscitating this tradition, disentangling it from far more cogent conservative and far-right English nationalisms, and then successfully integrating it with the rainbow idealisms of 21st century radical politics seems, at the very least, a pretty forlorn hope’. Any attempt by the left to reclaim English national identity ‘is an attempt to meet an insurgent far-right halfway’.
Despite stereotypes about the industrial north, Niven states that the radical English tradition was largely confined to the south-east of England. In the book, Niven reflects on a pilgrimage to Tolpuddle, Dorset where six trade unionist agricultural workers were famously banished to exile in Australia in 1834. ‘This was not really my country, I thought with some conviction, while gazing out over the sorts of expensively maintained thatched roofs you rarely see further north than the Midlands’.
Niven respects people who self-identify as English, as he himself has been prone to do during the World Cup. ‘In 1966, 1990, 1996 and 2018 especially, the success of the English national team has offered a fleeting glimpse of what might have been in an alternate reality, one in which England developed into a modernistic European republic, instead of a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism… A version of English identity that, in its modernism, internationalism, and ability to place proletarian experience at the centre of a provisional national culture, acts as a powerful antidote to the bucolic, nostalgic version of Englishness that filters down to the masses through bourgeois and aristocratic signifiers.’
Niven’s rose-tinted perspective about the English fans clashes with the stereotype of lager louts, on display, for example, during a 1995 friendly in Dublin against Ireland which was abandoned before half time due to far-right English fans rioting. Regardless, Niven understands that his patriotic sport-induced emotions are separate from and politically useless to the socialist cause.
Among Niven’s other ideas about culture, he characterises 1990s Britpop as working-class, modernist and internationalist. The musicians came from all corners of these islands and drew upon diverse influences including African American soul music and Italian style. Liam Gallagher stood at the mic with the posture of an Irish shanty singer, while his brother strummed a union jack guitar. There was ‘promiscuity when it came to questions of nationality’.
Niven contrasts that ‘loose transnational spirit’ with the more recent ‘millennial Englishness’, culturally manifest through smug faux-folk hipster bands like Mumford & Sons and their back-to-the-land aesthetics. Symbolically manifest in politics through the Tory Party’s 2006 adoption of an English oak as their logo, to replace their previous red/blue Olympic torch emblem.
Another highlight of the book is the ‘Cities on the Fringe’ section. A powerful lament about the ‘geographical precarity’ which most young people from UK experience, depending on their location. There are ‘patterns of dislocation, which are always most keenly felt on the fringes of the islands rather than in their hypertrophied centre’. These economic forces uproot people from their communities, to continually relocate for education and work, leaving family and friends behind, notwithstanding lengthy and expensive trips on public transport. Whilst this lifestyle is sometimes attractive, there are very real detrimental mental health and social implications, albeit less severe than those related to immigration from overseas.
At last, the book reaches its crescendo. Niven outlines his socialist northerner vision for the future of Britain and Ireland. Not as a policy document, but rather as a poetic vision for a ‘dream archipelago’. ‘The culture and governance’ of Britain and Ireland should not be based upon ‘three or four lumpen national blocks left over from the feudal past’. But rather, should be ‘comprised of certain fluid and variously connected regional units’.
In practice, this would entail establishing between 7 and 9 provinces within the borders of modern England. The population size of each province would more or less be the same as those of Scotland, Wales and a united Ireland. There would be an aspiration for the northern and western provinces to become closely integrated with the Celtic nations. ‘Regional-national units [would] work together to create an alternative power base to the south-east’.
Niven pledges his full support for Irish unification, predicting that it will happen before Scottish or Welsh independence, and correctly pointing out that the situations in the various parts of the UK are inextricably linked. He also offers critical support for Scottish and Welsh independence, citing the author Tom Nairn from Scotland and the later works of Raymond Williams from Wales.
After Scottish and Welsh independence, ‘the towering central problem which is of course England itself’ would remain. There is a likelihood that England would be a parasitic neighbour to Scotland and Wales, and that the southeast of England would be a parasitic neighbour to England’s north and west; areas which may become squeezed between London and the new states. Niven poises the question of integrating the English peripheries with Scotland, Wales and Ireland as a choice between anti-capitalism and mere nationalism.
This integration could take several forms. Quality transport links like an HS3 railway network and the revival of derelict ports. The establishment of an administrative hub ‘to facilitate the processes of pan-islands co-operation’ possibly in Carlisle; ‘an archipelagoan counterpoint to London’s imperial centrism’.
Whatever future for England, progressive English nationalism or post-English regionalism; that the English left is beginning to reconcile itself with the end of the UK is a positive development. Perhaps a progressive English nationalism could be a steppingstone to Niven’s vision. The debate should be had between those two conflicting programmes. What is more clear, is that the people throughout these islands should communicate and co-operate to achieve self-determination in all corners of the UK. Niven posits that self-determination could be brought about by either a grassroots campaign or by a new administration. In this respect the book is dated by Corbyn’s defeat, Niven’s 2019 optimism on full display. Internationalism from below is the way forward.