Brown v Duffy

The renewal of Englishness

Journalist James Cowley builds a national identity from an excavation of incidents


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

State-of-the-nation books can often be unsatisfactorily abstract as their writers delve into shifting identities and evolving social trends, especially when looking back on Britain, and England, since 1945.

Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England, Jason Cowley (Picador, £20)

Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman and an important voice of the moderate left, sidesteps the problem by getting under the skin of a series of specific events framed as “stories of modern England” — the Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay, the repatriation of dead British soldiers through the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett, the Islamophobic attack in Finsbury Park, and more.

The excavation of these events is skilfully handled, but Cowley largely eschews “speaking for England” and makes only a vague attempt to pull strands together and come to any conclusion about the political direction of England and Englishness.

The book starts and finishes in Harlow, the Essex new town where Cowley was raised. Its decline provides the book with an undertow of disappointed expectation locked in productive argument with the author’s own qualified optimism about England’s future, exemplified by Gareth Southgate’s multi-ethnic England football team.

One of his stories of England is the “Brexit Murder” in Harlow, which turned out not to be. A couple of months after the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which Harlow voted 68 per cent to leave the EU, a fracas between some local boys and three Poles, who were living and working in the town, ended with Arkadiusz JÓzwik hitting his head on the pavement and dying.

Essex police described the incident as a “potential hate crime” and it widely came to be denounced, here and abroad, as an act of Brexit-inspired xenophobia. By the time one of the boys was convicted of manslaughter a year later it was clear that Brexit had played no role in the incident but Harlow’s (and England’s) reputation had taken another blow.

Harlow was already a metaphor for national decline

With its brutalist estates, closed factories, and no replenishment of the idealistic middle class who had come to live there in its 1960s heyday, Harlow was already a metaphor for national decline and Cowley, making his way in 1990s London journalism, used to keep quiet about his roots. An aside: I lived in Harlow for three months in 1980, studying at its technical college as part of my journalism apprenticeship. I remember meeting the town’s Marxist Labour MP Stan Newens and also sensing some of the disillusionment that Cowley describes.

The story I learnt most from is that of Gillian Duffy, the elderly Labour supporter who had a chance conversation with Gordon Brown when he was canvassing in Rochdale, including about immigration, during the 2010 election campaign. Brown was later caught describing her as “that bigoted woman”, but Cowley unpacks the whole conversation, revealing her to be quite well-informed on a range of issues.

I had not realised how much the episode had shaken Labour’s leadership. Duffy was ushered in to meet both Miliband brothers, and Ed even described her to colleagues as “the person we have to convince”. The dismissal of her legitimate anxieties about uncontrolled immigration, student debt, welfare fraud, under-investment in the north and so on, is rightly seen by Cowley as Labour’s “broken chain” with many of its core voters, and a premonition of the Brexit vote.

Thoughtful Labour people knew there was a big problem aligning their growing constituency of liberal graduates and ethnic minorities with old school English voters. Ed Miliband, as Labour leader, made overtures to a more conservative Blue Labour perspective, though it never rang true.

The book includes a useful short section on the pandemic, with the typically neat observation about how the mass jabbing operation reminded him “of the humble ritual of voting on election days: the low key setting, the volunteers … the trust and decency of it all”.

Cowley praises the bridge-builders — the imam who saves an Islamophobic terrorist from being beaten to death and the black activist who similarly saves an English Defence League protester at a BLM demo — and clearly wants himself to be a bridge between the new England of the big cities and university towns (blue state) and the more traditional, often left-behind, England of the small towns and countryside (red state).

This quest for balance is perfectly honourable, but at times it can feel like punches are being pulled. For example, he largely ignores the place of mass residential higher education in our cultural divides and its role in transforming part of the left from that “broad movement on behalf of the underdog” to a harder, narrower current of liberal evangelism. I suspect Cowley does battle on this front every week at the New Statesman.

The Brexit-as-Empire-nostalgia argument is hard to reconcile

I would have liked more polling data on attitudes to Englishness and a clearer account of how it has emerged as a response to the fading of Britishness and the rise of Scottish devolution and nationalism, which has, among other things, plastered the word England everywhere, as in “NHS England”.

Lacking this analysis, his conclusion that English nationalism is the most disruptive force in British politics comes rather out of the blue and seems to contradict the earlier drift of the argument that it was not primarily nationalism but “Duffyism” that propelled Brexit. Brexit happened in Wales, too, after all.

The nostalgia and resentment often associated with post-imperial countries, currently seen in bloody Russian form in Ukraine, is not entirely absent in Englishness, but it is a much weaker force than writers such as Fintan O’Toole and Sathnam Sanghera (in his otherwise fair-minded Empireland) suppose.

Being a dominant country for more than 300 years, a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker, has made the English more attached to national sovereignty than smaller nations that never had much of it in the first place. But the Brexit-as-Empire-nostalgia argument is hard to reconcile with the absence of any significant political backlash against the unwinding of empire after 1945, itself a function of the lack of big colonial settler populations (unlike the French in Algeria).

Englishness is a moving target and the identity concerns that have propelled it, and caused the left so much trouble, in recent years, may be receding as economic basics reassert themselves.

Despite his embrace of Southgate-ism, Cowley downplays the extent to which ethnic minorities now embrace Englishness; it turns out it can be as capacious as Britishness if you want it to be. And he was writing at a time when Scottish independence felt a more immediate likelihood than it does now, after a pandemic that highlighted both the reality of devolved decision-making and the benefits of the British embrace.

The other nations of these islands have all created new institutions and/or had moments of self-conscious renewal in recent decades. The progress of Englishness will be more organic and gradual, but Cowley is surely right to presume it will be largely benign.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover