England and Labour: Nation or Class?

4 February 2021


Responding to Labour’s ‘patriotic’ turn, Simon Pearson examines how England is contested, and how class – not nationalism – offers the best political lens for socialists.

It was no surprise when a leaked Labour Party strategy document, reported in the Guardian, included an embracing of the Union Jack. A series of comment pieces[1] in the same newspaper, published over the last few months, has posed the question of what the breakup of the union would mean for Labour and if it could embrace a positive English nationalism.


There has always been a reluctance on the left to dip a toe into what it means to be English; just the mention of the Flag of St George and we are down the rabbit hole of white nativism, white van man, and all that is wrong with Engurlannnnd.


That’s not to say the great men and women of the left have not had an opinion on England. Orwell despised a certain kind of patriotism, the flag-waving, Rule Britannia singing minority, that Starmer and his patriots want to target. He also had his complex views on Englishness and the left’s disavowal of it. Does winning the ‘red wall’ of lost seats mean an abandonment of internationalism and a retreat into the Brexit Party nationalism that has damned the country and most certainly infected Conservative thinking at the highest level? Latest Labour thinking suggests so.


Compassionate conservatism has disappeared, even if it ever existed. The Tories now occupy space once the preserve of the far-right, even adopting policies once more associated with the BNP in the form of paid repatriation and migrant camps. It is certainly not excessive to suggest that the nasty party is completely back.


If today’s Labour Party leadership had a modicum of intelligence, they would recognise voters are not won back by mimicking their opposition. Why settle for second rate English nationalism when you can have the very best (worst) kind on offer from the Conservatives? The culture wars, and how it has been shirked and absorbed by ‘progressive’ politics, should take part of the blame for this nationalistic malaise that the Labour Party want to inflict on the nation. Has metropolitan guilt infected the Labour apparatchiks, who now worry they can no longer present a progressive argument to win votes?


I live in a place that has been a bellwether constituency, staunch Conservative under Thatcher but Labour under Blair. A new town or city of the 1970s, with those born and bred mixing with three different waves of migration. Growing up, I resided in the centre of the melting pot, the place where the first migrants put down their new roots, attracted by cheap housing and regular employment.


The next wave of migration to the city also found themselves drawn to the same area of the city, again for the same housing but very different employment. The streets were a delightful assortment of sights and smells. One corner catered for the Italian, another the East Asian, and a bit further, if memory serves, was a Polish delicatessen. Yes, we were all different, but we came together; I distinctly recall Saturday nights with my relatives at the Ukraine Club, haircuts from Polish Stan (Vitalis) and my Pakistani neighbour’s sharing freshly cooked chapatis from the homemade tandoori oven.


This is my England, it always will be my England; it’s not an England that looks inward, it’s one that is striving to see beyond horizons. It’s not an England of flags and xenophobia, of the petite bourgeoise fear of the new and change. The argument that Keir Starmer needs to develop is not one that tunes into the racist narrative of the right-wing press. If the Labour Party wants to be the party of the working class (maybe it doesn’t), then it needs to be developing a national story that leaves nobody behind and recognises the U.K (England in particular) is better because of its multi-cultural populace.


Paul Mason tweeted last year that ‘if you don’t think KS will advance the class struggle, you’re possibly not understanding social democracy correctly from a Marxist perspective’. Well, I can see nothing on offer from Starmer’s Labour Party that is advancing class struggle. The Labour Party today is a shadow of a political party, never happier when saying nothing, now trapped trying to mimic an ever-increasing creep right by the establishment.


I fear that the current discourse surrounding the possible break-up of the United Kingdom will result in the home nations entering a cul-de-sac of the wrong nationalism. The kind that is not just about self-determination, but holds onto difference, to nation over class. Orwell wanted to show through his writing the English nation as made of but two distinct classes, rich and poor. This is an important point, one which should not be lost as Scotland, Wales and possibly Northern Ireland look to break from the United Kingdom and that is all struggle is class struggle.


Writing in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, he noted the malaise of international socialism which had led the modern world to view its existence through the lens of national loyalty (the overwhelming strength and stench of patriotism), which in turn had given rise to the strongmen, of Hitler and Mussolini and the fascist parties they represented. This is the double-edged sword of nationalism.


Orwell was always a bit muddled about nationalism. He had romantic notions about England and Englishness. But the core of his politics was solidly internationalist. He hated British imperialism. He fought with the revolutionary-socialist POUM militia in the Spanish Civil and experienced a workers' revolution and its violent suppression first-hand. Orwell's politics were a million miles away from Starmer's love-in with the Union Jack.


When a nation looks inward, events transpire, like the recent Trumpian coup in the United States. Not an example of a banana republic, far from it, this was creeping fascism in action. While gallows being erected in front of the capitol building was a truly appalling spectacle, this far-right trope has also been on display in London, and only last year at that.


This is the inherent danger of opening a nationalist pandora's box and retreating from a progressive form of internationalism. Nationalism in the global north seems to be inherently divisive by emphasizing a person’s identity with their own nation. As revolutionary Marxists we will continue to support the oppressed, who may be taking their very first steps towards self-determination, what we must never do is turn a blind eye to nationalism when it manifests in its more extreme form.


The challenge for Starmer today is to avoid encouragement of the very worst kind of English nationalism, something which is conservative, racist, and seeks to scapegoat those who make this a multicultural nation. If he does, he will, in turn, make his very own party irrelevant (if it isn’t already) and usher in a very long period of Conservative rule.

Simon Pearson is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance and a political activist in the East Midlands.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/08/brexit-tabloid-englishness-labour-scottish-independence. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jan/12/the-idea-of-englishness-and-a-national-identity . https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jan/17/proud-to-be-english-how-we-can-shape-a-progressive-patriotism

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