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There is nothing radical about little Englandism

village cricketI’m not an avid follower of Paul Kingsnorth’s work, but I do remember his One No, Many Yeses. This was a contribution – some may say cash-in – to the burgeoning library on the internationalist, anti-capitalist, and fashionably networky movement of sundry NGOs, anarchists and occasional Trots of the early part of the last decade. As something of a radical travelogue, our Paul flitted from country to country giving us the low down on the Zapatistas (of course), the G8 summit in Genoa, hung out with gold miners in New Guinea, and all other kinds of things. It was an uncritical celebration of this most rooted of rootless movements, an advert for the New Way of Doing Things. The book stuck in my mind because it helped fill an adventure of my own – a bus trip from Stoke to Telford.
Since then I’ve heard tell of brother Kingsnorth as something of an authority on Englishness. His Real England   There is nothing radical about little EnglandismThere is nothing radical about little Englandism, a book I haven’t read and therefore cannot comment on, was generally well received by polite left society. What caught my eye about his latest piece for The Graun was the epithet our chums over at Bella Caledonia granted it: “a deeply sad Green Powellism … full of resentment, nostalgia, and paranoia.” Could this really be the same Paul Kingsnorth, previously cheerleader for the transnational global resistance?

One and the same, unfortunately. It’s a piece we’ve heard before (and readers will have seen previously here, here, and here. Of course, the idea that England has become a scary place for some is not new. That insecurity is stalking the land and causing some to lash out at immigrants, fearful that newcomers are out-competing the “natives” for jobs, for housing, for school places, for slots on the dentist’s waiting list. This is all very fine. One can write about it sensitively and with understanding and still maintain that essential analytical and political distance from it. After all, when all is said and done most left writers on nationalism, and English nationalism particularly, identify its roots in order to understand it and ultimately, undermine it. Hence why, for instance, I sound like a one-trick pony banging on about self-security.

That sceptical attitude is missing from Paul’s account. It starts off okay, but then the telling asides start creeping in. We are baldly informed, for instance, that in “four English cities, including the capital, English people have become an ethnic minority.” At the risk of sounding like an elite metropolitan from the, um, Potteries, I didn’t know ‘the English‘ were a discrete ethnicity. A nationality, certainly. Does Paul really want to get on the slippery slope of regarding second and third generation Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Asians, and East-Asians as ‘not-English‘? Of course, I know what he really means, he’s talking about white people, but stated in this way it’s only a nudge from “ethnically English” to authentically English. Kerfuffles of this type could so easily have been avoided had he merely talked about white English people.

I’d like to put it down to a slip of the pen, but then we have this nonsense about nationality being an innate need. As he puts it,

A nation is a story that a people chooses to tell about itself, and at its heart is a stumbling but deep-felt need for those people to be connected to the place where they live and to each other. Humans in all times and places have needed ancestors, history, a place to be and a sense of who they are as a collective, and modernity and rationalism have not abolished these needs

For someone who’s written a book on national identity, this betrays a shocking ignorance of the mountains of scholarship on the topic. With nuances and some dispute over timing, the consensus is national identity and the nationalism appropriate to it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, linked with patterns of state formation from the 16th century onwards. The sense of belonging Paul romantically writes of were unknown to the English peasant, the Frankish warrior, the Roman house slave. Affective ties were the property of the immediate household, family group, and comrades-in-arms. in all cases a “belonging” different in kind to nationality.

Therefore it is a nonsense, even if only as a rhetorical device, to suggest – as Paul does – that the English were the first victims of the British Empire. The invasion of what would become England in 1066 by the Normans was not the occupation of one nation by the armed forces of another. It was the dispossession of one feudal elite by another. The Domesday Book was a census not for the management of a society, but an audit of the booty William the Bastard reigned over.

What is also lacking is a sense of national self-awareness, which is surprising in a scholar of nationality. Paul berates the Left in England for not wrapping itself in the flag, unlike our French, Greek, and Spanish counterparts. This, supposedly, is a sign of our metroleftyism. Or, perhaps, it has something to do with history. Paul writes about England/Britain’s three century rampage across the globe. He doesn’t mention the revolutionary republican (and universalist) roots of French nationalism, despite the crimes of French imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor the leading role the left had in representing a rising nation against fascist dictatorships in Spain and Greece. Whatever problems these nationalisms have, insurrection and insurgency are part of their national narratives. No such content is present in English nationalism, so small wonder the left aren’t keen to embrace it.

Yet this is what we need to do, says Paul. What is needed is a radical parochialism to resist the predations of global capitalism, and Englishness is a ready made for the task. The problem is this. Such a project is hugely out of step with the trajectories of modern Western societies. Wherever global capitalism has put a plus, Paul paints in a big fat minus. There is a globalism of above, and a globalisation from below – a point understood by the movements Paul used to write about but one he has since forgotten. The multiple networks ever-growing numbers of people plug into voluntarily are knitting together millions of people with weak affective ties far more closely than the nationalism of old ever did.

Sometimes, though one shouldn’t overstate it, they collapse the communicative and social distances across borders. But within England, millions are arguing, sharing ideas and memes, liking this ‘n’ that, trolling, plugging selfies (some even promote blog posts – absurd!) and this is transforming what it means to be English. Why do you think the younger a cohort is, the fear of immigrants, the antipathy to the EU, the attachment to the parochialism Paul endorses gets progressively less? Because it, the media landscape, and day-to-day life are great social mixers. To their credit, the main political parties – and I exclude the smaller-than-the-Greens UKIP from this – have a concept of national identity, albeit a British one, that is officially inclusive. Instead of looking to the past, a new, open sense of Englishness is starting to emerge.

A great sifting of the national identity is taking place. The left don’t have to stand in vanguard fashion and articulate a correct Englishness that can be taken up – folk are doing it for themselves. Some might want to fly their England flags, those who are anxious can grumble away, feel resentful, and vote accordingly come election time, but theirs are a large, diminishing slice of England. Address their concerns, yes. Trying to tackle the insecurity driving their angst, absolutely. But to flatter and pander to it as if the fetishising of Morris dancing, hot dog vans, and real ale pubs is some radical alternative? No, no, no, no, no.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: BBC


  1. David Ellis says:

    The left in England should embrace the radical, civic, anti-Westiminster nationalism displayed by Scottish workers and youth in the recent Yes Campaign and which is about to lead to a huge SNP victory in the gen election. A party with a radical left programme that stood for a Federation of Sovereign British Nations to replace the Westminster shit pit including a sovereing English authority perhaps in the north or midlands would do very well.

    1. James Martin says:

      This is the same programme as the English Democrats. It was bad enough when everyone thought your right-wing pro NATO politics were indications of being a Progress supporter David, but you appear to be lurching further to the right at a remarkable speed…

  2. James Martin says:

    Kingsnorth writes in such a confused and unhistorical way it is indeed hard to take him seriously. In the Guardian article he seems to think that ‘Britishness’ is the result of a desperation to keep the UK mainland sections together following devolution in the 1990s. Of course it was actually meaningfully forged in the industrial revolution and in the building of a united labour movement often led by Scottish and Welsh Labour and trade unionists, and then in two world wars (and particularly of course the fight against fascism). That unity was as strong outside the industrial unions too. Indeed, I remember being in large civil service CPSA and the PCS national conferences where if there were divisions outside of political faction they tended to involve Merseyside, Glasgow and Newcastle delegates having a natural affinity against those from London and Manchester (ok, maybe not so black and white, but certainly the social and drinking alliances had nothing to do with ‘nation’ but a lot to do with ‘city’ and ‘culture’).

    That is why the growth of reactionary Scottish nationalism that has pulled large numbers of Scottish socialists into its bile is so dangerous, because eventually it will meet an equal reaction from workers in England.

    But for now ‘British’ is still a term most would use, and tellingly particularly from immigrant and minority ethnic communities. ‘British’ has a notion of melting pot that ‘English’ with its in part racial origins can’t match.

    But that is not top say that there was never a progressive form of English identity. In fact it was a key component in progressive politics for hundreds of years, from the Levellers and their concept of the ‘Norman Yoke’ where Saxon freedoms (real or imagined) had been stolen by the outside imposition of feudalism (which was essentially correct). This radical Englishness continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, with the Chartists being not only the first modern working class party, but also the first one that united workers across Britain and Ireland. But radical English identity politics continued right up to the creation of the modern Labour Party, but also until the creation of the Communist Party too. Each was a coming together of groups based in the various UK nations (mainly of course England and Scotland). But even then there were glimpses of left politics based around the idea of inherent English radical values (e.g., Orwell before his death).

    Much has changed since then, not least with large numbers of immigrants in the English cities, and particularly London (which has the appearance and feel of being a separate country in itself, to me as a northerner at least). This is not to say that a radical thread of progressive English identity could not once again be found in opposition to the far-right racist version, but it is not easy to see it doing so, particularly when the unity of the British labour and trade union movement is still at stake and still worth fighting for against the nationalist poisons, be they Scottish or English ones.

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