By John Harris*- The Guardian
We don’t have to accept an archaic, hateful vision of our country. Let’s build on the diverse, multiracial place it actually is
In his first speech as prime minister in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson said that securing Brexit was a way of “uniting and re-energising our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on Earth”. A few months later, he addressed the Conservative conference, and told his audience that the UK was “the most successful political partnership in history”, which he would “defend against those who would wantonly destroy it”.
All modern prime ministers have gone in for this stuff: Tony Blair, for example, once claimed that “The British are special. The world knows it. In our hearts we know it.” But jingoistic, exceptionalist bluster sits particularly close to the heart of this PM: it’s a prop he can reach for when he feels the stifling restrictions of detail, seen in everything from the ocean of cant he brought to the 2016 Brexit campaign to his strange claim that his government’s test and trace system would be not just dependable, but somehow “world beating”.
In the context of coronavirus, this country seems special only in the most miserable ways: a place where people conga down the street in limp tribute to a world long gone, while the death toll climbs yet higher. And in a particularly ironic turn of events, the political habits fostered by exceptionalism – hubris, inattention, the general idea that some innate British genius will see us all through – have now furthered the fragmentation of Britain itself. The forces that favour Scottish independence now have a potent mixture of disaster, incompetence and arrogance to define themselves against. When it joined Scotland in rejecting the switch from “stay at home” to “stay alert” and began sending day trippers back over the English border, Wales too took a big step away from any idea of the UK as an entity that moves in lockstep. And with our final exit from the EU, conversations about the future of Northern Ireland will sooner or later resume.
Which leaves England. Some of the government’s most glaring recent failures have furthered the sense of a country run in a hopelessly top-down fashion, and in danger of losing any sense of priority – a place where theme parks and pubs can re-open, but state education remains in a pathetic state of limbo. Every day seems to bring another news story about English cities, counties and boroughs now facing municipal bankruptcy. But there is another aspect of the English condition that is once again rising to the surface, highlighting an identity crisis that now goes back at least a decade. England is riven by seething disputes about what and who it is, and where it is going. Brexit was one instalment – and the great wave of protests and discussion triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the US has turned out to be another.
Given the fact that England contains the UK’s most diverse, multicultural cities, it was inevitable that the current uprising against racism would most spectacularly play out here. Clearly, the movement at its heart is about injustices that go back decades – and centuries – and its foundations are self-evidently global. Every part of the UK has deep issues with racism that it has long needed to confront, and I doubt many – any? – of the people participating would frame what they are doing in terms of anything specifically English.
But there is a more recent context too: the divisive, sometimes racialised campaign for Brexit, the hostile environment policy that created the Windrush scandal, and the arrival in power of a prime minister who has passed off his past racist comments as a matter of “plaster coming off the ceiling”. The people involved may have habitually wrapped themselves in the red, white and blue of the UK, but all these things were rooted in largely English political factors, and a country that, to quote the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole, is “a divided thing, bitterly split, not just between leavers and remainers but between the England of the big multicultural cities on one side, and the villages and towns on the other”. Viewed crudely, over the past five years, the latter had the most important things their way: the result was an unstable politics that was sooner or later going to explode.
Two years ago, the BBC conducted a survey about English identity. In the words of its home affairs editor, Mark Easton, among people who identified with England, the strongest image of the country was of “a pre-industrial, bucolic nation populated by well-mannered and virtuous citizens”. He went on: “People generally see England as conservative and traditional rather than liberal and outward-looking … Almost three times as many of its residents think England was ‘better in the past’ than believe its best years lie in the future.” There is a whole world of stuff described in that summary, some of which must blur into racism. But it also highlights a tragedy: the fact that progressive, forward-looking people have allowed England and Englishness to be framed in such retrogressive, sometimes hateful terms. Small wonder, perhaps, that in the same survey, though 61% of people who describe themselves as white said they were “proud” to declare their English identity, among ethnic minorities the figure was just 32% – whereas a British identity was strongly felt by three-quarters of black and minority ethnic people.
As Britain – both as country and concept – decays, this will present a huge challenge, but the beginnings of an answer may not be too hard to find. To state the obvious, modern England is a profoundly diverse, complex country. A wealth of anti-racist history has happened here, and its latest instalment has now materialised. Moreover, non-urban, Brexit-supporting England is not quite the one-dimensional place that Nigel Farage and his ilk think it is: in many places, notwithstanding the presence of genuine bigots, the massed resentments that they have traded on have been not only rooted in prejudice but also deep economic insecurity – and in my experience, younger people there tend to view the world in ways often indistinguishable from their peers who live in cities. To look at this another way, it is also worth bearing in mind that support for leaving the EU is by no means a white preserve: a third of British-Asian voters backed Brexit, as did one in four black voters.
“The English need to rediscover who and what they are, to reinvent an identity of some sort better than the battered cliche-ridden hulk which the retreating tide of imperialism has left them,” wrote the Scots theorist and academic Tom Nairn in 1977. In the weekend’s spectacle of those far-right thugs piling into London and chanting “In-ger-land”, there lies an imperative: to fight the populists and racists on their most treasured ground, and contest their archaic, hateful view of the country they think they speak for. This is not about the inanities of patriotism, but an understanding of the place we all call home, and how we interpret what is happening right now. As I watched that very different crowd throw Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, I thought of the final single put out by those great anti-racists the Clash, and two lines sung in anger and sadness that capture a challenge still unmet: “This is England. This is how we feel.”
*John Harris is a Guardian columnist, who writes on subjects including politics, popular culture and music.
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