England, my England: we need to determine what it is before we can move on from Brexit

By Mark Wakefield

Orwell would have understood the state of Brexit England

I counted myself lucky to be away on holiday and out of the country during the week after the referendum result. The atmosphere was clearly pretty febrile as I watched events unfold from afar. As someone who voted Remain, albeit with serious misgivings, I was prey to a constantly shifting range of emotions, and still am to a degree. I was surprised however, to find an old friend of mine who works for a Labour frontbench MP texting me to say how ashamed she was of England. This set a whole new train of thought going for me. Whatever else I felt about the result, I did not feel any shame whatever about how England – as opposed to London – had voted. I couldn’t for a moment feel any sense of shame that the poor and disadvantaged who have suffered most from the financial crash in 2008 had vented their spleen on the establishment, even though I believe such venting to be misdirected. But the poor and disadvantaged don’t make up 52 per cent of the population or anything like it. While I am prepared to believe there was a degree of xenophobia at work in the vote to leave, I believe it far more likely that there was a grudging resentment – which I share – at the high-handedness of the EU (particularly in the Commission) and the woeful lack of any democratic accountability.

But what really got me thinking about England was a very funny blogpost by Julie Burchill in which she argued that the Brexit divide was not between the north and the south but between “the ponces and non-ponces”. She wrote:

“It is widely accepted that Brexit happened because the people of England and Wales – the chavs, townies, Tommies – no longer felt like holding patiently still and taking the punches of outrageous fortune and cheap foreign labour, as they have been trained to do, but rather turned around and finally served it to the Establishment. The pathetic petulance which has come from the Remnants in the face of this victory stems from the fact that many of those who prided themselves on being progressive were, actually, differently-styled parts of the Establishment all along. We have finally called them out on this – as well as on being cowards, and conservatives – and, of course, as right royal ponces”.

To my surprise I found myself not just laughing but cheering this article. Although I’ve been pleased to make London my home these last 35 years this article made me realise how much of the provincial is still in me – though admittedly I got in touch with this side of myself earlier this year when my home football club, Leicester City, magnificently upset the apple cart by winning the Premier League and showing both Mancunian and cockney ponces how football should be played. More seriously, the Burchill blogpost soon had me reflecting on how much George Orwell – a long-time hero of mine who has been a big influence on my life – would have approved of it. Indeed, it wasn’t long before I set about reacquainting myself with some of his writing on the subject of Englishness and what I found is of particular relevance to our current situation.

Orwell would have liked the Burchill piece because he too saw a sharp divide between the outlook of the masses (the “working class”) and those of both the “ruling class” and the (generally left) intelligentsia, the latter being a group for whom he developed a particular scorn. But what really struck me on re-reading him was the importance he attached to identifying the characteristics of Englishness when addressing the evils of his day. In his great essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written in 1941, he said this:

“England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip. It is therefore of the deepest importance to try and determine what England is, before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening.”

That we are facing a crucial existential moment goes without saying and the parallels between the time in which Orwell was writing and ours are notable: the rise of right wing nationalism; political instability; widening social and economic divisions; and so on. Of course, England faced a much more obvious and present danger in 1941 than it does now – though, disturbingly, it’s not being alarmist to say that things could change very much for the worse. Even so, the question of who we are as a nation is being pressed on us now as we look at the apparent chasm that has opened up between London and its provincial hinterland.

In trying to define Englishness, Orwell looked to the working class for clues. That he believed this was where the best of England resided in terms of culture and values is obvious, but he still cast an unsentimental eye on it, willing to acknowledge its weaknesses as well as its strength. It was a constant refrain of his that the working classes were at least as guilty of hypocrisy as their overlords. And as for our insularity, well, the following could just as easily have been written today:

“The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time. But it plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.”

But he also saw in the masses qualities he loved – gentleness, respect for the law, fair play and a love for the underdog. Whether it be strengths or weaknesses we are talking about, Orwell’s key point that is so relevant to today is that what we do as a nation and how we organise ourselves must fit with the realities of our character. He was, of course, a socialist (though it’s a moot point amongst scholars as to whether, were he to be alive today, he still would be) but the whole point of The Lion and the Unicorn was to argue for a version of socialism that suited the English. And this, for me, raises a very important question as to how far the EU – at least as it has developed – could ever be reconciled with the English. Speaking in March 1999, Roy Jenkins – of all people – recognised as much in words that have proved to be more prescient than he would have hoped:

“There are only two coherent British attitudes to Europe. One is to participate fully … and to endeavour to exercise as much influence and gain as much benefit as possible from the inside. The other is to recognise that Britain’s history, national psychology and political culture may be such that we can never be other than a foot-dragging and constantly complaining member; and that it would be better, and certainly would produce less friction, to accept this and to move towards an orderly, and if possible, reasonably amicable withdrawal”.

So, England, the England largely of the shires and the industrial towns, has spoken and I for one can’t be ashamed of it, even though I would still vote Remain today if I had the chance. The facts of our divisions in England – and there can be no lazy elision of Englishness with Britishness here, given Scotland’s clear vote – need to be overcome, and they can only be overcome if we start asking the same questions of ourselves as a nation as Orwell did in 1941. What’s more, we need to ask those questions with the same humane scepticism that he did, lest Englishness comes to be defined by the xenophobes and the demagogues. That will not – and can never be – my England.