English Nationalism and Labour’s Defeat

A number of reasons have been given for Labour’s catastrophic election result. Labour’s position on Brexit, its’ unrealistic manifesto twinned with increasingly ostentatious offers to voters, the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, have all been mentioned.

It is the last of these factors that this article will focus on.  In the lead up to the general election many canvassers reported a perception that Corbyn was unpatriotic.  This goes beyond loyalty.

Conservatives have long recognised the importance of emotion in politics.  It is not enough to offer attractive policies, a party needs to win over voters’ hearts as well as their minds, even stir their soul.

Ronald Reagan in the 1980s not only promised to cut Americans’ taxes he evoked a 1950s Norman Rockwell vision of small-town America of neighbours chatting over white picket fences, beyond them freshly cut lawns.   It was “Morning Again in America” and Reagan won two landslides.

Arguably, Labour and Corbyn, especially, were on the receiving end of emotions stirred by Brexit.  Brexit has aroused a particular kind of English nationalism that is more defined by what it is against, i.e. the EU, than what it is for.  In theories of nationalism, for Brexiteers, the EU is the external “other” against which English national identity has formed itself.

For my PhD in genocide studies I had to study theories of nationalism.  The concept of the “other” is pivotal to the formation of national identity.  The “other” might be perceived as a threat to the imagined community of the nation and can take the shape of an external “other” and internal “other.”

In the case of the Armenian genocide the Armenians became victims of a change from one form of identity that of the multi-ethnic, multi-faith Ottoman identity to the nationalism of Turkish, Muslim then secular identity.  As a Christian, non-Turkish, ethnicity at the heart of the territory that Turks wanted to claim for themselves, Anatolia, the Armenians could not be incorporated into this new Turkish identity and thus became the internal “other.”  Since they also became allied in Turkish minds with the Turks’ traditional enemy, the Russians, the Young Turk government believed the Armenians had to be eliminated.

In Britain we also seem to be moving from a multi-national inclusive British identity to one where the different national identities within Britain are more clearly defined.

As Scotland and Northern Ireland have enjoyed devolved powers and have expressed their identities as distinct from a British identity, the English town-dwellers may feel they have drawn the short straw.  This has also been compounded by the fact that Scottish and Northern Irish identities, at least among Nationalists, have merged with a pan-European identity rather than a British one. London, itself, has become a special case of a true global multi-cultural city not only pan-European but with a global reach.

Although the economic factor is important, Brexit can be seen not only as a revolt by English towns at being left behind economically by London but also an assertion of English national identity against these trends.
By aligning itself so clearly with Brexit the Boris Johnson led Conservative party tapped into this new assertive English nationalism.

Corbyn’s political world view is, by definition, internationalist not nationalist and found it difficult to relate to this new English nationalism.

It may be difficult for any version of the Labour Party that tends towards socialism rather than a more centrist social democracy to win back its lost voters in English towns.

Many Labour supporters may be in despair at the prospect of years of Tory rule after 10 years of austerity.  There may be light at the end of the tunnel, however.  This is because this new English rather than British national identity is still at its formative stage.  It is not clear what this identity is for beyond support for the monarchy and armed forces twinned with hostility to the EU.

One of the key battlegrounds over the formation of this national identity will be the deployment of myth and history in its creation.  The Brexiteers have so far used the myth of Britain standing alone against Nazi dominated Europe to powerful effect to be on the verge of Brexit.

However, English progressives also have a good story to tell that can help form a progressive English national identity: the Peasant’s Revolt, the Levellers and Diggers, Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the Jarrow March, all of these culminating in the transformative 1945 election can help form a new English identity.

Labour needs to reinforce the idea that this progressive history is essentially an English one, just as patriotic in its way as support for the monarchy.

Labour, as it seeks to remake itself in a new English context, separate from Scotland, should hark back to its roots when it was inspired by the sermons of the English Methodist preacher, John Wesley.  Methodism rather than Marxism may be the way forward for Labour to reclaim its former English heartlands.


Doctor Michael Herron is a genocide scholar and author of The Unburied Past: Denial of the Armenian Genocide in American and French Politics