This morning at the Royal Festival Hall (symbolism), in a speech sandwiched between the Jubilee (symbolism), the European Football Championships (symbolism) and the Olympics (über symbolism) Ed Miliband will speak on the subject of Englishness, that most maligned, ignored and misunderstood of identities.
Even Ed Miliband would admit that he is not the closest match to the traditional conception of Englishness (as he’ll put it in his speech today “you could say my family has not sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years”). A North London raised son of Marxist intellectual immigrants is always going to be running up hill to try and establish his nationalistic, patriotic credentials. Yet as we’ve seen this weekend, the British people will happily take the descendants of immigrants to their hearts and proclaim them the very essence of Britishness. The Milibands and the Windsors are very different families of course – but one day the former could write a speech delivered by the latter.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Not least because this kind of flag waving/wearing doesn’t sit easily with the Labour Party, despite the efforts of some (including Jon Cruddas, Maurice Glasman and others who no doubt influenced today’s speech) to change that mentality.
We’ve seen Labour leaders wrap themselves in the flag before…Gordon Brown, perhaps nervous about how a Scottish PM would play in the Home Counties came out with the disastrous “British Jobs for British Workers” that still makes so many in the party shudder. He also claimed that he was supporting England in international football matches – an implausible premise for any true Scottish football fan, but one necessary for a Scottish PM to argue nonetheless.
Ah yes. Football. The politician’s favourite go to place for patriotism, with the added advantage of it sounding authentic, working class and incredibly masculine – only the first of which descriptors are currently applied to Miliband. And yet, when he talks about supporting Leeds (with the bookish nerdery which recalls not only a former treasury wonk but also a true fan) he also says something about the conflicted identity of modern Englishness, the clash between North and South and the search for a “tribe”.
And perhaps the conception of Englishness and Britishness is a North and South issue. Miliband calls the debate about whether people are Scottish or British a “false choice”. Yet I’ve always gone out of my way to describe myself as British, rather than English, and have done so for as long as I can remember.
Because growing up in the North East, “English” always seemed like shorthand for “Southern” (an idea reinforced every time the England football squad was announced). It was cream tea and cricket and Windsor Castle. I didn’t feel like I had any claim to “Englishness”. I felt excluded from it because what I felt it described was so far removed from my life as to bear no comparison.
British though was different. British was inclusive. All of us. Together. Different but the same, a unity of disparate people and cultures and customs. I was allowed to be British – encouraged – and I was as important to British identity as anyone else. I could never say the same for being English. If Scotland leaves the union and Britain disintegrates then my country and my national identity will cease to exist. For me, that matters. For some others (who Miliband will attack today) it’s unimportant.
And that really is at the heart of what Ed Miliband will need to overcome with his speech today. Because for some people being English, or Scottish, or Welsh or British, goes to the very heart of their being. It defines them. And yet for others, it’s almost an irrelevance. The words they use to describe their identity don’t matter to them. Straddling the gulf between them is a huge task.
At present there is no safe middle ground when it comes to identity. Ed Miliband trying to build it.
Good luck to him.
He’ll need it.