English identity, civic nationalism and a compulsory civic service

© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

The words below were delivered by 

David Lammy on March 3rd at the English Labour Network’s ‘Politics of England’ event. He was speaking in his capacity as MP for Tottenham and author of new book ‘Tribes’. To mark St. George’s Day, we publish his speech…

Much has been said about the 2019 election result which I won’t repeat, but before we get onto Englishness, Labour must return to getting these three fundamental aspects of opposition right:

First, credibility and trust. Issues of credibility and trust started before Jeremy Corbyn, I think there were issues for Ed Miliband and were actually issues for Gordon Brown. Second, making sure the policy platform that Labour is presenting is chiming with the electorate. I won’t repeat just how problematic our indigestible policy offer was at the last election, which is recognised wherever you are on the left-right axis within Labour. Thirdly, party discipline. Again, this precedes Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party has been a leaky bucket where members of parliament and their advisors enjoy having a chat with journalists and airing their dirty linen in public, and that has gone on now for well over a decade.

Until those three fundamental things are gripped seriously by a new leader and a party that actually wants to win power, you can forget the English taking the Labour Party seriously.

Englishness and the left

On a broader sense, I’ve been fortunate to be able to find the space over five years to write a new book – Tribes. The book really begins when I arrived in parliament 20 years ago now. I was elected as the MP for Tottenham, which is clearly a very definable, easily understood inner-city constituency with a historic black community (and the best football club!), yet I found that whilst I obviously had a degree of familiarity with many of my London MP colleagues, actually I got on very, very well MPs representing places outside London – Slough, Reading, Dartford, and Peterborough – partly because I had spent seven years of my life growing up in Peterborough, in middle England.

In some ways, it’s the experience of growing up in middle England that gives me an ease both with the Labour movement and to some extent with the country. I’m actually quite comfortable not just with being British but with being English. I recall with joy and humour my first pints in the Farmers Arms in Peterborough. At a certain point in my life I had gone to watch ‘the Posh’, which is Peterborough United, not Spurs! I spent some of my life as a lawyer in California, and pined for Ribena, Walker’s crisps, the kind of grey sky and nature of England. What I mean is that Englishness, it seems to me, is quite important.

Why was I driven to think about this in my book? It was because politically careers come like this and they have different incarnations, but in the most recent incarnation, which really begins with the referendum, and the run up to the referendum, I found increasingly many people, particularly on social media, questioning my Englishness. They would tweet often, “why do you hate England so much? Go back to where you come from”. Somehow – after a period when they didn’t really feel that strongly about it – I represented something that they couldn’t stand and couldn’t possibly be part of the England that they love and they know.

I don’t take that too personally – but it’s a sensibility that seems to be quite dominant. So I got into this business of exploring this subject of Englishness, and it’s absolutely the case that part of this lies in the progressive, liberal and left family vacating the territory that is to do with nationhood, to do with patriotism, to do with pride in who you are. Totally leaving the ground. An economic analysis of the inequalities and the injustices that lie in Britain are not sufficient. Addressing issues of poverty and brutal unfairness because of class are not sufficient. It seems to me, that you still have to have an account of the nation; that’s really important.

Ethnic nationalism vs civic nationalism

Yet over the past few years populist nationalism has been gripping our country – and gripping the United States – and it is a formula that is proving increasingly attractive to parties that have historically been centre right, but that are now reaching into the far right to adopt language because it’s a vote winner. And because this is going on in our own country, it pushes people like me into a place that you can label identity politics. Because clearly it would be bizarre if I were not defending some of the turf that was ploughed over by my parents and those that came to this country and gave us so much.

I have to say, I could not have predicted a decade ago that we would be in this place, that I would so have to constantly defend the Windrush generation, Grenfell, there’s a whole number of things that seem to have come up, aspects of the Brexit debate that certainly weren’t themes under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown particularly, but they’re certainly big themes now.

So we’re in a place where the real challenge for us as a country, and for the Labour Party – and it is what we have seen in the US – is to take on the version of nationhood that is basically an ethnic nationalism. It appeals to an ethnic purity if you like, even though that doesn’t really exist in the context of England, and says that you’re sense of nationhood comes from the fact that you are of a certain race, that you are of a certain tribe, and that’s where you should get your mojo. In a sense, the Tories are being quite clever at pandering to that.

But there is another type of nationalism. We call it lots of different things; I call it a civic nationalism that is built around shared stories, shared visions, shared ideals, shared institutions. Labour needs to get really, really serious about that whole agenda, filling in that space. It’s got to have accounts that mean something. For example, an area of policy that’s come in the last few years that I really like – the green industrial revolution – intellectually is a great policy idea, but it still needs a lot more filling in to mean something to some of the constituency of the English. What does it really mean when you’re down and dirty in Sunderland? What does it mean in Thanet? What does that really mean for you, and how can we bind a new institution, a new vision that connects Tottenham with these areas?

It seems to me that we need to promote a civic nationalism at a time when there’s definitely a growing ethnic nationalism that shuts certain people out.

Compulsory national civic service

Tribes is not a book that’s in any way a manifesto, but it does offer some policy.

There is a section in my book on the 50% or more who don’t go to university and who have less opportunity to mix. If you come from the North down to Southampton University or down to Reading or you go up to Manchester or Leeds, basically you are going to meet young people from different backgrounds – not as many different walks as I’d like, but some variance at least. You get to start to feel something about the breadth of this country once you’ve left the town, village or city in which you’ve grown up.

So I have called in my book for a compulsory national civic service for all. You can see it’s the Peterborough side me that called for that, because the more liberal Tottenham side me would never have used the word compulsory because there’s an aversion to compulsion in the Labour Party! But if you’re serious about nation building, which is what I think we’ve got to be serious about, then you have to be serious about obligation as well as choice. Choice is an interesting word, because it goes to the heart of the New Labour period and the age of individualism that we’re now in. So I do deliberately talk about compulsion. I do deliberately talk about duty. But, let me just be clear, this is about civic service, not the armed services, because I think that would be controversial. But some engagement in our nation, and in building our nation, is important.

Devolution and constitutional issues

In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – despite certain problems still existing – there is an ease with the devolution settlement that I don’t detect here in England. So there is more that we can get out of devolution, and it can’t just be about London and the metro mayors. I don’t land in a place that’s about an English Parliament, but I’m attracted to the debate. You have to flesh out the legal and constitutional basis and how that would work, but I do arrive at a place where we hold English citizen’s assembly to debate serious policy with a cross-section of society. So there’s something in England in terms of connecting the people to the establishment, and I think we’ve got to be in that territory. We also need to look again at a written constitution and a Bill of Rights – arguments which have been long rehearsed in the Labour Party.

Attitudes towards immigration

There’s one other area of policy that I won’t go into in depth – the issue of immigration – which my colleague Lisa Nandy covered well through her leadership campaign. This is a thorny and difficult issue for the Labour Party, and I have been generally at one end of the debate in the last few years, wanting to defend free movement. In my book I reflect on countries that have been less centralised that our own and countries – the Fins, the Germans, Belgians – who have more regional immigration. They allow for more determination at regional level over immigration into that area. Just think for a moment if Britain were more like that, e.g. if the North-East taking one view and the South-East taking another.

On exiting the European Union, there will be more immigration from the subcontinents of India, more immigration from countries like China and actually, because we’re going to hug America very close in a trade deal, immigration I suspect even from the United States. You think about those communities that didn’t vote Labour: is that what they think they were voting for? So, these issues are not going to go away and are not going to be easily settled with controlling immigration or a soundbite. There’s something in the localism and allowing local communities to go off and do their thing, to come to their own judgments about where they sit on this very, very thorny subject going forward.

More from LabourList

Donate to fund our journalism


Subscribe to our Daily Email