I attended the launch of Coalition of Resistance in Glasgow last week, a fantastic event with a participative format, which was a refreshing change – a few short speeches were followed by lots of practical group discussions among a wide range of activists. It was a great launch, and to help us on our way the already established CoR in England had sent up a speaker to tell us about the work that they had been doing there and give us some pointers in how most effectively pinpoint pressure. The speaker was very welcome,spoke very well and informatively, however insisted on referring to the need to target the “national” government, the “national” conference of CoR and the need for a “national” strategy of resistance. None of which I disagree with, however it was transparently clear that his nation and mine are not one and the same – and moreover he seems to think that his includes mine. This certainly isn’t a new development on the part of the English Left. Most of them don’t even acknowledge that they are the English Left, claiming that their scattered supporters in North Britain qualifies them for “national” status, but it is becoming more and more jarring as time goes on.
Take the latest campaign from the UNITE union, if ever there was a campaign slogan to make a Scottish Socialist’s blood boil this has to be it. Under the slogan of “Don’t Break Britain” an image of a giant wrecking ball is shown, aiming for central England, leaving Scotland untouched in the hinterlands. Now that wrecking ball isn’t going to miss Scotland as it swings but moreover I’ve got no objection to Britain being broken. In fact, I’d quite like that wrecking ball to aim itself at the already existing cracks running up, down and across the UK.. Not half as much as it has to be said thought that its more direct victims, maimed Iraqis, orphaned Afghanistanis and terrified Libyans. In fact, if I was a Chaigos islander and got my mits on that ball, I’d probably be tempted to see if I could do a swapsy for one of the Cruise missiles that it planted where I used to live. Sometimes I feel the English Left, lacks a level of ambition. More than once in the coalition of resistance meeting the speaker talked of the need to bring down “the” government, but they show no appetite for taking on the whole corrupt UK state and smashing it to smithereens.
A Scot talking about the English, particularly in less than glowing terms, always tempts the Irvine Welsh accusation that we “oppress ourselves by our obsession with the English breeding the negatives of hatred, fear, servility,contempt and dependency” but I’d like to think that we’ve moved on. Rather like an excitable but untrained puppy, that you love dearly but wish that they would stop chewing the furniture, the radical English Left always leave me somewhat saddened that they are not all that I would have hoped from them. In ordinary times, this tends to prompt a sigh, a wry smile and a certain resignation, but these are no ordinary times. The mantle of “Englishness” has been seized. Snatched from under the noses of the descendants of the Levellers, the Peterloo rebels, the Swing rioters and the Liverpool dockers, it is now in dangerous hands. The English Defence League has claimed Englishness as it own and shone it back in a distorted mirror, bleached of its diversity. The British bulldog sitting quietly at the feet of John Bull has been replaced by an English pitbull, fiercely loyal to its master and snarling at anything which threatens to disrupt its precarious place in its masters affections, taking the kicks with deference and snivelling, before snapping at anyone who threatens the table from which they obtain their crumbs. The EDL are undoubtably a problem, but on their own they are containable. Outside a small constituency which responds to their calls they are derided, a more worrying development is the influence that they appear to be having on the mainstream.
First New Labour, now Blue Labour - the party of Keir Hardie is rapidly becoming more like the one founded by Mosley. When in power it presided over a racist immigration system that saw hundreds of thousands of people denied asylum or sent back to danger and persecution. It locked up old men, pregnant women, scared teenagers and terrified toddlers. In the name of “terror” and “bogus asylum seekers” it introduced a level of state surveillance unparallelled anywhere else in the world, where its citizens are captured on camera multiple times a day as they go about their business. It persecuted entire communities, conducting raids on flimsy evidence and using even flimsier evidence to persuade judges to lock up citizens without trial. Now – out of power and searching for popular notion to re-connect with the populace – it has seized on the racism promoted by its own policies,whipped up to a frenzy in the streets and pubs of working class areas by proto-fascist bullyboys and is offering it back to the public as fascism-lite. Glassman, one of its key architects has stated that Blue Labour should rally around family, faith and work, a gender neutral restatement of the 3Ks.
Hard times bring disjunction, unsettlement and anxiety – how can they not when your paypacket is lighter, your fridge is empty and your home is under threat. Eighty years ago, that insecurity was exploited in Germany as a murderous and vile ideology gained a grip – an ideology that in principle still horrifies us, but it is worth remembering that concentration camps are not the first sign of fascism, but among the last. It is time for the English Left to put its own house in order. I extend the warmest comradeship and solidarity to them as they do that. They have a challenge on their hands that I think it is difficult for us to understand here, but no good will come of ignoring the national question and what England is becoming. To dismiss the English as racist, narrow minded Daily Mail readers pitted against the glory of the British Working Class is to risk a self-fulfilling prophesy. The English Left needs to develop and nurture an English identity which is inclusive, radical and progressive. One which celebrates the diversity of English culture and remembers with pride the traditions which have shaped it. One which is capable of looking beyond its borders from those that it shares an island with, to remote Pacific Islanders.
An updated version of this article appeared on Bella Caledonia on 9th September 2011