In the window of a council house on a working-class estate in Exeter was a sticker bearing the cross of St George and a simple warning: ‘If this flag offends you, why not consider moving to another country?’ For some canvassers working on Labour MP Ben Bradshaw’s 2015 campaign, such a symbol naturally meant the dreaded ‘A’ on the canvas sheet: ‘Against Labour’.
In fact, it was a household of solid Labour voters — supporting a party far too often offended by the flag. The truth is that the Labour party has an English problem. While members might just about embrace Britishness, too many feel queasy about Englishness — with all those connotations of ethnicity and chauvinism. Or as one activist put it to me, when I suggested we value English identity, ‘Why don’t you just join the British [sic] National Party?’
What is so strange is that the movement of William Morris and Robert Blatchford, J.B. Priestley and Elizabeth Longford, could ever lose sight of its English sensibility. A doggedly English strand of nonconformity, radicalism and patriotism has been an elemental part of the Labour tradition, embodied so effortlessly in Clement Attlee. But at the very moment when ever more voters are identifying themselves as English rather than British, the Labour party is moving in the wrong direction.
In retrospect, the summit of British Labourism was reached on 17 September 2014, when Gordon Brown delivered that spellbinding eve-of-referendum sermon summoning Scottish voters to save the Union. All the ancient might of Adam Smith, James Watt and John Smith was brought to bear as Brown, pacing the stage like an Old Testament prophet, made the case for socialism, not separatism.
But by campaigning with the Tories to save the Union, Labour sacrificed itself north of the border.