Defending the Union in England, Ed Miliband
It is wonderful to be here in the Royal Festival Hall. Built for the Festival of Britain in 1951, just a year before Her Majesty the Queen ascended to the throne. 1951 and the Festival of Britain and the Coronation in 1953 were landmark events for our country. They helped to shape its modern identity.
2012 is a year when once again that identity is in the spotlight. This week we commemorated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It was a fantastic celebration. I thought it spoke to so many qualities of our country:
Our sense of community.
Our gentle sense of patriotism.
Our stoicism and sense of humour in the face of terrible weather.
And the Union flag flying everywhere.
In two days time things will be a bit different. The European Football Championship will start. England is there. But not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. It won’t be about the Union flag so much any more. Here in England, the cross of St George will go up. It will fly from houses, cars, shops and pubs. Then, before we know it, the Olympics and Paralympics will be upon us. And we will be back to Team GB and the Union flag once more. This is an incredible year to live in this country. It is a once in a generation summer.
But these multiple allegiances, the coming and going of flags, raise serious questions too. What does this summer say about the United Kingdom? What does it say about our identity as a people in 2012? The irony is that in one part of the United Kingdom, Scotland, the debate about who we are is in full force. To stay in the United Kingdom or to leave? To be Scottish or British or both?
But this debate about nationhood and identity should not simply be confined to one part of our country. Those of us who believe in the United Kingdom must make the case throughout our country. That’s why today, as we stand between the Jubilee, the European Championships and the Olympics, I want to reflect on who we are as a country, and where we should be trying to go.
My case is this:
First, we are stronger together as a United Kingdom and that essential strength comes from our ability to embrace multiple identities. The nationalist case, wherever we find it, is based on the fallacy that one identity necessarily erodes another. I believe we can all be proud of our country, the United Kingdom. And of the nations that comprise it. Second, that means England too. And those on the left have not been clear enough about this in the recent past. We must be in the future. We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity. Finally, we should also proudly talk the language of patriotism. It is part of celebrating what binds us together and what we project outwards to the world.
Let me start with my own story. All my life I have had cause to be grateful to our country. Neither my Mum nor my Dad came from Britain. As I have said on other occasions, they arrived here as refugees from the Nazis. My Dad was 16 when he caught one of the last boats from Ostend to Britain. He was a Jew. German soldiers were moving through Belgium. His very life under threat. Britain took him in. He joined the Royal Navy, trained for part of the time in Scotland, and then settled in London. My mother arrived in Britain having spent the war in hiding under a false name, sheltered by heroic people. Her father was murdered because he was Jewish. Britain took her in too. It offered them both not only refuge but a new home. And it gave them a place to raise a family.
That was a wonderful gift. But Britain offered my mum and dad more than that. Our country allowed them to stay true to who they were. They did not have to hide their past. They did not have to pretend they were someone else. Jewish but not religious. I am a Londoner by birth. I lived in Leeds during formative years growing up. And became a long-suffering Leeds United fan. I spent time in America and taught at Harvard for a while. Added the Boston Red Sox to my sports teams. I got elected as MP for Doncaster North. Fell in love with Justine, not Jewish, from Nottingham and we had our two boys. So you could say my family have not sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years. This is who I am. The son of a Jewish refugee and Marxist academic. A Leeds supporter, from North London. A baseball fan. Somebody who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.
If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn’t look like me.
But I know what I am proud of.
I am proud to represent the people of Doncaster North.
I am proud to lead the Labour Party.
I am proud to be Jewish.
I am proud to be English.
And I am proud to be British too.
Now I grant you, this is not an entirely typical story. I am one of only quarter of a million Jews in Britain. I have lived abroad, even if only briefly. And being a politician is not a normal job. But I think that my story is a British story. To me, Britain is a country where it is always possible to have more than one identity. More than one place in mind when you talk of home.
A Welshman living in London regards himself as Welsh and British. Someone born in London living in Glasgow remains a Londoner still. This is the reality of modern day Britain. Why does this matter to the debate about the United Kingdom? In my view, it is absolutely central. Of course, there are economic and political arguments advanced for Scottish separatism. But even though they often don’t admit it, the logic of the nationalists’ case goes beyond politics and the economy. It insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity with our country a whole. After all, they want to force people to choose. To be Scottish or British. I say you can be both.
This came home to me the other day when one of my neighbours in London, a Scot, made clear his wish to have a vote in any independence referendum.
It’s not going to happen, but his point holds: His Scottish identity is real, along with his identity as a Londoner and someone who is British. London has one of the biggest population of Scots of any city in the UK. Bigger than many in Scotland.
Having to say: Scottish or British; Welsh or British; English or British.
I don’t accept any of that. It’s always a false choice. And a narrow view of identity would mean concern for the young unemployed in Scotland does not reach Newcastle. Or that we in England would care less for the pensioner in Edinburgh. What a deeply pessimistic vision. It’s a mistake wherever you find it. We know that when we think about this summer of celebration. You won’t have to be Scottish to wish Sir Chris Hoy well as part of Team GB. And I guess there’ll even be some people in Scotland who’ll be supporting England in the football next week.
Nor is this unique to our present summer. Throughout our history we’ve been improved by each other. Think about our recent politics. The poll tax.
The Scots led the way in rejecting the injustice of Mrs Thatcher’s policy. And the rest of the UK followed. And with devolution, Scotland and Wales have led the way from the smoking ban to free pensioners’ bus travel. Think about our culture. It has been continually reshaped by our shared conversations throughout history. Our great musicians, poets, actors, artists, scientists constantly moving across national boundaries. And think about our economy too. There are more people in Scotland working for large companies headquartered in the rest of the UK, than there are working for companies headquartered in Scotland. We have prospered and suffered together.
And it’s not just about the present. It’s about the future too. Alex Salmond says that his nationalism is a progressive, internationalist position. He says he has a vision of Scotland moving forward, in Europe. I know he means what he says. Scotland does need to be a fairer, stronger, richer society than it is today. On that the SNP and I agree. But whatever peoples’ views on Europe, economic and social progress can best be achieved by the United Kingdom staying together. Our identities, our economies are too intertwined for anything else. Change will come when we in the United Kingdom work together, not when we pull apart.
Yet if we are committed to enabling a vibrant Scottish identity to work within the United Kingdom as we are, so too surely we must do the same for England. And that brings me to my second point.
We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. And this was one of the greatest achievements of the last government. We have rightly applauded the expression of Scottish identity within the United Kingdom. But for too long people have believed that to express English identity is to undermine the United Kingdom. This does not make sense. You can be proudly Scottish and British. And you can be proudly English and British. As I am.
Somehow while there is romanticism in parts of the left about Welsh identity, Scottish identity, English identity has tended to be a closed book of late. Something was holding us back from celebrating England too. We have been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. For some it was connected to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Union flag was reclaimed from the National Front.
Since Euro 96, English football fans have helped to reclaim the flag of St George from the BNP. Now more than ever, as we make the case for the United Kingdom throughout the United Kingdom, we must talk about England. Because people are talking about it and we cannot be silent. And because if we stay silent, the case for the United Kingdom in England will go by default.
There are people like Jeremy Clarkson who shrug their shoulders at the prospect of the break-up of the Union. Others will conjure a view of Englishness which does not represent the best of our nation. Offering a mirror image of the worst aspects of Scottish nationalism. Anti-Scottish. Hostile to outsiders. England somehow cut off from the rest of Britain, cut off from the outside world. Fearful what is beyond our borders. Convinced our best days behind us. I don’t think like that. I love the nation that we have. And I am optimistic about the future we can build together.
Of course, political leaders should be cautious about simplifying our national qualities. As George Orwell wrote in the Lion and the Unicorn: “Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different?… How can one make pattern out of this…”
But I know what I love about England. What I remember when I think about English identity. What I love is the spirit of quiet determination in the face of adversity and the sense of common decency that goes with it. My father – as so many parents did —talked about the spirit of the Blitz. I saw a modern version of it in Toll Bar, the part of my constituency that was horribly flooded, as many parts of Britain were, in 2007. I saw neighbours being rescued by neighbours in canoes. A community determined to rebuild its life together. By the irony of modern Britain, Abraham, a Zimbabwean opposition activist, ended up in Toll Bar, just before it flooded. I will never forget talking to Abraham afterwards. He told me that despite the tragedy of people losing their homes, it was such a positive time to be in England and live in Toll Bar. Because of the spirit of a community coming together.
I see a similar spirit now, in this summer of 2012, in my constituent, Sarah Stevenson from Bentley. Sarah is one of our great sportswomen. A tae-kwon-do World Champion with a real chance for a medal in the Olympics, perhaps even a Gold. That’s heroic enough. But Sarah is so much more than that. But even while she was training every hour she could, Sarah was also caring for her mum and her dad who were living with cancer and a brain tumour. Taking time, to look after the people she loved. Staying out of the spotlight when the world was at her feet. Putting others before herself.
Caring as well as competing. That’s Sarah Stevenson’s story. And to me that will always be the best of England.
Now, there are so many stories of Sarah’s kind in other nations too, of course. There are many heroes in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland as in England. And beyond our borders too. Celebrating national characteristics does not mean claiming they’re unique. Or that we’re necessarily the best. But we can still celebrate Sarah’s story. A quiet determination. A generosity of spirit. A willingness to do things for others. Without recognition or reward. A sense that the people we love matter more than anything. That we don’t need applause all of the time. All of that always stays with me when I think about England.
Even if Labour has been too quiet about England in recent years, it has not always been so. As my colleagues Jon Cruddas and John Denham have done so much to remind us, there are great Labour traditions that can help us think about England. These are the traditions of the early trade unionists and co-operators. Of the great Victorian visionaries like William Morris and John Ruskin. Whose writings on England inspired the founders of my Party. At the core of our traditions are three sets of ideas.
First, that those looking for the best of England should always begin with its people. The essence of English identity is not found with the grandeur of public office or in Westminster and Whitehall. But in the courageous communities across our land. Wherever people come together to struggle to improve their lives and the lives of others. From those who campaigned for universal suffrage, for equality and for gay rights. To those who tirelessly give up hours of their spare time to organise Sunday league football, meals on wheels, or to put on a Jubilee street party last weekend. That’s where the best of England is to be found.
Second, a belief that we should always come together to conserve the very best of our nation. And we can do so without being Conservatives. We’ve seen that over this last year in the battle to protect the NHS. Just as we saw it in the campaign to protect England’s forests from being sold off to the highest bidder. We know that the greatest of our institutions save us from the worst of the market. Protecting us from the continual calculation of pounds and pence. Reminding us that there is more to life than money. These institutions and values make us who we are.
Third, a belief in the ability to adapt, while still keeping our sense of ourselves. England is a nation built from the start on trade with outsiders. It has great cities that are world cities. We must always debate the right approach on immigration. And never run away from the issues it throws up. Our villages and towns have always been mixtures of locals and newcomers. At their best, these are places where people come together to make something new. A common good.
Learning to live together, not separately, in new ways that serve us all. These three beliefs –
in the dignity of the people, in the necessity of conserving the things we value, and in the possibilities of progress underpin my thoughts about England. It runs throughout my politics.
I have talked about the need to secure our poorest a living wage. Because that recognises the dignity of work. It’s an idea that came from working people. I have spent much of my leadership talking about the need for a ‘responsible capitalism.’ An economy that works for working people. That preserves the sense of justice and fairness that people value against an unregulated market. And I have talked too about the need to restore hope among people that politics can bring the change they so desperately want to see. All of this speaks precisely to the English Labour traditions I have described:
A politics that starts with people.
That builds a sense that we really are all in it together.
That getting through tough times requires a common spirit.
And that a better tomorrow will be built on the solid foundations of our past.
There are some people who say that this English identity should be reflected in new institutions. But I don’t detect a longing for more politicians.
For me, it’s not about an English Parliament or an English Assembly. The English people don’t yearn for simplistic constitutional symmetry. Our minds don’t work in spreadsheets, just like our streets don’t follow grids. But there is a real argument here which does unite England, Scotland and Wales: And that is about the centralisation of power in London.
This resentment is felt in many parts of England. A sense that our politics is too distant. Too detached. I believe—and this is part of our policy review—that the best reflection of devolution to Scotland and Wales in England lies in taking power out of Whitehall and devolving it down to local authorities. But when we think of England and English identity, we must never drift into just a technocratic discussion. This isn’t simply about which powers to devolve to which local authorities. Important though that is. I believe that reflecting on what is best in our stories of English identity is about much more than that. It helps us think about what we should really value in our nation. What our priorities need to be.
And it guides us towards our future.
Let me end with this thought. What you might call the paradox of patriotism, growing up in the household I did. At one level, although he would never have described himself as such my dad was a great patriot. He loved his time serving in the Royal Navy. He loved Britain for the home it had enabled him to build here. The end of a foreign holiday would always be punctuated with the words: “It’s so good to be home.” At another level, he was very suspicious of narrow nationalism. Scarred by wartime experience. An avowed internationalist.
As I have grown up, I have realised that the two emotions are not in contradiction. We must celebrate the great things about our country. All parts of our country. Labour has always been the party of the whole union. Our very first MP was a Scot, Keir Hardie, who represented a Welsh constituency in a Parliament based in England. It was a Labour Welshman, Aneurin Bevan, who gave our whole country the NHS. It was an Englishman, Clement Attlee, who led the famous government of 1945. And an Englishwoman, Barbera Castle, who brought equal pay legislation to all of the nations of Britain.
But our commitments don’t stop at our borders. Britain is at its best when it looks out to the world. Here at the Royal Festival Hall, they are currently celebrating “the Festival of the World.” What could be more appropriate when the Olympic and Paralympic Games come to our shores?
The eyes of the world are on the United Kingdom this summer. People outside our country know that many people here are facing tough times. But they also know that we have a country of which we should be enormously proud. They see a country comprised of individual nations with their own heritage but a shared history. They saw it in the Jubilee celebrations. They will see it again in the Olympics and Paralympics. These strengths should evoke more patriotism, not less. A progressive patriotism. Celebrating our differences but drawing us together. Remembering our history. But building a shared future. Honouring our people. And learning from their stories. This is what I have learned from my own story. This is what I am learning from our summer of national celebration. And this is what I believe we all need to learn by reflecting on our country.
Ed Miliband’s speech on “Defending the Union in England”, 7th June 2012