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England Doesn’t Exist

There’s a void at the heart of English identity, with its reliance on empty clichés and old dreams of empire. But decentralizing power to the regions points to an alternative — replacing narrow nationalism with an inclusive community pride.

Sutton Scarsdale Hall in England, UK. (Flickr)

In the closing passages of New Model Island, English poet and writer Alex Niven reflects on the experience of the 2017 UK general election campaign, when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party unexpectedly overturned the Tories’ majority. Niven admits to having been deeply pessimistic about Labour’s prospects when the election was announced. Weeks later, and watching the results come in on TV, however, he describes a sense of possibility entering his thought:

I thought about the possible disappearance of food banks, the safeguarding of surgeries, libraries, and schools, and the people who might now be saved from loneliness, suffering, and indignity in a future without privatization and austerity. I thought about the people in the West End of Newcastle, whose jobs, pubs, housing, and sense of pride had been obliterated over the last four decades, and who might now hope for something better. I thought that perhaps in the future my friends wouldn’t have to live precariously, meagerly, and permanently on the brink of mental illness in a society without social safety nets . . . I thought about my son’s difficult birth, and the amount of blood my partner lost because the doctors were understaffed, underfunded, and unable to help her quickly enough . . . All of this combined in a stab of emotion that was weirdly unfamiliar. It felt as though some kind of curse was beginning to lift, that a new version of this disparate, strangely formed country might finally start to come into being.

If, in 2017, a new world seemed like it was coming into being, its arrival has now been indefinitely deferred. New Model Island was released at around the midpoint of the 2019 general election campaign — a campaign that unfortunately ended in decisive defeat for Labour. The Tories now have their majority back, and it’s a big one. What’s more, this shift has been driven by a collapse of Labour support in the so-called heartland seats in the Midlands and North — among them, the North East seat of Newcastle where Niven (and, as it happens, I) live and campaigned.

A Question of Place

New Model Island is suffused with a deep love of the North East; Niven is originally from Northumbria, a historic region (and early medieval kingdom) he describes as being “at the heart of my sense of self.” But this is a love that — like all political loves, perhaps — exists only in tension with a righteous hatred for something else: in Niven’s case, England.

For Niven, England — that strange entity which forms the dominant part of the UK — is defined by three things. First is the notion of “historical curse,” the feeling that the country — and all of its people — are subject to some ancient hex, a motif that recurs in countless English folk tales and other works of fiction.

In Niven’s view, this feeling dates back to the Norman Conquest, which installed “a conquering elite almost wholly detached from the majority of the population.” For the North East, the victory of William the Conqueror led to a subjugation known as the “Harrying of the North,” an event that some historians have labeled a genocide. In Niven’s words, “England is a backward-looking, self-hating place . . . because its populace has continually been oppressed, constricted, and prevented from self-actualization by the violent and mostly unchecked ascendancy of its ruling class over the last several hundred years.” This curse, of course, is now felt primarily through the rule of the Conservative Party.

Second, England is characterized by the feeling of “confinement,” the feeling that the country is too small, too full, that no one ever has quite enough. It is a land of cramped pubs and trains, of Victorian terraces divided into flats, of newly built houses with low ceilings. “To be English is to feel hemmed in,” Niven writes. It is to be “straitjacketed, resentful of neighbors, and ready to direct political anger at the nearest adjacent target (women, immigrants, benefit claimants), rather than the real source of one’s actual or imagined impoverishment: so often, the millionaire beneficiary of old or new money, who lives in a large house hidden by trees on the edge of town.”

England’s third defining trait, according to Niven, is the notion of “hiddenness and void.” This trait relates especially to England’s colonial history. During the period of the British Empire, “England,” the central kingdom around which it was built, was “meticulously de-essentialized,” to be able to subsume not only its neighbors (Scotland, Wales, sometimes Ireland) but also Britain’s overseas colonial territories. Whereas Scotland and Wales retain a meaningful national identity — though not (yet) politically independent of the UK — “England” is now little more than “a vanished kingdom with a scattered legacy of certain faded and arbitrary historical outlines.” “In a very real as well as an affective sense,” Niven concludes, “England is a sheer geopolitical void. Put yet more boldly: England doesn’t exist.”

The case for England’s nonexistence might sound strange in the age of Brexit and the resurgent English nationalism that intersects with it. But the Brexit vote was never particularly motivated by any sort of unified national vision. It was, rather, simply a great “No,” the expression only of the desire to “Leave” (many Leave voters justified their vote by saying they wanted to “shake things up”). The Tories made use of Brexit last month to win an election — but not by claiming that Brexit would be good, only that it must “Get Done.”

A New Regionalism

To awaken the English (and with them, the rest of the British Isles) from the nightmare of England’s weird national nonidentity, Niven prescribes a radical new form of British regionalism — a project initially undertaken during the Blair years, when Scotland, Wales, London, and Northern Ireland were all given either devolved parliaments or assemblies. This project stalled following the failed 2004 referendum on a devolved assembly for, of all places, the North East — an all-postal ballot vote hit by low turnout and a widespread sense of resentment toward the Blair government following the Iraq War.

Today, Niven’s vision of regionalism encompasses an “archipelago nation,” in which provincial centers like Newcastle, Manchester, and Leeds can finally be untethered from the yoke of the capital, which increasingly sucks all economic and cultural energy toward it. Niven speculates that this “de-essentialized England” — which remains, as yet, utopian — could be realized in a new Northern metropolis, to be built on the present site of Carlisle on the Anglo-Scottish border. Such a city would have the virtue of pulling some of the money, cultural institutions, and clout from Britain’s swollen capital in the South East.

Beyond the discussion of British regionalism, and how a reconstituted, more balanced Britain might look, this book is anchored by a deeper meditation on the experience of place and home. Questions of community and collective imagination are at the heart of New Model Island. As Niven writes early on, the book is “guided by a desire to affirm a we over an I.” Key passages, for instance, are given over to the death, in early 2017, of Niven’s friend and intellectual inspiration Mark Fisher, a central figure in the mid-2000s left-wing blogosphere and cofounder of Zero Books, then its successor, Repeater Books — both of which Niven has been closely involved. These communities that Fisher helped to foster are vital sources of support, meaning, and identity. “There is not enough acknowledgment,” Niven comments, “that meaningful writing tends only to emerge when an empowering community first builds up around it.”

But intellectual and artistic communities are, of course, hardly the only sort. New Model Island is also a memoir about starting a family; Fisher’s death coincided almost exactly with the birth of Niven’s first child, a difficult confluence of events — in part because he was still mourning Fisher’s passing, in part because of the “isolated, privatized” way in which society can seem to oblige one to care for a child.

In the wake of Labour’s defeat, the question of community has become central. The Labour Party originally emerged as the electoral wing of the trade union movement — this was why its support base was so solid in “red wall” seats like Bishop Auckland, and why it felt relevant to peoples’ lives. But since the decline of British industry in the 1980s, inflicted deliberately on working-class communities by the government of Margaret Thatcher, this connection has withered. On the campaign trail in Darlington during the election, one Labour activist even told us that she’d heard stories of the shop stewards at a local factory explicitly telling their members to vote Tory.

Niven himself already identified this trend in an extremely prescient preelection piece for Tribune — and has speculated that a renewed commitment to regionalism ought to have been a part of Labour’s offer: if nothing else, to help combat the populist nationalism of the Right. By contrast, Niven gives us good reason to suppose that the “progressive patriotism” heralded in one Guardian op-ed by Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey is, for English people at any rate, impossible. Meanwhile, a commitment to regionalism seems a far more convincing way to win Scotland back from the Scottish National Party than Lisa Nandy’s apparent endorsement of the Catalonia strategy of having the police crack skulls and arrest all the nationalist leaders. There has also been much talk of the need to channel the energy of activists, mobilized during the election campaign but now deflated by the result, into community organizing to help alleviate the effects of the Tories’ economic policies. In this context, regionalism might be the right strategy not only to stave off nationalism, but also to reinvigorate Labour’s support in the heartlands more broadly, in the run-up to a 2024 general election.

A better world can be hard to believe in — and that applies double if you’re English. If Labour is to have any hope of rebuilding support in places like the North East, it must help rebuild communities through the sort of institutions that might actually make a positive difference in people’s lives. This task is huge — given everything, it may not even be possible. But New Model Island can help us gain a sense both of its significance and its scale.