When a political party is struggling for attention, or even to establish in the public’s mind what it’s actually for, it needs to do something that catches the imagination. Something that fits with the party’s ethos but still manages to take the country by surprise. I may have just the thing for us Liberal Democrats.
When I look at the reasons for the Leave vote in last summer’s referendum, I see a lack of identity as a central factor, certainly in England. However irrational it may seem (on a pragmatic level the whole vote was irrational), people feel the EU has eroded their sense of who they are. Globalisation has robbed them of a sense of national belonging, so slogans such as ‘Take back control’ and ‘I want my country back’ appeal to a sense of who we once were, regardless whether the golden olden days really existed.
That analysis goes for England, but less for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scots seem very happy to know that they’re Scottish, and as the likes of Andy Murray and Chris Hoy have shown, they’re sufficiently proud of their Scottishness that they’re happy to be British as well. Even the Welsh seem happy with their Welsh identity, despite voting a different way to the Scots and Northern Irish in the referendum.
But as by far the biggest nation in the UK, many English people have the sense that they’ve lost their sense of being English.
They’ve even lost control of their flag, as the cross of St George is not flown by certain patriotic Englishfolk for fear of it indicating an association with xenophobic views. The biggest manifestation of ‘England’ comes in sport, and that’s not always positive, as the England football team’s woes at Euro 2016 rubbed in (and an English man still hasn’t won Wimbledon since 1936!).
So why don’t the Lib Dems become the standard bearers of celebrating Englishness among the English? We would have to emphasise the patriotism over the nationalism, and that we’re not trying to show that the English are the greatest people on earth, just that we exist, we have a certain cultural heritage, and we’re proud of our identity. We could do with a new anthem as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’ don’t strike the right note, but that ought to be possible. The question of an English Parliament is a bit trickier, but nations can exist without parliaments as long as there are icons and role models around which to celebrate the identity.
And such a campaign would dovetail nicely with our belief in federalism, indeed it could be used as a powerful tool in keeping the UK together. The UK makes sense as a union of four nations who, in certain areas, are stronger together than apart, a situation that will become more pronounced after Brexit. But our belief in devolution and localism means we should support as many powers being devolved to regional and local level as possible, so we could strive to make the UK a level of government not dissimilar to that which the EU currently occupies, and celebrate the distinctiveness of the four member nations.
‘We’re English and we’re proud of it’ is an unlikely slogan for a liberal party to adopt, and voters wouldn’t expect it of us, but it might just strike the right chord. As long as we can link it to our ideas on localism and ensure that ‘English’ means values we are proud to share rather than those we feel embarrassed about, it might just be a masterstroke.
* Chris Bowers was a two-term councillor on Lewes District Council and is currently PPC for Wealden