A smaller nation – post-imperial, post-EU, and possibly one day even post-UK – has begun to emerge. It’s time the left caught up
Towards the end of his 1930s masterpiece, English Journey, JB Priestley writes of “memories reaching from West Bromwich to Blackburn, Jarrow to Middlesbrough, darkly crowding in on me”. The suffering witnessed by the author during the Great Depression, he explains, turned him into a Little Englander: “That little sounds the right note of affection. It is little England I love. And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced, staring loud fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world. Patriots to a man. I wish their patriotism would begin at home.”
The writer lived up to the spirit of his prose. The Common Wealth party, in which Priestley was a leading figure, was highly influential in the formation of the postwar welfare state. But it would be very unusual to hear such warm talk about England on today’s left. In Labour circles, the language of nationhood, when used by the English, engenders at best suspicion and more often outright hostility. Brexit, an overwhelmingly English project, only deepened a conviction that rising nationalism in the United Kingdom’s largest country is a much darker affair than its Scottish equivalent. Xenophobia, nostalgia for empire and cultural authoritarianism are judged to be its trademarks.