Why We Need to Stop Dreaming of England

Green unpleasant land? As the UK braces for election week, it might be time to abandon the myth of Englishness

‘God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being / There is no future / and England’s dreaming,’ sneered Johnny Rotten on the Sex Pistols’ single, ‘God Save the Queen’ (1977), released during the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The sudden appearance of a wistfully placid England at the centre of this viciously sarcastic, rubbish-strewn national anthem is most curious. What is England dreaming of? Is this a complacent daydream or something more fantastical? The line, so resonant that Jon Savage used it as the title of his pre-eminent 1991 book on punk rock, is trapped provocatively between the archetypal romantic contemplation of an ennobled nation – its landscape, its dignity, its ancient feet – and the suggestion that the barbarians at the gate, in the form of the Sex Pistols themselves perhaps, are about to unleash a waking nightmare.

But these contradictions are easily subsumed into the dream of England. The Sex Pistols’ single could be heard during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. And cynical distance is inclined to collapse into sincerity. Interviewed on ITV’s flagship Good Morning Britain show in 2017, Rotten – dolled up in the kind of tweed suit favoured by supporters of the far-right political party UKIP – said of Britain’s 2016 European Union referendum result: ‘The working class have spoke [sic] and I’m one of them and I’m with them.’ He then went on to praise Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, and defend US President Donald Trump. Perhaps the song wasn’t so sarcastic after all.

Sex Pistols, 1977. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Sex Pistols, 1977. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

For all that England can wryly describe itself as crap, there has always been an immovable, dialectical tendency within that to find the heroism of living in it. Added to the country’s historical and persistent colonialism, chauvinism and feudalism, the impulse to resue the dream of England from its internal and external oppressiveness is just one more form of this ugliness. Attempts to reframe Englishness or Britishness have appeared across the political spectrum since the millennium, not least in the rush to defend and reclaim the wounded patriots who, it is endlessly assumed, cried out in the 2016 EU referendum. Yet, in his latest book, New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England (2019), Alex Niven rejects the modern discourse on rediscovering the green unpleasant land. ‘The negative deadness of England and Englishness is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awake,’ Niven observes, neatly summarizing, ‘We need to abandon England and start looking for a replacement.’

This is not to say that Niven is against everything that has ever taken place and everyone who has ever lived on that particular landmass. For a book whose arguments are ultimately so uncompromising, there is a remarkable tenderness in its pages for people, places and histories. The problem, as Niven often points out, is: ‘England doesn’t really exist.’ As in his earlier book, Folk Opposition (Zero Books, 2011), he is affectionate towards his origin and home in the northeast, thoughtfully detailing the many ways in which the region – no less so than ‘England’ – has been a distinct social and institutional territory for millennia. The book also has a subplot of autobiography, as Niven contextualizes his argument with reference to his life, career, family and social circle. Indeed, New Model Island’s passages on the thoughts and lives of writers Robin Carmody, Mark Fisher and Joe Kennedy, as well as on the publishing houses Zero Books and Repeater, add a personal and historical dimension to Niven’s milieu of left-wing cultural analysts, who started out as a network of bloggers in the 2000s and who, today, have never been more relevant or more widely read.

From Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Guardian columnists, Niven tracks the discourse of Englishness through both deep and recent history, disentangling an early version that existed between the Dark Ages and the formation of the UK in 1707, as well as a more spurious version that emerged from a combination of postmodern nostalgia and the millennial devolutions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The relationship between these two Englands, Niven maintains, is ‘distant and tenuous’. In the intervening time: ‘“England” was meticulously de-essentialized and distorted so that it could subsume neighbouring and more distant lands.’ Today, ‘the still ongoing dismantling of the British Empire means that its rump polity has been left with nothing but the distant echoes of a pre-capitalist feudal past with which to reimagine itself’.

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the Dragon, 1430-35. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Paolo Uccello, Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1430-35. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The ongoing, if eroding, sense in which ‘England’ can signify ‘the UK’ from its point of privilege as the colonial centre is particularly notable in the US. In a recent episode of NBC’s magical-realist sitcom The Good Place (2016–19), for instance, one character gave as an example for ‘weird shit’ happening the fact that ‘England left Europe’. In fact, while the UK voted overall to leave the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland had opted to remain. And, although Wales also elected to leave, the right-wing backlash of recent years has been particularly associated with a love for, and defence of, ‘England’.

At a political rally in August 2018, Trump reflected: ‘People call it Great Britain. They used to call it England.’ He had also told The Sun newspaper a couple of months previously: ‘You don’t hear the word England as much as you should […] I miss the name England.’ Earlier this year, standing next to the UK prime minister Boris Johnson, and in an even more confused state, Trump responded to a question about international relationships after Brexit by floundering: ‘Where’s England? What’s happening with England? They don’t use it too much anymore.’ Englishness is the depressingly proud heritage of Richard B. Spencer, the American alt-right figurehead, who became infamous following the 2016 US election for shouting: ‘Hail Trump! Hail Victory! Hail our People!’ He subsequently told the Black British journalist Gary Younge that he would ‘never be an Englishman’ in a 2017 documentary for Channel 4.

In the UK, the English flag has been adopted by the far-right English Defence League and is frequently eulogized by Farage. But Niven is not just suspicious of the co-option of Englishness by right-wing nationalism. There has also been a centre-left political shift intended to accommodate xenophobia in recent decades, of which the Labour Party’s notorious 2015 election-campaign mug bearing the slogan ‘Controls on Immigration’ is the most potent symbol. Even the melancholic association of England with the aesthetics of hauntology or class struggle – both topics close to Niven’s heart – fall short in saving the moniker for him. Instead, he talks of ‘these islands’ (incidentally, the term employed in documents jointly produced by the British and Irish governments) or ‘the archipelago’, which has a radical air when he uses it, as if all national territorializations have been wiped off the chart and only the various parcels of dry land on which we happen to be standing matter. But Niven is far from ahistorical: ‘these islands’ have histories that are longer, broader and more surprising than any reductive, quixotic ‘English’ framing. He argues that their future, too, can be just as promisingly diverse.

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, London. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, London. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Looking to embrace the archipelago’s ‘various, multi-vocal identity’ and to suggest a more ‘fluid, dynamic version of regionalism that retains some sense of history but does not fall victim to bogus nationalist essentialisms’, Niven tries his hand at redrawing the map. In one manifestation, the first incision lies ‘between, roughly, Lyme Regis and Middlesbrough’, allowing for greater lateral integration between the non-English nations and peripheries of England (Cornwall and the north), as well as an escape from the orbit of London (the ‘obscenely swollen hub of a radically concentric economy’). As a southerner potentially left behind in a Tory-run, literal Little England, I would be burning with jealousy over the newly formed gang of cool kids to the north and west. But I could always emigrate.

In their 2019 election manifesto, the Labour Party has retained its 2017 promise of four new public bank holidays – one for each of the UK nations’ patron saints – in a clear gesture to traditional delineations of nationalism. But they’re also proposing a ‘radical decentralization of power in Britain’, with Local Transformation Funds and government offices in each region of England and a National Transformation Fund Unit in the north intended to ‘shift the political centre of gravity’. The party has also published regional manifestos that highlight how, to take the northeast as an example, a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ can echo the original industrial revolution, with new national parks founded in the region.

Both Niven and Labour (in a more moderate sense) see a future in which power can be redistributed not just economically but geographically, but without cleaving to centralizing nationalisms. It is in the regions that Labour will win or lose this week’s general election: the party has to convince voters that broad-based yet localized investment is preferable to the Conservatives’ quick and quite possibly hard Brexit. Yet, even if this election results in Labour’s defeat, such dreams are unlikely to fade. As Niven attests, a new left-wing generation is imagining a different future and making strong arguments for it. Perhaps, in order finally to dream of something else, we need to stop dreaming of England.

Main image: Pro-Brexit demonstration, London, December 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Adrian Dennis; AFP

Adam Harper is a lecturer in music based in London, UK, and the author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making (2011).

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