We Need to Talk About England

By Ravi GhoshDecember 7, 2020

We Need to Talk About England

New Model Island by Alex Niven

THE BASIC POLITICAL BACKDROP of Alex Niven’s New Model Island is that Britain is potentially only halfway through a 20-year period of Conservative governance, and that the union may lose several members before power changes hands at Westminster. But the book, a peculiar volume of polemic and memoir from a socialist English professor at Newcastle University, pays little close attention to the technicalities of Brexit or recent Conservative administrations. Niven is concerned with England: its history, its Lost Decade, and its increasingly uncertain future.

New Model Island sets out to expose strands of Englishness which have for too long created a false continuum — whereby the country has failed to meaningfully reflect on its imperial past, its pioneering role in market capitalism, and its consequent susceptibility to dangerous nationalisms. England becomes “at best, a vague anachronism, and at worst, the recent cultural daydream of a neoliberal order.” This leads to a kind of iconoclasm: “[A]bandoning England as a lost cause,” Niven argues, “is a necessary precondition of the coming egalitarianism of the twenty-first century.” It’s an enchanting, if politically distant prospect, and especially pertinent while the British left — now all but powerless in parliament — grapples with how to exert influence over a political establishment which, on all sides, is now seemingly intent upon placing patriotism at the core of its offering.

Increasingly clear as the book progresses is Niven’s belief that a dominant, socialist administration is the only suitable starting point for this upheaval, and is as much an affective necessity as a practical one. New Model Island was written before the 2019 general election, where the Conservative party won 365 seats from a possible 650 — an unprecedented 345 of which were in England. In his wider writings, Niven had been warning of a potential wipeout for the Labour Party in its traditional strongholds in the Midlands and the north of England, a defeat which was later said to be owing in part to a perceived lack of patriotism and national security consciousness under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Although far from a policy intervention, Niven queries the role of nation at a time of existential debate within British progressive politics.

Accordingly, New Model Island can be (and has been) misread in support of the nationalist approaches against which Niven explicitly warns in its pages. These typically amount to moderate, middle-of-the-road calls to “rediscover,” “revitalise,” or “reinvigorate” a particular style of Englishness as the basis for future political unity. The hope here is that by focusing on the country’s modern diversity — while still operating within the discourses of historic nationalisms — the left can somehow exorcise the more pernicious, far-right uses of English symbolism, without alienating large portions of the population who are viewed as irrevocably “patriotic.”

In theory, it seems workable. But in reality, many argue that the task of disentangling a cogent, progressive patriotism from its more conservative (and beyond that, outright right-wing) bedfellows should not be the role of an internationalist, progressive movement, especially given that a hardened stance on issues such as criminal justice and immigration have become apparent prerequisites for its creation.

Niven’s response to this vision — now realized via the election of the moderate Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership — is typically destructive. He rejects the idea of England as a starting point for any meaningful progressive project — not just within the contexts of contemporary politics through which New Model Island is now inevitably read. The book is a post-national polemic, not an accessory to patriotic reload, which Niven calls the “unhelpful and unrealisable dream of a ‘progressive England.’” New Model Island is hardly a fleshed-out manifesto, but appreciating its more digressive, personal elements depends on understanding this overarching agenda, not reaching within it for a milder reformism.

Niven begins by tracing three characteristics common to all forms of Englishness, favoring personal, spatialized examples to populate his rather loose inventory of behaviors. Discussing “hiddenness and void,” he recounts a visit to Alton Towers (“the English Disneyworld”) where he and his partner encounter a derelict chapel at the park’s center. He delights in the detail of the English Gothic revival to which the site belongs (its architect, A. W. N Pugin, also designed the palace of Westminster), before declaring that structural void is in fact a rare window into England, defined by a kind of forgotten emptiness. By following his own cultural and material impulses, Niven creates the sense that England’s physical characteristics — its rugged, punishing landscape and neglected stately homes — are themselves symbols of untamed capitalism’s inevitable cannibalization of community identity. This is not socialism for the classroom (or in Niven’s case, the lecture hall), but a humble reconciliation of subjective experience and the outside world. It is a compelling call to action, democratizing the exercise of social critique rather than parading its narrowness.

Another of Englishness’s common characteristics is the “feeling that England somehow does not quite exist, and has indeed not been allowed to exist” owing to a historical curse. Niven explores several mythical examples before taking aim at literary psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. The genre has overplayed the idea of historical curse, he says, welcoming conspiracy theories at the expense of social history and class critiques. Niven turns instead to Marxist theorists Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, who argue that England’s populace has, in fact, been prevented from self-actualization by the violent power of its ruling class, not some semi-mythical entity.

Such citations are a key strength of the book. Niven has the welcome ability to gesture toward broader ideas once his own are approaching their natural endpoint. The result is a smartly corroborated, but not overly academic work. He is also slightly evasive; the prose is full of caveats, mediation, and qualifications, warding off misinterpretations and false endorsements wherever possible. The book is playful when it does reference theory: recounting a 2013 lock-in, Niven remembers boredom induced by “Oranjeboom, the weed, or perhaps just the crushing sense of being inside a post-theoretical cliché.” Big Ben, the name given to the Palace of Westminster’s clocktower, becomes a “sinister Lacanian alias.” In another quip, he warns that handing out copies of Ulysses in the pub can’t be the answer to England’s problems. Throughout, he displays a wariness of poststructuralism’s often stifling grip on contemporary leftist thought — and his genuine belief in a more accessible solidarity.

Completing his character study is the idea of confinement: that the English are “hemmed in, straitjacketed, resentful of neighbours” (surely the most verifiable trait for the casual reader). The theory about why this is forms the backbone of the book, positing that England existed in a pre-industrial, pre-imperial form, and now does again in the 21st century as a disparate collection of half-formed nationalisms. The reason for this, Niven argues, is that during the intervening period, England was “meticulously de-essentialised and distorted so that it could subsume neighbouring and more distant lands,” as the British Empire grew. A kind of psychological exportation took place, whereby the English “absorbed and internalised a sense of inwardness and self-loathing that was then sold to the world as a virtue.” We were repressed, so we repressed everyone else via an imperial guise.

Niven could do more here to explore the role of institutions during the imperial period, even while England as a rhetorical entity was subsumed by its British avatar. He does, however, dissect the relationship between institution and identity to great effect when discussing Northumberland, a historic county in the northeast of England, which acts as a microcosmic test case for England throughout the book. Fortunately for Niven’s parallel, it doesn’t exist either, though its existing regional roots do outweigh England’s.

An Anglo-British identity then flourished throughout the mid-20th century, though the images and iconography of a nation still centered around Britishness. Only at the turn of the millennium, Niven argues, did a new form of postmodern Englishness emerge, accelerated by New Labour’s failure to expand regional devolution — and therefore a sense of self-determination — beyond the Good Friday Agreement, the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh assembly, to the English regions. When the Blair administration’s economic Thatcherism — which privileged London’s ballooning financial services industry — came into conflict with its waning commitment to widespread domestic reform, a “pandemic of Englishness” emerged, assisted by public backlash to the catastrophic foreign policy of the second Blair administration.

After the “profound and deep-reaching socio-cultural disaster” of New Labour, Niven turns his eye to millennial Englishness (so named for the period of its emergence, not the age of its advocates), epitomized politically by the youthful polish of David Cameron’s Notting Hill Set, and later the austere Anglicanism of Theresa May. Niven is careful to trace the cultural as well as political ascension of this “Deep Englishness,” citing as its starting point a mid-2000s publishing trend including writers Peter Ackroyd and Roger Scruton which framed “What does it mean to be English?” as an urgent existential query.

But crucially for Niven, this nationalism of the 2010s does not translate to the stability of English identity itself, despite its culminating, and successive, power at the ballot box. Millennial Englishness, he says, is still “shaped by feelings of nostalgia, commercial opportunism and profound insecurity,” and will eventually fall away or be replaced. Part of this skepticism may be informed by the difficulty of disentangling Millennial Englishness from what remains a strong sense of British identity among the English populace. The geographic concentration of 2019 general election votes on a single province does not necessarily signal a complete usurping of unionist identity, particularly as the Conservative Party still trades mainly in British iconography, despite its disregard for both Scotland and (particularly recently) Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit years. However, it’s worth reflecting on Niven’s characterization of Millennial Englishness as fundamentally unstable. Given that New Model Island is a largely discursive deconstruction of English identity, it can be argued that more attention should be paid to the lived consequences of this nationalism’s reemergence over the past 20 years — a move which would strengthen, and indeed humanize, the arguments for looking beyond it.

Niven no doubt recognizes that for many, this period of English revival has been synonymous with anti-immigration rhetoric and a general uptick in racism and xenophobia. But in describing these as one extremity of a “superficial revival of English feeling,” he somewhat underestimates the extent to which this hostility has recently come to define peoples’ perceptions of nationhood and citizenship. The victims of say, the Windrush scandal — whereby Caribbean immigrants and their descendants were wrongly detained or deported under the government’s “hostile environment” policies — may indeed associate their experiences with characteristics of Millennial Englishness or the wider rhetoric of Britishness in which it is often disguised.

The fact that citizenship is being restructured as a coercive instrument therefore cannot be wholly separated from cultural shifts in national identity, many of which center on rethinking “what it means to be English/British” — a question which, for many, now has an increasingly threatening answer. Englishness cannot be debunked by invoking its semantic slipperiness and historical incoherence alone. However inconsistent its newest iterations might be, they still have real-world effects (not least prompting the Conservative Party to undergo an aggressive populist rebrand), especially for nonwhite populations whose diverse experiences of nation remain underexplored in the book.

Niven seems to deploy the tactic of excluding these extreme, racist strands of Englishness from serious discussion so as to invalidate them, preferring instead to examine contemporary advocates of Englishness from the center-left. This is sensible insofar as it avoids the conflation of right-wing nationalism with, as Niven reminds us, “the fact that working-class Englishness is a very real phenomenon.” An important quality of New Model Island is its determination to explore the bourgeois Englishness of the 2010s, which prevents the careless association of more insidious English nationalisms with working-class, rather than ruling-class cultural rituals. Later on, Niven does bolster his attacks on hard-right Englishness by delving into demographic history, which he argues “[undermines] the whole basis of English ethno-nationalism.” He reports that “much of the south and east of England was genetically shaped by an ancient Franco-German alliance,” concluding that “the ethnic argument for a cohesive Englishness is completely without foundation.”

In the book’s diagnostic opening chapters, Niven draws upon sentiment, feeling, and personal narrative to create an exegetical history of nation. So the decision to turn to statistics in favor of this defining method is slightly odd, despite its correct intention. It seems confusing to consider ethnographic homogeneity as a dominant justification for English xenophobia and racism. In reality, far-right nationalism is, in its very essence, irrational; its ability to mutate and subvert historical truth to suit its own pejorative agenda is what makes it so dangerous. Disproving England’s racialized topography may be a starting point, but bigotry tends to imagine a revised heritage when faced with reality, not accept enlightened terms. In this regard, extending his deft handling of anecdote and affect to the discussion of far-right Englishness would humanize the consequences of fringe nationalisms’ recent return — and pave a more compelling defense against it.

So what should take England’s place? If we are daring, the islands can become “a potentially far more dynamic, eclectic and open terrain, a sort of north-west European counterpart to the dappled, variegated seascape of the Mediterranean.” The cornerstone of this vision is regionalism, which includes cautioning Scottish and Welsh independence in favor of a broader upheaval. These “dream Archipelagos” require “breaking the back of Westminster Anglocentrism,” which would result in a new Northwestern power center, and a possible movement toward a zonal English nation along the lines of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

We are indeed in utopian territory, but there are still a number of workable proposals here, particularly around the idea of transport and infrastructure. There remains an inevitable tension around localized nationalisms: a united Ireland is now a real possibility, as may be Scottish independence. Incorporating these regions into a geo-federal structure while honoring newly defined jurisdictions would be difficult, but facilitating the cross-border movement of people may yet provide the answer.

It is Niven’s methodology that resonates far beyond the close. From the memoir chapters to sharp readings of Englishness, New Model Island reasserts affect as a serious political and discursive currency for post-national socialism. The birth of a child, the death of a friend become starting points for ideology, informing the need for revolution rather than postponing it. In the contexts of political literature as a whole, this serves a great democratizing purpose. The success — especially since the Brexit referendum — of behind-the-scenes political nonfiction is ultimately predicated on Westminster access, and so will inevitably reproduce the very exclusivity it intends to dispel. Although New Model Island has a different purpose, it still represents a genuinely fresh approach to political aspiration in prose. In drawing attention away from establishment thinking and empowering the collective impulse to find, feel, and unwind nation from the grassroots, Niven has created a dialogue which is both powerful and participatory from the outset.


Ravi Ghosh is a journalist and critic based in London. He writes mainly on politics and culture.

LARB Contributor

Ravi Ghosh is a journalist and critic in London. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Economist, Financial Times, Prospect, and Verso, among other places. He also covers art and experimental music for Elephant magazine.


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