Brexit delivered further complications and I suspect most people voted on identity not economics.
English people feel left behind by metropolitan elites in London and
the South East, and by devolved governments and strengthened regional
identities in Scotland and Wales. Their heart felt cry to be heard is
often disregarded, wilfully misunderstood or patronised as backwardly
xenophobic. But what if this is about the loss of identity? No longer
British, temperamentally never really European, and definitely outside
the wealth and opportunities of London, English people want to know what
has happened to their country. These questions of identity and purpose
have never really been addressed.
What we need is an expansive
vision of what it means to be English as part of the UK. This will help
us rediscover a national unity more fractured than I have ever known it
in my lifetime.
A first foundation would be a more developed and
strengthened regional government within England. Westminster would hold
onto those big issues to do with our shared sovereignty, while
empowering the separate nations and regions to serve their own
I say this as a bishop of the Church of
England, an inheritor of a post that dates back to AD 627. For a long
time the church inhabited a world that was a tapestry of kingdoms and
not yet nation states. That memory of regional identity is still very
strong here in the north, and only just below the surface elsewhere.
strengthening regional identity, we will carry on defining ourselves
against things - Europe, London, Westminster – leading to a negative
political discourse and a hope-less future. When our English and
regional identities are strengthened, we take a proper pride and
responsibility in our own self-determination, as part of something
larger than ourselves.
Let’s play to our strengths: our shared
history within these islands; our strong regional identities going back
centuries. Let’s also look to the other things that bind us together as
English and British, modernising and strengthening them rather than
neglecting them or imagining they are the problem. What are they?
Historically they are the very particular but surprisingly enduring
threads of our history, such as monarchy and church; and from the more
recent past the NHS and even the BBC World Service.
What binds these things together, although so different, is a belief in public service and a desire to serve the common good.
arise out of that Christian vision itself which is the bedrock of our
cultural, ethical and political life. As Jesus taught, it really is
about loving your neighbour as yourself. The Church of England is one of
the only institutions left in our nation with a local branch in
virtually every community, and despite unhelpful reports to the
contrary, remains committed to this local and national vision: a church
for England. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, and as it has been for
centuries, the parish is the beating heart of community life in England.
Long may it remain so. Not just church bells and Evensong, but
foodbanks, debt relief, youth work, shelters for the homeless and all
the other ways the local church works with others to make a difference.
a big vision of one United Kingdom and the tight focus of regional
identity and governance we will shrink into an amalgamation of
communities always in danger of falling apart and only serving the
individual good. Together, paying close attention to the
inter-relationship of local and national need, our vision is enlarged,
we see how our well-being is tied up with our neighbours. Seeking the
common good in a nation that is a community of communities would become
the driving and unifying purpose of our common life. Since the greatest
challenge facing our world is climate change, such a bigger vision of
human community and mutual responsibility might be our only way forward.
And why shouldn’t courageous and compassionate English people lead the way?
fact, these two words seem to me to be the best ones to define the
Englishness I long for; the courageous, entrepreneurial spirit of a
trading, island nation; and the compassion of a nation slowly facing up
to some of the failings of its colonial past; a pioneer of common
suffrage and healthcare for all; the birthplace of the World Service. It
is time to be proud to be English.
We have exported many things.
Let me finish with one of them: cricket. When we say something’s ‘not
cricket’, we mean it’s not right. That sense of fair play is something
to recover as we learn again to talk to each other across our nation and
stop viewing each other so suspiciously. I’m also a big fan of any game
that stops for tea. In fact, after the horrors of Covid our whole
nation would benefit from a tea break: a chance to pause, re-set and
rediscover who we are: a courageous and compassionate community of
communities, serving the common good, and delighting in our diversity
across these islands.
Then when the different nations of the
United Kingdom find themselves pitched against each other on the sports
field we could belt out our individual anthems. Then sing our National
Anthem together. And love our neighbour.