What is England really made of?

Review: Jason Cowley’s evocative and compelling account of twenty-first century England, Englishness, and English identity is both a nuanced personal story and a skillful study of the state of the nation.

Eric Ravilious countryside
Eric Ravilious artwork in which a man walks towards St Mary's church in the rain. Credit: steeve-x-art / Alamy Stock Photo

It was ‘of the deepest importance,’ George Orwell famously wrote as German bombers flew over London, ‘to try and determine what England is, before guessing what part England can play in the huge events that are happening.’ Today, as we face the greatest challenge to European security since the end of the Second World in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the United Kingdom is providing the most substantial help to that country on this side of the Atlantic, we might ask ourselves the same question. Britain’s neighbours —poleaxed by Brexit — have been wondering for some time. ‘Everyone understands English,’ the former president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker once remarked, ‘but no-one understands England.’ Jason Cowley’s Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England is thus very timely.

There is no better person to write such a book than the author, the acclaimed editor of the centre-left New Statesman who has led its transformation into the most dynamic weekly magazine in the United Kingdom today (full disclosure: I am a contributing editor). While no conservative or Brexiteer himself, and a man of strong views, he has always given space to discordant voices and his openness stands him in good stead in this book.

Cowley sets out to write ‘a book about Englishness, English identity and how England has changed over the last twenty years or so.’ In fact, though much of the book covers the recent past, parts of it dig much deeper, going back fifty years or more to the establishment of the welfare state and re-founding of British society after the Second World War. It does so through a series of evocative insertions into contemporary England. Here Cowley finds much to deplore: economic dislocation, cultural alienation, the deterioration of public discourse, racism, the hooliganism, the rise of ‘populism’ and so on. He disapproves of Brexit, which he sees as part of ‘an inchoate English revolt.’ He is doubtful that the UK — which he dubs ‘the Untied [sic] Kingdom’ — can hold together under the strain of Brexit, economic crisis, the pandemic, and English nationalism, which he sees as ‘the most disruptive force in British politics’ today.

This is also a personal story for the author. He vividly describes his upbringing in Harlow, one of the ‘new towns’ created for the working class after the war, a place Cowley was once glad to see the back of but which will now not let him go. Where he previously chafed at its limitations, the author can now see the town was a vast, and in many ways noble, experiment in modern English living. But when the jobs went and the families grew up and left, the town languished. For Cowley’s surviving relatives, trying to cope with declining and privatised services, there is little to remind them of the promise and security which Harlow once epitomised. There is despair at the loss of community. It therefore seems unsurprising that the only ‘Brexit murder’ of the entire EU referendum campaign should have taken place in Harlow, when a Polish immigrant was killed by a single punch.

Even where the author fundamentally disagrees with his subjects he understands and empathises. This comes across in his chapter on Gillian Duffy, who famously challenged Gordon Brown during his canvassing walkabout in Rochdale in 2010, and was immediately dubbed a ‘bigoted woman’ by Brown in remarks captured afterwards on his microphone. Unlike Duffy, Cowley is supportive of immigration but he sets out her argument, and indeed the figures, fairly. There is no Emily Thornberry-style contempt, no metropolitan sneering. Cowley may hate the sin, but he loves the sinner. 

Despite the sadness and the concern, Cowley’s story is no jeremiad. He finds more grounds for hope than despair. Li, the Chinese cockle-picker who narrowly survived the incoming tides which killed so many of his colleagues in Morecambe Bay, is a victim of trafficking and exploitation, certainly, but he is now ‘Richard’ and living safely in England. The Imam of the Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, north London, not only feels at home in England but heroically shields an Islamophobic attacker who had attempted to run down worshippers from the wrath of his victims. In the same vein a Black Briton — Patrick Hutchinson — saves a racist thug from a severe beating and possibly death by carrying him fireman-style to safety. 

Cowley also celebrates Gareth Southgate’s England multi-racial football team, which so electrified fans in last year’s delayed European Cup, and have done so much to de-toxify a once controversial sport. Towards the end of the book, Englishmen and women applaud the NHS during the pandemic, show solidarity and stand in line patiently for their vaccines. The killing in Harlow turns out to have been unrelated to Brexit. In all these senses, perhaps, the author is closer to his ideal England than it at first appears: ‘An England in which you don’t have to choose between diversity and tradition. An England for all.’

The writing is excellent throughout, with an engagingly allusive literary quality. Cowley’s title, for example, evokes Trollope’s late-nineteenth century satire The Way We Live Now. The reminiscences — ‘Sometimes I dream about Harlow’ — bring to mind Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, albeit in a very different context. The symbolism of the ‘black man’s burden,’ as Hutchinson carries the white thug to safety, will not be lost on anyone familiar with Kipling’s tropes. But the greatest influence is Orwell, and his insight that ‘England’ was a country which had ‘the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.’ Cowley describes this powerfully as its ‘changing changelessness.’

There are some loose ends in the story. The connection between English nationalism, economics, and Brexit remains unclear. Wales voted ‘leave’ in roughly similar proportions. The Brexit ultras who, to the frustration of many, have refused to throw the Ulster Unionists under the bus, would happily do so if they were really just English nationalists. (And most English ‘remainers’ would have jettisoned the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish under the bus if the boot had been on the other foot and they had wanted to leave the EU). As far as economics are concerned, exactly the same frustrated ‘left behind’ demographic that apparently voted ‘leave’ in England and Wales, voted ‘remain’ in Scotland and (if they were Catholic) in Northern Ireland. 

With regard to immigration, the book could be regarded as contradictory. The Chinese cockle-picker Li, who had originally attempted to enter the country illegally, rightly criticises the persistence of modern slavery and people smuggling. But when he expresses the wish that ‘our British government and immigration services could pay more attention to what is happening at the borders’ and wonders ‘who is looking out for these people — people like me,’ then one has to point out if they were really looking out properly then they would stop ‘people like him’ from entering.  That is before we even get into discussions about trade-offs between unskilled immigration and pressure on services. Of course, Cowley is well aware of the tension between open borders and the welfare state, one he wisely does not attempt to resolve.

Finally, there is the elision between England, Britain and the United Kingdom. Despite warning against ‘conflating’ the two, Cowley sometimes does so. This is not really his fault; it is in the nature of the beast. After all, when Orwell referred to England, he sometimes meant the (English) landscape, and sometimes the British state. The perplexed Juncker said England, but he meant the United Kingdom (until quite recently the French word Angleterre referred to both). In the world wars, the Germans referred to ‘Englaender’ even when they were facing Scots in kilts. Even Lloyd George, a Welsh-speaker, often referred to England, when he meant the British Empire. And so on. 

The epilogue of this thought-provoking book begins with the final paragraph of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), which he penned on returning from the Spanish Civil War. Noting the beauty, peace and languor of the landscape of southern England — ‘all sleeping the deep, deep, deep sleep of England’ — he feared ‘that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.’ Cowley, whose book went to press before the (re-) invasion of Ukraine, understandably looked to the pandemic to provide that jolt, but perhaps it will come from a real war. Then we will know what England is made of — or should that be Britain?


Brendan Simms