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Not Looking For A New England: Alex Niven's New Model Island
Michael J. Brooks , December 8th, 2019 10:28

Alex Niven's new book delves into the meaning – and the problem – of England. He talks to Michael J. Brooks about Cool Britannia, Corbyn, and the Queen

“What if we abandoned England… and started looking for a replacement?” Such is the mission statement of Alex Niven in his concise, polemical and strikingly timely new book New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture beyond the idea of England.

For Niven, the concept of Englishness and of ‘being English’ is not only contradictory but a false endeavour given that, the idea of England as a definable and recognisable nation state has been redundant since the English Revolution. It was the failure of the revolution and the subsequent rise of Empire which set England on a course of de-nationalising itself into an inchoate non-state as a means of absorbing as many other localities and regions as possible.

Niven identifies three kinds of Englishness – the notion of historical curse, the sense that England is subject to an ancient curse; a preoccupation with confinement or constriction; and the feeling of void or lack of identity, the result of the imperialist period and its aftermath. By weaving these theoretical ideas through with elements of memoir, and plenty of analysis of pop culture – Alton Towers, Mark Fisher, Britpop, the 2018 England World Cup football team, and Echo & the Bunnymen – Niven achieves something that is both eminently readable but also challenging.

I found it interesting how you explored the shift from the celebration of Britishness that was the Britpop and 'Cool Britannia' era, adorned with the Union flag – one without, as you say, any particular racial or territorial overtones – to the emergence of a more reactionary and insecure Englishness and the prevalence of the St. George's flag. You identify this in part as being due to the Blair government’s policies of regionalism and devolution of powers. Was that shift an inevitable consequence of our neighbours seeking greater independence or was it a symptom of the execution?

The turn towards Englishness after the millennium was another chapter of our post-imperial malaise. For hundreds of years, England and Britain meant pretty much the same thing – the Anglo-British United Kingdom and its Empire. Since the Empire (mostly) disappeared we’ve been scratching around for a way to understand who we are collectively, with mainly very paltry results. In one sense, as you say, Englishness purports to be a mirror-image of Scottish and Welsh independence movements, and so it was a natural development after those causes reached maturity with the devolutionary moment of the millennium. But the analogy seems to me to be a very weak one.

Scottish and Welsh nationalisms aren’t perfect, but they are a relatively coherent expression of anti-Westminster, anti-imperialist feelings widely held among small-ish populations (Scotland is about 5.5 million, Wales just over 3 million). England has a population of nearly 56 million, so it’s a completely different beast. It has massive cultural variations across its regions, before you even get onto its ethnic diversity arising out of recent migrations.

As such, the quest to uncover or recover an essential Englishness that’s unfolded in a mostly middlebrow context since the millennium is always going to be a futile exercise (even if you try – as some liberal commentators have done – to claim that Englishness is all about diversity, multiculturalism, and so on).

You have to go back hundreds of years, to before the rise of the British Empire, to locate a time when England was a meaningful nation state in its own right. The notion that you can somehow connect that very distant, almost mythical history with a hugely diverse twenty-first century population seems to me to be completely untenable and actually pretty ridiculous.

Your ‘new model island’ idea is to drastically re-energise regionalism and split the British Isles into a ‘south-east corner’ and a ‘north-west corner’, a diagonal line roughly from ‘Lyme Regis to Middlesborough’. Wouldn’t it be simpler and more practicable to advocate a far stronger and more closely-integrated ‘North’, which we know southerners lump all together as one homogeneous region anyway?

To clarify, I don’t actually think there should be a hard border stretching from Lyme Regis to Middlesbrough! My book mainly deals with what Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities’, so I’m really trying to outline very tentative alternative ways of reimagining the so-called British Isles beyond nationalism; rather than actual, detailed blueprints for governmental and bureaucratic reform.

But to take ownership of the book’s ideas, I do think that the most important thing culturally and economically is to build up the northern and western parts of the islands as a counterweight to London and the South East, where currently the vast majority of financial and institutional power is hoarded.

So yes, a stronger and more closely integrated ‘North’ is needed – with internal high-speed-rail links, devolved powers and so on. But I also don’t see why these things should be confined to an imagined ‘English’ North. Without wanting to ride roughshod over Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalist causes, it seems to me that they have common cause in terms of opposing the Westminster establishment with regions like, say, the North East, where I live. As such, why not try to think about fostering those links rather than stopping at national boundaries?

You write of Augustus Pugin that he “dreamed the dead centre of modern England” by designing (with Charles Barry) the Houses of Parliament. With the building soon facing a massive renewal and restoration project (costing an estimated £4bn), is the planned decamp of Parliament to a facsimile on Whitehall a waste of a golden opportunity to raise the geographical anchor of politics from London?

Absolutely. But I think it just serves to underline that the English establishment is never going to relinquish and abandon its geographical powerbase in London of its own accord. The minute you start thinking about an alternative location for an English parliament – let’s say Manchester or even Birmingham – that starts to become very risky for a lot of vested interests whose whole identity going back hundreds of years has been oriented around London and the South East.

I don’t want to be too pejorative about London, because it’s also home to a lot of radicalism and of course cultural diversity, and that ultimately is what will save us all. But it’s just an empirical fact that the English establishment has largely barricaded itself in the South East over the centuries – it’s not going to relocate without a fight.

You quote disparagingly from George Orwell's essay ‘England Your England’ and its reference to “the gentleness of the English character”.  I think you misrepresent his views somewhat given that he counterpoises this with the hypocrisy of the English about the Empire, and that character being mixed up with “barbarities and anachronisms”.  He could also perhaps be forgiven the generalisations about English identity given the context in which he wrote the essay – in 1941, when (as he writes in the famous opening line) “highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill [me]”.  Without any idea of what such an experience is like, I can only imagine that regional distinctions would tend to evaporate very quickly into irrelevance under the heat of an active hostile threat of invasion and occupation by a foreign power.  So while there may be a reasonable debate to be had about taking him down a peg or two from his pedestal of Englishness, in your eagerness to do just that aren’t you being a tad unfair on old Eric?

Ha! Well yes, as you say, I think a lot of the need for a robust critique of Orwell is based on his hugely inflated reputation, especially among modern liberals. So there is a need to take him down a few pegs. It’s true that if fanboys like Robert Webb didn’t look on him as a sort of secular saint – and use his writing as definitive proof that anything to the left of mild social democracy automatically leads to dystopia – then there wouldn’t be so much leeway for correctives like mine. But even allowing for context, I think describing the English as ‘gentle’ is absurd and unconscionable. And my specific point in that passage is to highlight Orwell’s weird lassitude in outlining a unitary ‘English character’, which for him also includes the Scottish and Irish.

Perhaps as you say the wartime context provides some justification, but that’s quite an unusual backdrop, and I think the fantasy that we’re all permanently living in 1941 is part of the problem when it comes to our identity.

The book ends with reflections on the 2017 General Election: “a crack had opened up again in the facade of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism”.  Are you concerned that in the space of a few weeks, this book could be a historical document if the Tories win a majority and put paid to a the prospect of a transformational socialist project for the foreseeable future?

Of course there’s always the risk that everything will end in disaster. But why not hope it won’t? There will be plenty of time in the event of a Tory victory to rake over the embers and try to work out what went wrong and how to move forward strategically. But even if the Tories do get a majority this time around, you have to be optimistic that we’ll win out in the end.

Corbynism has renovated the Labour Party and indeed British politics in general. Another five years of the Tories will be unspeakable, but they won’t have the Brexit card next time. The left will keep growing and growing unless Johnson somehow magically decides to give millennials cheap housing and rescinds their student loan payments.

If Corbyn loses, we’ll get a new, younger leader, who I very much hope will be Laura Pidcock, a much better speaker and likely a more popular figure than Corbyn. I don’t think there’s anything to be achieved by being pessimistic. We’re all going to die at some point, maybe tomorrow – why not be relentlessly hopeful in the meantime?

In terms of the likely impact of Brexit, it could be seen as proving something of a reckoning for England, which finally has to come to terms with its diminished post-imperial stature, inadequacy and vulnerability, not to mention the real risk that the other nations of the UK will break away. In a masochistic way, is there the opportunity for England to build itself anew up from the scorched earth of Brexit?

Let’s hope so. The book is really addressing this developing context, which is part of the reason why I tried not to reference Brexit too often. It’s difficult to foresee exactly what will happen over the next decade as the dominoes start to fall, and I didn’t want the book to be dated within the space of a few weeks.

The whole weight of the question seems to fall on this term ‘England’. If the probable disintegration of the United Kingdom leads to regional devolution within England and a rebalancing of the power dynamic of the islands away from the South East corner, then great. But as I point out in the book, I find it difficult to see how we’re going to be able to disentangle a positive, radical English nationalism from the much more powerful and better-established version that revolves around conservative and far-right myths woven out of dodgy ethnology and Churchill speeches. England is just such a messed up non-country that it’s going to take a lot of effort to stop it from retreating into itself and its darker impulses post-Brexit.

The Queen is approaching 94. You identify yourself as a republican in the book. How seismic a jolt to Britain's sense of history and self will it be when the inevitable happens and Elizabeth Windsor dies?

Again, let’s hope a big one. But the English Establishment is a remarkably durable entity that is proofed to survive even the most seismic of shocks to its sense of self. The monarchy will suffer a dent in popularity when the queen dies, but this won’t in itself lead to anything truly radical.

The English upper-classes have been fairly adaptable since 1688, when they signed their devil’s pact with the middle-classes – since then the monarchy has risen and fallen in public esteem, but underneath it all there was always the material reality of a hegemonic aristocracy and bourgeoisie empowered by capitalism and imperialism.

We don’t have much of an Empire any more, but there’s still a huge amount of wealth and power hoarded in the upper echelons of our society. It’ll take more than the symbolic figurehead dying to change that.

New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture beyond the idea of England by Alex Niven is published by Repeater Books

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