England’s Challenge Is Bridging Blue-Red Divide

There are two visions of England and the challenge for its leaders is bridging the gap between them.

The White Cliffs of Dover, England, August 14, 2010
The White Cliffs of Dover, England, August 14, 2010 (Harvey Barrison)

David Marquand, an academic and former parliamentarian for the British Labour Party, argues in the New Statesman that there are two visions of England.

The first he sees represented by the proponents of Britain’s European Union membership. Marquand derides them as the “globetrotting super-rich, the financial services sector, the Bank of England and the managers of the union state.” To them, England consists of London and the more salubrious parts of the southeast. Their answer to the “English question” is that there is no such question.

The notion that the English have to decide who they are and who they want to be is a backward-looking fantasy. Globalization has overwhelmed the specificities of English culture and experience. The English buy and sell in the global marketplace and they face global threats. Membership of an EU made safe for market fundamentalism offers the best available route to security and prosperity in an ever more globalized world.

Marquand is wrong to see this cosmopolitan England as essentially unpatriotic and he is terribly wrong to assume that only bankers and their allies in the Conservative Party could hold such views. But there is some truth to the leftwinger’s caricature.

What he describes is part of what Andrew Sullivan, a blogger, has more charitably called “blue Europe”: internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural. These Englanders do indeed live in London or another southern city. They are well-educated, traveled and probably have a job in services. Whatever their views on economic policy, their social views are decidedly liberal.

Marquand’s other England resides in what Sullivan called “red Europe”. It is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society. Its people are less mobile and struggling to maintain their high living standards in an era of rapid economic and social change.

Their vision of England is of a sea-girt and providential nation, writes Marquand, “cut off from the European mainland by a thousand years of history and a unique constitutional arrangement.”

Third way

Neither vision satisfies Marquand, who proposes a third, progressive alternative that draws on England’s brief but inspiring republican experiment during the civil wars of the seventeenth century.

There is probably a reason why that England has been dead for three centuries, though.

No, the real challenge is bridging the blue-red divide. It transcends party politics. The Liberal Democrats may be decidedly “blue” and the United Kingdom Independence Party is obviously “red”; the Conservatives and Labour have voters of both stripes.

Managing those divisions can treacherous.

Tony Blair managed by moving Labour to the middle and winning back the trust of relatively “blue” middle-class voters in the south of England without losing the support of his party’s mostly “red” working-class base in the north.

His successor, Gordon Brown, was far less apt at finding this balance and lost the election. Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have been hopeless at it.

David Cameron tried to do for the Conservatives what Blair did for Labour, moving his party to the center on social issues and the environment. This helped win him two elections. But now the row over Europe threatens to undo the progress Cameron has made.

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