Why are the English so sensitive to patriotism?

These include the terrible tragedy of Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay by the rising tide; the manslaughter of a Polish settler in the aftermath of the Brexit vote wrongly – but largely – attributed to post-Brexit antagonism towards foreigners; the East End imam who stood up to a horrible racist who came to kill Muslims in his mosque; the quiet dignity of the people of Wootton Bassett as they marked the repatriation of British servicemen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cowley sees in it a common thread that testifies to a new patriotism; but while his choice of stories is interesting, and there’s a certain Orwellian (in the best sense) curiosity and insight to it, I wasn’t persuaded that they coalesced into a cohesive narrative of who we are now . He also seeks an answer as to why Labor has so miserably failed to retain its former working-class base as much as anything else, not least because Jeremy Corbyn was seen as disliking his own country.

Cowley is the editor of The New Statesman, which he relaunched as the most prominent voice on the political left. For him and many other Blairites, coming to terms with the decline of Labor and the causes of Brexit is proving difficult. He goes back to his roots in Harlow, Essex, remembered by those close to him as a beacon of socialist welfare state utopianism in the 1960s, but which has now lost the community spirit of the working class that once maintained it. It was in itself a hangover from London’s old East End, where many of the New Town’s residents originally came from.

But the fundamental difference between yesterday and today is the greater ethnic and cultural diversity of the population caused by massive immigration. Cowley’s stories indicate that he recognizes this to have been the most significant development of the past 50 years and one that began in 1997. Before Tony Blair, net immigration was around 50,000 a year; since the mid-2000s, it has fluctuated between 150,000 and 300,000, by far the highest in our history. This was to have a significant impact on what it is to be British, if not English, since many newcomers associate with the former but not the latter.

Moreover, even if their country has changed accordingly, the English do not all live in areas impacted by immigration. The “We” in the title also includes residents of the Yorkshire Dales or a Dorset market town, such as Harlow or Rochdale.

Perhaps if England had its own parliament and other political institutions – Cowley points out that it is the largest country in Europe not to have them – defining Englishness might be easier. It’s an enigma. As Orwell said, England “like all living beings has the power to change unrecognized and to remain the same”.


Who are we now? Stories of Modern England by Jason Cowley is published by Picador at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books