Picador, March 2022
The “Condition of England Question” is widely attributed to Thomas Carlyle, dating it back to the mid-nineteenth century throws of the Industrial Revolution, when unprecedented amounts of wealth were generated, but also unprecedented levels of poverty. Inherent in the notion is the idea of a “lost” rural idyll which is synonymous with a simple, community-based way of life.
The theme runs strongly through Victorian literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and resurfaced at different times throughout the twentieth century in response to periods of political turmoil. Heralding World War I is Charles Masterson’s 1909 The Condition of England, followed after the war by a plethora of books with a nostalgic theme, such as Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man trilogy.
Later, George Orwell examines the notion at length throughout his oeuvre; Penguin arguably framed an entire imprint around it with the Pelican series; the idea surfaced again partly in response to the rapid social reforms following the Second World War, in novels such as Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party – and, in the twenty-first century, recent shifts in the political landscape have revived the genre.
The latest addition is New Statesman editor Jason Cowley’s Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England. It could be argued that the New Statesman itself has served as a record of the state-of-the-nation since its inception, founded by social reformers Beatrice and Sydney Webb in 1913, and certainly its balanced, centrist journalism feels like a check-and-balance in the current climate, particularly with its recent refresh and international ambitions. So, the topic of Cowley’s book is apt.
His approach is to focus on a handful of news stories spanning the election of New Labour in 1997 to the present day rather than offer a chronological commentary. Included are the fate of the Chinese cockle-pickers at Morecombe Bay, Gordon Brown’s being taken to task by Lancashire voter Gillian Duffy, Gareth Southgate’s transformation of English football, the repatriation of fallen soldiers at Wootton Bassett, the heroism of Imam Mohammed Mahmoud during the Finsbury Park Mosque attack – and the story of Cowley’s own upbringing in Harlow, the New Town whose story he likens to a microcosm of England since end of World War II.
The stories are just a small selection of those which Cowley could have chosen, but their disparity is of course the whole point. The notion of “England” is complex, made up of any number of different experiences and perspectives. Is there a common thread – and does that thread ultimately lead us back to that rural idyll beloved of writers and thinkers for the last two hundred years?
An early observation stayed with me: that nostalgia is for lost futures as much as for lost pasts. One could say that a tradition of liberalism, openness and diversity in the UK has fostered an environment which encourages dreams of a better future and pushing the bounds of possibility, but in a peculiarly practical and orderly way. Cowley pinpoints the post-war New Towns such as Harlow as the epitome of the English revolution - a pragmatic, as opposed to ideological, experiment with socialism.
In this sense, in terms of the elusive ideal of Englishness, perhaps it makes more sense to think more in terms of the platonic ideal that is Blake’s “Jerusalem”, rather than an idyll that we have somehow lost along the way: ie, something which never existed in the first place, but that we aspire towards.
At the end of Where Are We Now?, we’re left with the notion of a post-liberal world, and invited to consider how this might look. On the grounds that “sport is inseparable from Englishness” (again, embodying the notion of fair play), Cowley holds up Gareth Southgate as a proponent of this new vision, which successfully combines diversity with tradition.
The idea of communitarianism and what has been termed “Blue Labour” shines through. A memorable observation is the notion of culture as the “raw material of which the individual makes his life”, the issue being that the social fabric which ties us together has been torn.
The book coincides with a wider consideration of not only the effects of globalisation and abandonment of the post-war consensus (Thatcher-Blair-Cameron), but specifically, what the 1990s stood for, a decade that played out in the shadow of the dawn of a new century.
It generally takes around 20 years’ worth of context for a decade to “consolidate” historically, and so, now that we’re facing another shift in political climate, the significance of the 1990s has become clear.
Blair’s vision of “Cool Britannia” – a young, urban country, which unwittingly excluded many – arguably continued seamlessly through the Cameron years. A recent BBC podcast, What Really Happened in the Nineties? looks at everything from the handover of Hong Kong, to the Iraq war, to the rise of cheap air travel, helpfully joining dots that would have been difficult to do at the time.
Ultimately, Who Are We Now? leaves us to consider what defines us in the long term: the exceptional, epitomised by New Labour urbanites, or the ordinary, epitomised by lifelong Labour voter Gillian Duffy and later the "Red Wall"?
Whilst lacking specific conclusions, the book posits that it’s a mistake to think that history has a fixed direction of travel or end point. It’s pleasingly un-polemical and plays an important role in contextualising the events of the last thirty years, equipping us with the ideas we need to think about where we go next.