New Model Weird Britain (part zero)
Long ago now, I spent Boxing Day 2019 and the tip of the Deep Christmas peninsula in the reflective but convivial company of Alex Niven‘s brisk, farsighted New Model Island: How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England.
The text gets caught between two key ideas. One is easy to get onboard –
England doesn’t exist
What really killed off Englishness once and for all, and gave rise to a denuded hulk nation in the middle, was the expansion of the whole concept of “England” in the wake of the failed English Revolution and subsequent rise of Empire […] broke under its own distension. […] England was engaged in a radically countervailing campaign to make itself an inchoate, de-nationalised entity. (P.38)
But grinds uneasily against the hard shores of the second idea:
England is this –
… pop albums like P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake and the Good the Bad & the Queen’s Merrie Land, to countless art exhibitions and installations exploring “England beyond Brexit”, to recent trade and middlebrow books like Robert Winder’s The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness, Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies, Nick Groom’s The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year, Ben Fogle’s English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather and Harry Mount’s How England Made The English: From Why We Drive on the Left to Why We Don’t Talk to our Neighbours – …the ubiquity of the Englishness franchise in contemporary discourse. (P.67)
Or put another way: ‘There was no England – but then there was.’
That wearying list above shows us how tweely, how weakly it was built. The plausibility is what’s horrifying: how you actually can build a sense of nationhood in such a short time from such poor materials. How the smooth movement from poppyland’s robotic rituals of remembrancing to the desperate invocation of toast and breakfast, in the absence of anything else, actually have become appropriate examples of what binds the English to each other.
When we look and try to find ourselves, that’s all we’ve got.
Much as you can make a 21st century nation out of such shit, initially soft and tenuous but growing thicker with each new channel 5 series or imminently remaindered paperback about what we’re really like, maybe it wouldn’t be too implausible to make something better out of something better.
The new cartographers
In his slim and airy but heavy-lifting book, Niven digs the foundations of a new land by calling up the ghosts* of Alton Towers before dusting off the remains of New Labour’s ‘good, actually’ regionalist instincts. He bravely draws up the first speculative plans for the long and fraught but achievable build-out of a different map of England, fit for a hopeful world after the cataclysms of December 2019. (New Model Island was published scant weeks before the election and maintains an optimistic surface throughout, but feels like it was always written for a world in defeat, where such audacious dreaming is all the more necessary, simply for being so much less concrete.)
He tips the familiar upright image of the British Isles on its side, and imagines a new vision of our postdiluvian future: the heavy stone of the historical UK sunk and re-emerging as a string of regional islands, red cities in seas of blue grass, with the big chunk below the Scottish wall split into a finely balanced series of semi-autonomous centres that correspond to the Saxon tribal kingdoms just broadly enough to not be too medieval-retro.
It’s quite lovely. A dewy, panoramic glimpse of a green and pleasant polity formed from enclaves linked by the fact of the ground beneath the feet, but separate where practicality and community preference suggest, taking in country, town and city; with, presumably, a culture of digitally-enabled mutualism bridging each region’s diversity of relative surpluses and deficits.
This arrangement of separate-but-attached statelets scans uncomfortably with the admittedly distant phenomenon of the US’ various Second Amendment sanctuaries – mixed state, county, town and district entities that outside of formal party or civic structures have successfully leveraged whatever local ordinances are available to militate the slightest suggestion of firearm regulation. (American arms dealers and their domestic market gun ultras are some of the planet’s best brand-building organisations, combining advertising and legislature to protect and elevate their loyal customers’ demented, neurotic fanboy fetishes into identity, mass activism and constiutional law.)
These are staid local government institutions disrupted and innovated to new ends, organised around a clear, deliverable issue and developed into a series of allied states-within-the-state that can resist and reroute established assertions of top-down power. They are linking up and establishing a theory and practice of ‘us’ in lethal defiance of their perceived cultural antagonists.
The new US civil war (4G version) will be fought over ownership and the right to use these extra-physical spaces, their legal and administrative power, their founding stories and unifying legends. These networked clusters of mutually reinforcing sanctuary cities are not only the battlefields of the conflict, but the spoils themselves.
Chaos in the ossuary
In land that feels as bone-old as the British Isles it can be hard to imagine the relations of state and space ever changing too greatly from their familiar, ossified forms. But this trend to reorganise the habits of Westphalia and Imperia is not confined to the US. There are local designs of these experiments happening here too, and the Bake Off version of England is the cultural veil working hard to obscure the significance of the political shifts occurring beneath its flimsy lace.
To start on a positive, there is of course Preston‘s example, showing the rest of the country how local democracy can still have effective agency to salt the parasitic out-sourcing giants oozing over the English land and wealth.
Given that the next five years in Parliament will be closed off, and that our Celtic comrades are as good as gone, the left should redirect activist energy, networks and recent hard-won organising experience into similar local civic institutions. Try to get Becky Long Bailey installed (on the simple logic that you send a roundhead to fight a cavalier, and Starmer is ultimately – knighthood, quiff and caught-with-his-mistress eyes – a lesser aristo wannabe), but then the left should turn their back on the whole gothic revival circus of Westminster for four and three-quarter years.
Local issues for local people
Embarking on a long march through the petty corruption and deadly boredom of the town councils, district councils, county councils and city councils is the kind of hard, dirty, high-value work where the post-Corbyn generation of radicals can still make gains, seize budgets and nudge the general direction of travel. The Tories are vulnerable in these isolated chambers, where only their love of bribery and perverse capacity to delight in tedium sustains them. Local, informal, situational alliances will need to be made with broke-rump Remainers, and the millenarian green cult gently dissuaded from blaming public transport and immigration for the climate crisis.
But decisively breaking out of the Labour Party’s mass monopoly on political progressivism is long overdue. More flexible assemblages for getting good stuff done are demanded. This achievable and valuable, but almost terrifyingly unsexy strategy could become urgent sooner rather than later, if we look to what the enemy is already busy doing.
Freeports are the ideal Cummings-Tory incarnation of the civic sundering and democratic decentering of Big Island. These hyper-capitalist neo-fiefdoms are how the circle of post-Brexit nativism and the necro-economic settlement’s thirst for cheap labour will be squared: the Yarl’s Wood-ification of the workplace.
The freeport licenses under discussion will almost certainly include space for factories, warehouses, offices and camps for workers from the poorest parts of the commonwealth to land, live, work and by no small measure die, out of sight and mind in deregulated zones on forgotten stretches of the English coast, where not even the merest gesture towards employment rights or environmental safety standards need be made. Imagine the working conditions of the Qatari World Cup stadium, then add lashings and lashings and lashings of rain.
These zones will be huge and heavily subsidised but entirely private and beyond the reach of local, legal and democratic oversight. In-sourcing the City & Crown’s empire of offshore islets. Once the quick money comes in, expect the meatiest bits of the freeport franchise model to metastasize and regenerate many a left behind maritime gateway, from Leicestershire to Notts, Northamptonshire to Staffs.
Deeper into the weeds and mud of the Tory shire heartlands, there has been too little opposition to their manifesto’s blatant red meat to its farming base which builds a parliamentary mandate and legal framework for potential traveller pogroms**. Page 19 amounts to a few broad and eminently abusable lines of code that reinscribe the historic effects of enclosure and limits the right to roam across the land under your feet.
A sword too sharp to leave in enemy hands
This all amounts to a lifelong change in the way that the individual as a democratic subject is allowed to relate to the English nation-space: its state, its institutions and even its physical presence. It’s happening. Try to see and hear and feel the way today is different from some yesterdays ago. Detect the dusty traces of enhanced perfidiousness as they gather and coalesce into the real.
This lazy fascist drift has to be resisted, countered and defeated. But it will have to be done widely, well, and at once. England has had a decade or more to be called out of non-existence into now by its armies of pliant, heedless reactionaries, finally able to implement itself as a set of legal, civic and political norms that will soon become more normal still. To avoid the catastrophe of England becoming a pirate colony unto itself, its supremacy battled over by distant wealthy warlords, the new model will have to rapidly grow her better angels from the matrices of culture and politics simultaneously and in parallel. Both at once, and more besides.
As I hopefully manage to pull this blog into something like a regular stride, the problem of the new not-England is one we will wander back to with the inevitability of a dreamer starting at a crossroads. Having begun with Niven’s blueprint, we’ll head out to find signs of life and material embedded in the contemporary landscape we can scavenge to construct something better than this.
*Possible later episodes in this series to also look at the overdue shovels Niven takes to the literary landscapings of hauntology and psychogeography, and their possible replacement with new romances to redeem England’s dreaming, just at the point we need her to wake up.
**Maybe some good news about travellers’ rights here?