HDuring this subtle and sophisticated attempt at diagnosing the state of the nation, Jason Cowley is treated to a tour of the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, Britain’s largest and oldest. He is there to talk to Imam Mohammed Mahmoud, who became famous for his calm wisdom during the Finsbury Park Mosque attack, when he protected a white terrorist from a mob of angry worshippers. But he also meets Sufia Alam, head of the Maryam center at the mosque, where Muslim women can gather and pray. British Bangladeshi Alam bids farewell to Cowley with a friendly but pointed reference to the empire’s heritage, spoken in a heavy East London accent: “We’re here because you were there.” You’ll have to learn to live with us – because we’re not going anywhere. England is our home.
But what is England? The complex and ever-changing nature of our common national home is the central theme of Who are we now? It’s a book that Cowley began writing at the height of the political polarization following the Brexit referendum, and ended as the country emerged from the Covid pandemic. It is, in part, a reflection on what these crises have taught us, for better and for worse. But it is also a book about the home: specifically, what might a “common home” look like in the future for the citizens of a diverse and sometimes bitterly divided country?
During his long writing of the left-wing journal new statesman magazine, Cowley has shown a notable willingness to present an eclectic range of views that challenge the current liberal consensus within Labor and beyond. Figures associated with the social conservatism of “Blue Labour” have regularly featured alongside more orthodox tribunes of the liberal left. “England” – its destiny, its meaning and its possibilities – is one of the most sensitive topics of all for progressives, so often associated with the hubristic delusions of the nationalist right. But it’s one that clearly frames and informs Cowley’s political concerns, as well as his passions for football.
Through a series of compellingly told individual stories, it revisits some of the important news stories that have grabbed the headlines in modern England. The Shire’s patriotism, British Muslim identity, post-industrial decline and the dark and unforgiving underbelly of the global economy are all explored. A chapter deals with the moving ‘liturgy of repatriation’ which developed in Wootton Bassett, when the bodies of British soldiers were brought back from Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, but which later attracted attention brutal of the English Defense League. Mahmoud recalls his fear of the anti-Muslim backlash that would follow if Darren Osborne, a white supremacist alcoholic, was beaten to death. But he also remembers his intense homesickness for England – its queues, public transport and the NHS – during a stay in Cairo. Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale retiree whose awkward questions helped derail Gordon Brown’s electoral hopes in 2010, features in a chapter called “Visitor from the Future”. Cowley recalls Brown telling him during that doomed campaign that he took solace in the belief that David Cameron’s Conservatives represented a form of continuity with the economic and social liberalism of New Labour. Looking back, Cowley writes, “Mrs. Duffy knew something Gordon Brown did not. She was troubled by… the weakening of social cohesion. She knew many other longtime Labor voters shared her unease and sense of loss. The English political landscape, and the place of Labor within it, was about to be transformed.
On Cowley passes through events that have been pivotal and familiar, but are rarely juxtaposed against each other as proof of who we are now. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 are seen through the sharp lens of Patrick Hutchinson, whose fireman’s lift to save a shaven-headed Tommy Robinson supporter from a beating has become the most famous this summer. “They think they’re defending Anglicism,” says Hutchinson. “They think they are the last line of defense.” Is this kind of recidivist, insular, hard-hitting anglicism, Cowley wonders, the inevitable default setting for a concept that will never escape the shadow of the imperial past? Many progressives would simply say yes. It pushes back somewhat, celebrating the fledgling and ‘inchoative’ England captured by Gareth Southgate ahead of the Euro 2020 football tournament. Southgate’s letter to England ranged from his grandfather’s war record to the social activism of its young black players. It proved, writes Cowley, that in defining a new inclusive Englishness “you don’t have to choose between diversity and tradition.” But could Southgate’s “progressive patriotism” really catch on, or was it simply “a haunting glimpse of what might have been in a country without our burden of traditionalism and our lack of republican and modernist credentials?”
It’s a sweet and intelligent book, pleasantly non-controversial and thoughtful. It is also, at times, a little melancholy. The real hero may be Connie, the author’s 93-year-old aunt and family matriarch. Moving to Harlow in the post-war years, like the rest of the Cowley family, Connie embodied the hope and ‘never again’ idealism of the new Labor town. The social solidarity forged in the war was to make a new peace in which working class people could live well. In Lord Reith’s words, it would be “a happy and gracious way of life”. In 1961, Connie enthusiastically paid a local tax to fund a sports center for the town. “We were children of the welfare state,” Cowley writes of himself and his friends. But in 2018 only Connie remained in Harlow, which like so many other towns had endured a long period of neglect and economic decline. Valiant as ever but heartbroken, she made national headlines when she unsuccessfully fought an American conglomerate’s decision to shut down a medical practice built in 1955.
Cowley himself, as he moved through more rarefied social circles during his career as a journalist, left Harlow behind in his mind. But this book, like many other things, is a kind of pilgrimage back to the place that formed it. The city was predominantly white and working-class. But his warm social-democratic ethos – “East Germany without the Stasi”, a friend quips wickedly – has put the common good at the forefront of people’s concerns. The Brexit and Covid crises – and now the horror of the war in Ukraine, which began after Who are we now? in press – exposing the need for a modern version of this post-war solidarity, in a very different, multi-ethnic and regionally divided England? Non-prescriptive, ruminative, Cowley doesn’t say. But that’s what he hopes for.