Another England: How to Reclaim Our National Story by Caroline Lucas review – the Green MP’s alternative vision

<span>L-r: footballers Jude Bellingham, Ivan Toney and Jarrod Bowen before England’s game against Belgium last month.</span><span>Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters</span>
L-r: footballers Jude Bellingham, Ivan Toney and Jarrod Bowen before England’s game against Belgium last month.Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

After a 14-year stretch as a one-woman parliamentary party, Green MP Caroline Lucas will stand down from the House of Commons at the next general election. This book, as parting shot, may be a surprise to some: it’s an appeal to her fellow progressives to speak up for England. An England, she worries, that too many of them fear and see in terms of a rising English consciousness, belonging to the right, something they don’t feel part of – “as if the flag of St George is little better than the hammer and sickle or the swastika” – and so seek to keep it tamed and suppressed within a broader Britishness.

Lucas feels that this is wrong: a view that was the result of a journey that began with losing the Brexit referendum and leaving her liberal, cosmopolitan Brighton constituency to talk to those on the other side. Not so much was said, explicitly, about England in that 2016 referendum. Eurosceptic campaigns invariably preferred the union flag and told stories about British history, identity and sovereignty. But Lucas comes to see these as primarily reflecting an expression of English identity, noting that the arguments for taking back control from London’s elites resonated most strongly with those who prioritised their Englishness over their British identity (while recognising that Brexiters secured a narrow majority in Wales, too).

Lucas finds that progressive instincts on how to talk about identity – such as “myth-busting” narratives on the right – too often become exercises in preaching to the already converted. She notes that it is unlikely that Sir Francis Drake continued to play bowls while the Spanish armada arrived in 1588, but also that legends often retain their potency even after being debunked. She suggests that an emotionally intelligent, progressive politics might focus a little less on factchecking and a bit more on how to compete to shape the myths, memories and stories that shape who we think we are to progressive ends. How the legend of Robin Hood was reshaped over the centuries, for example. Since identity is about the stories we tell ourselves, Lucas looks for her new England primarily in her first love, literature, diving deep into how the literary canon, from Chaucer and John Donne to Virgina Woolf and Zadie Smith, tells a contested, plural story of England with many tributaries flowing into it.

Her mini manifesto for change combines familiar features – a written constitution, electoral reform and climate action – with more surprising ones

Nostalgia can form part of a progressive argument for a different future, too. Lucas admires the effect of Stanley Baldwin’s elegy, a century ago, for the sounds of the countryside, showing how a modern environmentalism could speak to conservative and radical dispositions. Another England refers to the ITV regions Anglia and Granada – with their accents and sense of place – to reflect on how public service broadcasting enables us to imagine, hear and tell our stories today. Lucas suggests the social consciences of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Nevile Shute could inspire new arguments for universal basic income.

This fractious, somewhat disunited kingdom has become more conscious of being a multinational state during the quarter century or so since political devolution in Scotland and Wales. Yet the attempt to separate an English from a British identity remains difficult, after three centuries in which the English have tended to regard them as interchangeable. Lucas worries, too, that English identity may be more exclusive when ethnic minorities are more likely to identify themselves as British. She tends to underestimate the quiet shift across generations towards an Englishness that can span colour and creed. Black footballers have worn the three lions of England’s national team for decades now. Underpinning this shift is a little noticed and paradoxical-sounding phenomenon of an “inclusive nativism”. It is because birthplace trumps ethnicity that Black and Asian people born in England have increasingly come to feel that Englishness is open to them too – and to be accepted as such when they claim it – in contrast to migrant grandparents and parents whose Commonwealth journeys made them feel decisively British without seeing English identity as open to them.

This is a pluralist book in party political terms, clearly written for an imagined audience across the various tribes of the liberal left, but it has a much more polarised sense of how national identity divides left and right. English history is cast as a Manichean struggle between violent exclusion and radical inclusivity, hierarchy and democracy. This raises the stakes about who wins the argument to “reframe” England, but this rather binary battle can jar with Lucas’s insight that the public are now often considerably less polarised about issues of identity than the political and media classes, and her endorsement of Lisa Nandy’s observation in her Orwell lecture that “to lead a country, you have to like it”.

In arguing that “a country without a coherent story about who or what it is can never thrive or prosper”, or rise to new challenges of these times, the purpose of Lucas’s alternative England is to pursue social, environmental and constitutional change. Her mini manifesto for change combines familiar features – a written constitution, electoral reform and climate action – with more surprising ones, such as her endorsement of an English parliament. Lucas imagines that her new egalitarian England would have to ditch the monarchy and its hereditary principle. Yet perhaps Orwell’s vision in the essay The Lion and the Unicorn of an English social revolution that “would leave loose ends and anachronisms everywhere” – abolishing the Lords but keeping the monarchy – would chime better with the bridging ethos where Lucas’s laudable mission to reach across post-Brexit divides began.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and author of How to Be a Patriot (HarperNorth)

  • Another England: How to Reclaim Our National Story by Caroline Lucas is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply