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Another England by Caroline Lucas review – seeing green
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Another England by Caroline Lucas review – seeing green

Caroline Lucas is leaving Westminster politics. After almost a decade and a half of ploughing what must at times have been a lonely and exhausting furrow as Britain’s first and so far only Green MP, she is standing down at the next election to focus solely on climate and nature. Her parting shot, however, is a book with a much broader and more ambitious aim, sketching out an alternative vision of England to the jingoistic and aggressive one conjured up by culture war squabbles over flags or singing Land of Hope and Glory at the Proms.

Though the idea that there are other ways to be English than getting misty-eyed about the white cliffs of Dover or nostalgic for the days of empire is obviously not a new one, in the current climate of increasingly belligerent nationalism it certainly bears repeating. What marks out Lucas’s contribution to what is fast becoming a whole new genre of books is that it’s not really a history or piece of contemporary reportage. Instead, it’s more of an armchair journey through England’s literary canon, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and Jane Austen. The lesson she takes from this diverse literary heritage is that “we do not need a single national story” but a whole range of them; and that for every nation-building myth co-opted by the conservative right, there are equally deep-rooted and authentic traditions the left could draw on to talk about what Englishness means to them.

To prove it, she links radical policies embraced by the Greens – like the development of a universal basic income, new land taxes or devolution – to ideas glimpsed beneath the surface of familiar classic texts, while simultaneously weaving in stories of radical reform, from the Chartists and the suffragettes to the Kinder Scout trespassers who battled rich landowners in the 1930s for access to the countryside. Her point is essentially that there has always been another more subversive England existing alongside the status quo, and while it might have been often outnumbered or oppressed, it has nonetheless scored some spectacular victories. The question the book ultimately ducks is why the more radical, egalitarian and appealingly inclusive England she depicts seems so often to get out-competed at the ballot box by a more conservative one.

Talking of which, its starting point is Brexit, which Lucas rightly argues raised existential questions for the constitutional settlement that had for so long held Britain’s disparate parts together. For all the debate about what an independent Scotland or reunited Ireland might look like if the union collapsed, she writes, there was surprisingly little thought given to what kind of England might emerge from the wreckage. Maybe, she argues, if the English were ever forced to develop their own distinct and separate identity “we might just discover we’re much more progressive than we were ever led to believe”. Well, maybe. But given England traditionally votes more conservatively than left-leaning Scotland or Wales – so much so that many progressives fear being doomed to eternal Tory rule if they couldn’t rely on racking up enough seats outside England to form a parliamentary majority – it’s a bold statement that the book never quite substantiates.

One or two of the political challenges she considers, meanwhile, seem rather tenuously connected to the theme of reclaiming Englishness. In the chapter on responding to the climate crisis, Lucas argues that instead of falling back on English exceptionalism – or the complacent belief that we can pull off some kind of miracle at the last minute – we should instead learn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about the dangers of hubris and of human-made creations running out of control. But when governments around the world are also moving too slowly to combat the climate crisis, does treating this country’s political foot-dragging as somehow rooted in Englishness really get us anywhere?

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The most compelling parts of the book deal with the relationship between Englishness, nature and the land. Lucas astutely points out that visions conjured up by prime ministers from Stanley Baldwin to John Major tend to be weirdly divorced from how most people actually live, evoking idyllic rural landscapes full of birdsong and blacksmiths toiling at their anvils, rather than the four-fifths of the population who actually live in cities and towns. Yet the reality under successive governments, she says, has been the widespread despoiling of the countryside politicians claim to revere. Why shouldn’t Englishness mean protecting the places that supposedly make us who we are? There’s a lot here for the Greens to work with, especially in rural areas that have in the past been deeply conservative.

And there are much-needed crumbs of hope for the future in the chapter covering the politics of immigration, where Lucas argues that younger generations “just do not see a multi-ethnic, multicultural society as something to fear” and may in time shift public debate accordingly. Another England is possible? Well, let’s hope she’s right.

Source: theguardian.com