Ed Milliband's view of what it means to be English is a refreshing change from the narrow views of other politicians and more in tune with modern Britain, writes Fiyaz Mughal, chief executive of Faith Matters.
Whether people want to reduce the impact of Ed Milliband by references to Wallace in ‘Wallace and Gromit’, something he also referred to in his speech on Englishness on June 7, his view of how communities and individuals have multiple identities is spot on. The speech was a well thought out reflection of how his past has fused with values and traits that he regards as being typically English. He talked about his Jewish identity, the values that his parents had and how they shaped him, his perspectives of how identities cross over and sometimes historically fuse and the way that identities are not static and consistently changing depending on changing life scenarios. This is a fundamental point that many politicians seem to forget.
We all live lives where we increasingly travel, have opportunities to move to new places, meet new cultures, religions and races and this is one of the great strengths of the United Kingdom that Ed hinted to as he made the case for the Union to continue. By being a union, identities would continue to share histories and have connections that can only strengthen all of the partners in the Union. On this point, the jury is out for me yet, it showed a political leader who was willing to go beyond the simple caricatures on identity that are still promoted by others. His speech also did something else that shows that Labour are starting to think about how they reach out to a wider political audience and to a whole range of communities. He conjured up a picture of Englishness and England that many people could easily buy into. It was one where extremism had no role to play in a modern Britain as he talked about how the flag of St George has been reclaimed from the National Front and the British National Party (BNP). At a stroke, his speech probably has brought in social democrats, those who believe in social justice, anti-racist campaigners and black and minority ethnic voters.
Yet Ed also highlighted and underlined core traits that made up English pride and character. He talked about English values being based on 'a quiet determination,' 'a generosity of spirit,' 'a willingness to do things for others without recognition or reward,' as well as a sense of doing the right thing for family and friends. Harking back to Victorian values he talked about the strength of England being its communities, about people who fought for equality, for human rights and the protection of the weak and those who volunteered day in and day out to strengthen their local areas and communities. Taking a jibe at the Conservatives, he also suggested that the institutions of England were its greatest asset and that these added to what being English meant, though conservatism was not the way to protect these institutions and values. He also finished off by saying that England is a nation built on trade and engagement with the outside world, with its people constantly adapting yet maintaining a distinct identity.
Ed's view is in tune with what many people in communities feel. For example, some have faith, others do not; some can track their ancestry to Ireland, Wales or Scotland, whilst others to the Caribbean, Pakistan, Somalia or Bangladesh. Some have lived part of their lives overseas, others have not, whilst some have an internationalist perspective and others cling onto the 'Little Englander' mentality. What is clear is that many of these experiences, perspectives and belongings all shape our identities and values such as those listed earlier, underpin them. This also means that we are closer than many of us think as people and as communities in a shared space.
It is time that some politicians stop pandering to a view of our country as a place where there are some 'problem' communities whilst others are fine. What Ed's speech clearly laid out is that people and communities are more complex than the cheap and simplistic view pushed by some in Westminster as they try and make a name for themselves by pandering to fears and insecurities. Ed laid out that there are shared values and experiences that we cannot simply forget when we talk about what it means to be English and there is a duty on us all to not only work against those on the extreme fringes who try and hijack community identities such as the British National Party and the English Defence League, we must also counter those who seek to divide us and marginalise others in this great country.