“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
That’s not my line – the worst Manchester skies have to offer these days are rainclouds in July and August.
The sentence is George Orwell’s. It is the opener from his 1941 essay, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. Amid the escalating struggle against fascism across the world, Orwell churned out an article attempting to entwine democratic socialism with English nationalism.
In 2018, it doesn’t take much reflection to realise that he failed. On the symbolic terrain of contemporary political exchange in Britain, ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ is firmly the territory of the Right. Faced with advancing federalist and separatist movements across the British Isles, the Far Right have made a rallying point out of ‘England’ with structure-blind, poorly-premised questions like ‘what about English devolution?’ and ‘why aren’t we allowed English nationalism?’
Imagine Orwell’s despair if he could see today how little effect his attempt to claim Englishness for the Left would have. Sat by some middle-floor window in Bloomsbury the old Etonian would be weeping at how unsuccessful his call for a socialist Albion had been, the tears smudging the ink on the list of communists he was drawing up to report to MI5. But Orwell’s despair needn’t be ours.
It is true that, in the ever-ongoing struggle for hegemony in our civil society, the Right’s hold on ‘Englishness’ and its mobilising effectiveness is cause for concern – those comrades who are striking back in the area are not wasting their time. But the battle for ‘England’ is not the be-all-and-end-all in the contemporary war of position in England.
Consider Manchester. It’s now been a year since my city was struck an especially cruel blow: twenty-two people murdered – ten of them below the age of twenty and most of them women – at the MEN arena. The count of those injured, physically and mentally, was many times more. Mancunians, at home and across our diaspora, were shaken to the core.
Typically, after such an event, the rehearsed choreography of nativist English nationalism forces itself onto the centre stage – the fascist jackboots start marching, the poorly-veiled Fifth Column discourse starts droning, and Muslim Brits start fearing the next cycle of hate in the Mail.
But Manchester did not surrender itself to this narrativization. We developed our own socio-psychological response and, being a characteristically loud people, it drowned out all the alternatives. Before the xenophobes – far more likely to be from one of the Home Counties than Harpurhey – had the chance to smother our wounded urban body and declare themselves our spokespeople, Mancunians began speaking with our own voice.
The words that came out were not spoken in a dialect comprehensible to England’s nationalist Right. For the most part, they weren’t actually words. They were bees. Hundreds and hundreds of bees. For months now, you can’t go five steps in Manchester without seeing a bee. Painted on walls, printed on trams, tattooed on humans.
This bee – the worker bee – has been the symbol of our city for a century-and-a-half. It emerged amid the searing heat of 19th century British capitalism, when Manchester was the industrial capital of the global economy and, by extension, the proletarian capital of the world. The bee stands as a badge for this past – an experience distinctly and exclusively Mancunian.
After the bombing, Mancunians gravitated to the bee of our city instead of England’s lion. When reflexively reaching for a sense of collective self with which we could articulate the pain we were feeling and proceed to heal it, we grasped our City, not the Nation. Symbolically, there are few things more opposed to one another than the Mancunian bee and the English lion. The one characterised by collectivist labour, the other by domineering violence; the one to represent a City of proletarian workers, the other to represent a nest of palace aristocrats who spend a formidable portion of their lives on yachts.
But there is also a deep, promising history underlying Manchester’s 2017-18 resort to the urban rather than the national identity. Two centuries of systemic antagonism between Manchester and England lie behind what we’ve seen over the last year. Since the Industrial Revolution, the dynamics of the economy and politics in Britain have made Manchester and the capitalist classes which dominate English nationalism bitter enemies.
Our reward for our role in creating England’s hitherto unknown wealth in the 19th century was hitherto unknown extremities of squalor. Not even the French liberal De Tocqueville could escape the ugliness of this difference, observing in 1835 how “from this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilisation works its miracles and civilised man is turned almost into a savage.” It’s little wonder that Manchester was Friedrich Engel’s muse in The Condition of the Working Class in England. The fresher memory of de-industrialisation is no less grim, the city being left to fend for itself by Whitehall amid the spiralling joblessness and waywardness of the 1980s. It’s often said around here that the closest thing Manchester ever got to a post-industrial economic stimulus was the Provisional IRA’s bombing of the Arndale centre in 1996 and resulting necessity to rebuild the town centre from the ground up.
This experience and the collective memory carved out of it are dominated by motifs of resistance, struggle, and grimness utterly out-of-sync with every stanza of Right-wing English nationalism. Where the latter articulates a poorly-encoded desire for lost imperial glory, Mancunian-ism makes a virtue out of never having had a past greatness from which we have fallen. Instead, we cherish a constant grimness against which we’ve created escapes like Manchester United, Manchester City and Oasis which have conquered their respective cultural worlds. Nor do we have any time for that old, anti-Bolshevik strain of English nationalism which harps on endlessly about ‘un-revolutionary Albion’. The same people it places in Wanted posters we have framed on our mantelpiece, from Sylvia Pankhurst and her militants to the anomalous number of volunteers we sent to fight against Franco in the 1930s.
This historically-deep, unbridgeable gap which separates the Mancunian identity of eternal rebellion and progressive politics from the Right’s English identity of imperial restorationism and racist conservatism does a lot to explain why Manchester has reached for our bee over the last year rather than Tommy Robinson’s lion. The latter makes as little sense to us as Southern pronunciations of ‘bath’, or ‘dinner’ instead of ‘tea’.
When Tommy Robinson’s gangsters in the ‘Democratic Football Lads Alliance’ (a title offensive to both democracy and football) show up with their banners adorned with lions, hoping to exploit the anniversary of the bombing, they’ll be outnumbered and run out of our town just like they were last time.
As you were.