Halfway through this subtle, sophisticated attempt to diagnose the state of the nation, Jason Cowley is given a tour of the East London Mosque in Whitechapel – the largest and oldest in Britain. 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 an angry crowd of worshippers. But he also meets Sufia Alam, manager of the Maryam centre at the mosque, where Muslim women can gather and pray. A British Bangladeshi, Alam takes her leave of Cowley with a friendly but pointed reference to the legacy of empire, delivered in a strong east London accent: “We are here because you were there. You will have to learn to live with us – because we aren’t going anywhere. England is our home.”
But what is England? The complex, ever-changing nature of our shared national home is the central theme of Who Are We Now? This is a book that Cowley began to write at the height of the political polarisation that followed the Brexit referendum, and completed 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 home: specifically, what might a “common home” look like in the future for the citizens of a diverse and at times bitterly divided country?
During his long editorship of the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, Cowley has shown a notable willingness to showcase an eclectic range of views that challenge the current liberal consensus in Labour and beyond. Figures associated with the social conservatism of “Blue Labour” have regularly featured alongside more orthodox tribunes of the liberal left. “England” – its fate, meaning and possibilities – is one of the most neuralgic subjects of all for progressives, so often associated with the hubristic delusions of the nationalist right. But it is one that clearly frames and informs Cowley’s political preoccupations, as well as his football passions.
Through a series of individual tales compellingly told, he revisits some of the significant news stories that have made headlines in modern England. Shire patriotism, British Muslim identity, post-industrial decline and the dark, ruthless underbelly to the global economy are all explored. One chapter deals with the moving “liturgy of repatriation” that developed in Wootton Bassett, as the bodies of British soldiers were brought back from Iraq and Afghanistan in the 00s, but which then attracted the thuggish attention of the English Defence League. Mahmoud remembers his fear of the anti-Muslim backlash that would follow if Darren Osborne, a white supremacist alcoholic, was beaten to death. But he also recalls his intense homesickness for England – its queues, public transport and NHS – during a sojourn in Cairo. Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner whose awkward questions helped derail Gordon Brown’s election hopes in 2010, features in a chapter entitled “Visitor from the Future”. Cowley recalls Brown telling him during that doomed campaign that he was consoled by a belief that David Cameron’s Conservatives represented a form of continuity with New Labour’s economic and social liberalism. Looking back, Cowley writes, “Mrs Duffy knew something Gordon Brown did not. She was troubled by… weakening social cohesion. She knew that many other longtime Labour voters shared her unease and sense of loss.” England’s political landscape, and the Labour party’s place within it, was about to be transformed.
On Cowley goes, through events that were pivotal and are familiar, but are rarely juxtaposed with each other as evidence of who we are now. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 are viewed through the acute lens of Patrick Hutchinson, whose firefighter’s lift to rescue a shaven-headed Tommy Robinson supporter from a beating became the most famous image of that summer. “They think they’re defending Englishness,” says Hutchinson. “They think they’re the last line of defence.” Is that kind of recidivist, insular, punching Englishness, wonders Cowley, the inevitable default setting for a concept that will never escape the shadow of the imperial past? Many progressives would simply say yes. He pushes back somewhat, celebrating the emerging, “inchoate” England captured by Gareth Southgate before the Euro 2020 football tournament. Southgate’s letter to England ranged from his grandfather’s war record to the social activism of his 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 merely “a haunting glimpse of what might have been in a country without our burden of traditionalism and lack of republican and modernist credentials?”
This is a gentle and intelligent book, refreshingly unpolemical and reflective. It is also, at times, a slightly melancholy one. The true hero is perhaps Connie, the author’s 93-year-old aunt and the family matriarch. Moving to Harlow in the postwar years, like the rest of the Cowley family, Connie embodied the “never again” hope and idealism of the Labour new town. Social solidarity forged in war was to make a new peace in which working-class people could live well. In the words of Lord Reith, it would be “a happy and gracious way of life”. In 1961, Connie enthusiastically paid a local tax to finance a sports centre for the town. “We were children of the welfare state,” writes Cowley of himself and his friends. But by 2018 only Connie had stayed in Harlow, which, like so many other towns, had endured a long era of neglect and economic decline. Doughty as ever but heartbroken, she made the national news vainly fighting an American conglomerate’s decision to close a doctor’s surgery built in 1955.
Cowley himself, as he moved through more rarefied social circles in his journalistic career, left Harlow behind in his mind. But this book, as well as many other things, is a kind of pilgrimage of return to the place that formed him. The town was overwhelmingly white and working class. But its warm social democratic ethos – “East Germany without the Stasi”, jokes one friend mischievously – placed the common good at the forefront of people’s concerns. Could the crises of Brexit and Covid – and now the horror of the war in Ukraine, which started after Who Are We Now? went to press – expose the need for a modern version of this postwar solidarity, in a very different multi-ethnic and regionally divided England? Unprescriptive, ruminative, Cowley does not say. But that is what he hopes.