LAST week, it was announced that 300,000 more children were plunged into absolute poverty in a single year at the height of the cost of living crisis.

Amid soaring levels of hunger and food bank use, the Conservatives, Labour and LibDems all united to condemn ... Nike’s new St George’s Cross design on the England Euro 2024 shirt, demanding a return to the original. Rishi Sunak even told Nike: “Don’t mess with our national flags.”


In post-Brexit Britain, nothing unites the English political parties like a flag crisis.

The National: The St George’s Cross detail on the back of the shirt of England’s Anthony Gordon (PA)

With nearly a fifth of the population struggling with basic needs, the thing that causes real outrage and condemnation from the political class is a Nike football shirt. Poverty campaigners reported that as the cost of living crisis hit, there are now 12 million people in absolute poverty, including 3.6 million children. This is equivalent to 18% of the population – levels of hardship not seen since 2011-12 after the financial crash.

The three council areas of England with the largest rises in child poverty over the past decade –Nottingham, Birmingham and Leicester – have more than 40% of children in poverty. So much for levelling up.

The grim stats can be read on the page Households Below Average Income on the DWP’s site. But it’s not an easy read – the report’s full of dire statistics and facts about destitution and social inequality. One stands out – we can see that the number of people experiencing very low food security rose by 68% in one year – from 2.2 million in 2021/22 to 3.7 million in 2022/23.

Why is this happening? A researcher from the Joseph Rowntree Trust explains that, for millions across the country, incomes have been inadequate to keep pace with food prices rising by 30%, alongside other soaring prices like rent and energy. But rest easy –landlords and energy companies are doing just grand.

Meanwhile, the BBC paused briefly from its coverage of Kate Middleton to give us “breaking news” – the FA defended the design on its new England kit, saying “it is not the first time” different colours have been used and the fresh 2024 home kit was “meant as a tribute to the 1966 World Cup winning team”.

The National: Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry has continued to defend Labour’s advert accusing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of not wanting child sex abusers to go to jail (Peter Byrne/PA)

As a mounting sense of national crisis grew, Labour’s Emily Thornberry (above) took to the TV studios to denounce Nike and state: “You wouldn’t expect Nike to look at the Welsh flag and change the dragon to a pussycat.”

By now, social media was jammed with people threatening to boycott Nike. On Twitter/X, “Dave” thundered: “Hit the only place it matters to them ... in their pocket. Anyone wearing the virtue-signalling rag will be mocked endlessly by other fans, no doubt.”

Of course, there’s a causal relationship between the veneration of symbols of nationalism and social destitution. With the Conservatives tanking in the polls and facing electoral oblivion, rolling out the St George’s Cross is a winner, and Labour and the Liberals will not be out-flagged. Still with Frank Hester’s money in their pockets, the Tories are resembling rodents deserting the proverbial listing vessel.

But the sense of profound crisis goes beyond the electoral prospects of one party. The news that Malaysia had rejected an offer to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games, after Australia also turned it down, means it’s highly likely that the Commonwealth Games will not be played again. It’s a symbolic ending to a tournament that has long ago lost its appeal and is a tired anachronism of colonial rule.

Over at GB News and fresh from its latest Ofcom ruling, presenter Martin Daubney discussed the latest happiness index: “If you remember, Britain was at its happiest – many say – when we were at war. We had a sense of purpose, of national identity.”

I mean, apart from the obvious weirdness of being happy in war, wouldn’t you have to be 79 or over to remember this state of glee?

Never mind, polls show Reform UK (they used to be Ukip, remember?) have hit a record 15% in the polling, just 4% behind the Conservatives. If things get worse, then they’re going to replace the feckless Rishi Sunak, who Tory bigwigs fear will wilt like a Truss lettuce in an election campaign with the shiny Penny Mordaunt (below).

The National: Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt (Danny Lawson/PA)

This may not be enough. As they stagger towards local elections in May, we’re told that Sunak keeps reiterating: “We have a plan and the plan’s working.” The ruling government, we’re told, are pinning their hopes on flights to Rwanda being “in the air” by May. Just consider that – a political party is reduced to hoping that sections of the electorate are so racist that forcibly deporting vulnerable people to the middle of Africa will be enough of a vote-winner to save them.

Think on that.

Ex-Labour MP David Marquand, who has been chronicling British identity and decline for years, wrote in his 2018 piece England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales – Time For All To Jump In To The Debate in regards to the Brexit vote: “A plebiscite called on the assumption that the United Kingdom is a homogeneous polity revealed a yawning chasm dividing the British state and people against themselves. The United Kingdom has never been a unitary state, but it has been a union state. Now it is a disunited state – a ‘Divided Kingdom’ as the Welsh commentator and polemicist John Osborne once called it.”

Marquand, reflecting on Milton, Shakespeare and Blake’s Jerusalem, notes: “In all of these, the message is clear: England is a special, providential nation – a nation with a unique history and a unique vocation; a nation summoned by a higher power to pursue a uniquely glorious mission.”

But now this exceptionalism looks grim. The statistics of poverty in Nottingham, Birmingham and Leicester are frankly disgraceful. England is hungry and poor and being offered flag outrage and Penny Mordaunt as a solution. The response to these catastrophic social problems is 30p Lee and Reform UK outdoing the Conservatives to indulge in a horrific desultory blame culture.

In language that would be denounced if written by a Scot, Marquand writes: “So where do we go from here? England is the problem – if there is to be a solution, it will have to be English. [As Anthony Barnett said], ‘The path to a solution is littered with paradoxes’.

“The Dicey/Powell constitutional orthodoxy has impinged on England at least as damagingly as on the non-English nations of the kingdom – perhaps more so. There are four legislatures in the United Kingdom. Those in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast deal with specifically Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish questions. But the London Parliament is both the English Parliament and the Parliament of the entire Kingdom. England – a nation of some 50 million inhabitants – has no Parliament of her own.

“The question is, why? The answer lies deep in the cerebral cortex of the Anglo-British political class. For most of their histories, the London-centred elite saw the non-English nations of the kingdom as colonies. They were governed tactfully and even sympathetically, with due regard to local traditions and ways of life. But in the last resort, they were fiefdoms of the British state. Devolution was an ad hoc device – or rather a series of ad hoc devices – designed to keep the natives happy. There was no over-arching plan, still less a coherent constitutional doctrine. Muddle and mess prevailed.”

He is right – it’s a muddle, it’s a complete mess and it’s not going away.

We have at least three concurrent threads of change happening here.

England’s spasm of decline and deteriorating (repressed) self-identity is a phenomenon we’ve seen spooling out for decades. To an extent, it’s boring because it doesn’t ever reach its full-blown conclusion. English energies for self-expression are contained within British nationalism, as writers like Marquand and Barnett have written about.

But those energies – presently directed towards Reform UK and Faragism – may be hijacked as Labour’s ascendant government disappoints. It’s a dangerous prospect to promise nothing to a nation hungry and broken. It could go either way – English nationalism has the prospect of both turning even further into Powellite bigotry or, miraculously, into more progressive politics.

Second, the developing reality of Irish politics can’t be ignored. It’s a subject that the commentariat looks at through its fingers, terrified by the prospect of what it might mean. Last week saw the State of the Union report by Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones showing that for the very first time, the majority of people in Britain are now in favour of Irish unification.

The publication creates what it calls a “360-degree view” of the Union and builds on the pioneering Future of England Survey, more comprehensively discussed in Henderson and Jones’s book Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain.

Thirdly, the glee with which the Unionist media and wider public have documented the travails of the SNP masks the fact that support for independence remains remarkably high given a) the disarray of the governing party, b) the continuing, lingering Branchform inquiry into SNP finances and c) the complete lack of coherent strategy for independence. Support for independence survives despite the SNP. This is remarkable and supports the assertion that independence is the settled will of about half the electorate, and this is decoupled from the party that was once seen as the only vehicle to deliver sovereignty.

But if the Union is cracked and cracking, it is the first of these three forces that will disintegrate it further. To quote Henderson and Wyn Jones, Englishness is the political force transforming Britain. We are often blindsided to this, precisely because Englishness itself is elided by Britain. The next General Election will accelerate this with Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak (and Richard Tice) slugging it out over particular English political obsessions – a polity reduced to “Stop the Boats”, fiscal conservatism, language forged in the tabloids and cosplaying Thatcherism, as Rachel Reeves and David Lammy (below) did last week.

The National: Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy was heckled by pro-Palestinian protesters (PA)

It’s frequently said that Starmer is the heir to Blair, but this incoming government is not Blairite. It is far to the right of that, and with a party discipline and centralism that would make Peter Mandelson look lacklustre. Crucially, Starmerism is Blairism shorn of the programme of constitutional change as Gordon Brown’s long-heralded plans were unceremoniously dumped a few months back.

Every opinion poll shows that Labour will be ascendant not because of any real enthusiasm for Starmer’s fragile programme but just at absolute despair at the Conservatives’ Britain. Labour will, most likely, win a huge brutal victory because the right-wing vote is split between two hard-right parties – Lee Anderson and Richard Tice’s Reform UK and the Tories’ Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman. Though Labour are set to win a huge landslide, their programme is threadbare – promising little and inspiring few. It will be an electoral spectacle, but an empty one, and from a Scottish perspective, it will be based on nothing at all.

Some commentators believe that a deeper change is possible despite this. David Marquand again said: “Only the people of England – the ‘secret people of England’ as Chesterton called them – can solve the English problem. In management-speak, they will have to ‘own’ the solution; and to ‘own’ it, they will have to shape it.

“The Scottish Constitutional Convention that paved the way for Scottish devolution offers a model. It stimulated a wide-ranging, sometimes passionate debate through which the Scottish people found themselves and reached a consensus about their political future. Citizens’ Juries – and even Citizens’ Assemblies, as used in parts of Canada – offer a complementary model.

“A solution would have to include a codified constitution, with an English Parliament alongside the existing legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and an elected Senate in place of the swollen and quintessentially anti-democratic House of Lords. But constitutions are only words on paper. What matter are the values they embody and transmit.

“The real question is whether England’s political culture and traditions are rich and diverse enough to enable Chesterton’s secret people to discover (or perhaps re-discover) the compassion and generosity of spirit that the Irish displayed in their abortion referendum.”

Such ideas are laudable but they don’t seem to have any tangible expression or any vehicle to make them real. There is no public equivalent of the movements for devolution that Marquand describes. There is no Constitutional Convention. None of the mainstream political parties ascribe to any of what he describes. England’s Secret People remain very quiet.

Instead, what we are left with is the DWP’s own report showing us what most of us know already: a country where nearly four million people experienced destitution in 2022 – a condition defined as when individuals are unable to afford basic living essentials like food, energy, bedding and clothing. The report showed that more than two-thirds of UK children in poverty lived in families where at least one parent works, putting a lie to the decades-long tabloid and Tebbit line about “scroungers” and the work-shy.

None of this made the media splash that the Nike football strip did, sending the masses into apoplexy at the grave national travesty of changing a logo.

As Owen Jones wrote in his resignation letter to the Labour Party last week: “The Tories’ chance of winning is infinitesimally small. What matters now is whether anyone who wants to redistribute wealth and power is denied a voice in Starmer’s administration. That is certainly the ambition of his lieutenants.

“When inevitable disillusionment with a government rooted in deceit and lacking any solutions to Britain’s woes seeps in, it will be the radical right that stands to benefit.”

That’s a dismal prospect, if a likely one. It accelerates the urgent need to distance ourselves from such a state and mark our own way as an independent country again.