Beyond England – Alex Niven argues that we’ve been doing this all wrong

We need to change our politics and economics before we can get a better culture, not the other way around

“In 2017 I cast my vote with my partner and our six-month-old son in a polling station just around the corner from the West End Foodbank. It was the first time in my life that I felt fully enfranchised. After years of alternating between voting tactically, voting with a held nose, or spoiling the ballot paper, it was disconcerting and moving to know that my “X” now corresponded to the ideals of a party I truly believed in.”

So much about the closing passage of Alex Niven’s new book, New Model Island: How To Build A Radical Culture Beyond The Idea Of England, rang true for me when I read it in late 2019. The above excerpt, though, is the one that stuck in my mind most prominently a few weeks on, its guarded optimism and visceral power coloured (but, crucially, not negated) by the heavy defeat suffered by Labour in December’s general election. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, whichever way one looks at it, was flawed, and was unable to sufficiently turn historic tides and survive an increasingly hysterical culture war to avoid such a loss. Yet that sense of cautious hope that it produced, of a nascent rebuilding project, of a generational hunger for social justice, remains utterly valid, and perhaps more important now than ever.

New Model Island is a book thick with emotion, of which those feelings listed above are only a few. A discursive yet concise meditation upon regional identity, solidarity and community, its power lies in Niven’s ability to instil each anecdote, theory, and piece of political analysis with a potent mix of universalism and intimacy; to indulge a cliché, he makes the personal deeply political.

We speak the week after the election, our conversation beginning, inevitably, with some reflection upon the result.

“It’s just reiterated the massive difficulty of getting in an even slightly progressive government,” he says, sadly. “We were on strike [Niven is an academic at Newcastle University, and took part in December’s nationwide UCU action] for the last couple of weeks of the campaign. I went out [campaigning] in Newcastle, and a couple of marginals – Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland – and we did our best… but it didn’t seem to make any difference in the end.”

One of the major themes of the book is the desperate need to address the profound alienation that has been allowed to fester by Britain’s deepening political and cultural divides. Much to Niven’s disappointment, the symptoms of this alienation were clearly identifiable on the doorstep, and Labour’s solutions were too-often unwelcome.

“There was this sense of the possibility of change not really existing, in England particularly. A lot of the encounters on the doorstep were quite negative – there wasn’t a great love for Boris Johnson, but there was the anti-Corbyn thing, the anti-EU thing, a sense that Johnson was the lesser of two evils, that the promises in the Labour manifesto wouldn’t amount to anything.” In the book, Niven writes at length about England’s sense of itself as a “cursed country” (“Englishness is so often felt as a condition of loss”), and the outcome of the election, not to mention the tenor of the public reaction to it, would appear to bear this out. Yet he also avoids sweeping generalisations throughout; his central argument that “England” is so ill-defined, so multiplicitous, so contested a place that it can hardly even be said to exist in any meaningful way.

On that theme, much has been made – not entirely helpfully – about Labour’s loss of its “traditional heartlands”, and more ghoulishly than that, its vote among “the white working class”. Though of course the ceding of those constituencies to the Conservatives inflicted an enormous blow to Labour, it’s vital to resist the temptation to sweep them all into a homogenous post-industrial caricature; some flat-capped, flat-vowelled fantasia inhabited by the “real” working class. As much as anything, this characterisation – beloved of Blue Labour headbangers and crowing Tories alike – erases a significant portion of the Actually Existing Working Class of today’s England: young, without property, precariously employed, BAME, city-dwelling, skint. Niven suggests one way in which lack of curiosity in England outside London has, counter-intuitively, fuelled this distortion.

“I guess one thing the book argues against is a London-centric way of looking at England,” he says. “A lot of discussion is very centred on the south east, and a refusal to grasp that the island has multiple identities is partly behind the narrative of the North getting ignored. Which it has been – but with caveats.” It isn’t just that Labour misjudged its tactics in its former industrial strongholds (although it did): our very understanding of class and its relation to political possibility has become impoverished by a systematic process of geographical and sociological misrepresentation. 

As he notes in the book, Alex Niven wasn’t always an author and academic. He was also, as one interviewer recently put it, “the Pete Best of Everything Everything”: the original guitar player in the Manchester art-pop group, with whom he parted ways prior to their debut album. He’s circumspect about his time in the band now.

“[The music industry] is very London. One of things I didn’t like about being in EE was that for various reasons there wasn’t any sense of organic development. We had an A&R at our very first gig… within a month of starting someone came to view us rehearse, the daughter of one of the bigwigs at EMI or something, in our basement in Didsbury.” He points to Manchester’s legendary Factory scene as the kind of milieu whose absence he clearly felt at the time, although “maybe I’m romanticising an idea of something that didn’t really exist.”

The conversation turns back to regionalism. “It doesn’t feel like there’s much of an organic culture in this country at all, particularly outside of London,” he says. “The scene in Newcastle is awful, an O2 Academy and a couple of weird venues.” I suggest that grime may have been the last notable, organic British scene to have truly broken through to the cultural mainstream, and to have been identifiably British in a way that transcends the nostalgic, village green cartoon peddled by most prominent “patriots”. He’s hesitant about this – partly as he admits that grime isn’t entirely his area of expertise – but is “in favour of forms of Britishness that aren’t the establishment conservative narrative… but grime for me was a very London thing.”

He’s pragmatic as he further spells out the complex relationship between politics and culture. “Without wishing to be reductive, the 20th century idea that you’d have a counterculture – people in bands, psychedelia, punk, hip-hop, the hardcore continuum ­– that can pre-empt political change was shown up to be false, wasn’t it?” he asserts. “Clearly in some small-scale contexts people were politicised by, say, punk, but it didn’t lead to anything: what followed the ’60s and ’70s was Thatcher, then Blair, Cameron, May, Johnson…

“One of the lessons of our time is that we have to do this the other way around. That was how the pop music explosion of the ’50s and ’60s happened – society was changed by the previous generation, who created the welfare state, expanding higher education, created an economy where full employment was pretty much guaranteed. That allowed people to go to university for free, be in a band on the dole, not work if they didn’t want to, have periods of messing about and experimenting. You have to change the politics and the economics before you can get better culture.”

Despite everything, Niven expresses a certain optimism about the possibility of this change.

“The positive thing is that if we’d lost in 2017, as badly as everyone thought we were going to, it would’ve been the end of the Corbyn experiment. Tom Watson or someone would’ve retaken control of the party, the NEC was in control of the right of the party; this time, the left will retain control of the party, as it’s had time to build itself up, and I’d be surprised if RLB doesn’t get in. The left’s control of the Labour party – membership and PLP – isn’t going away any time soon.” He has, however, reservations about the usefulness of what he’s called the “activist on every corner” impulse that has possessed many since the defeat.

“The grassroots are really powerful: it’s at the overall strategic level where we can improve. There needs to be better media strategy, we need to think more about areas like Scotland – if we won back 25 or 30 seats there that’d be hugely positive – or the South West, now the Lib Dems have vacated that region.”

He’s also characteristically subtle in his view of the grand rebuilding project of the Left as a whole, in both cultural and parliamentary terms. “The Greens, the SNP, I’m glad they exist, and there’s a sense that the growth of the Scottish independence movement pre-empted Corbyn, yet under first-past-the-post those parties damaged Labour, and you sort of think we just need a two-party system at the moment. I wish we had a form of proportional representation that would make small parties more viable, but we don’t.”

That closing passage of New Model Island is an arresting conclusion to this strange, powerful book. In it, Niven recalls his feelings as the 2017 election results came in, revealing the Conservatives’ loss of a majority, “a stab of emotion that was weirdly unfamiliar. It felt as though some kind of curse was beginning to lift, that a new version of this disparate, strangely formed country might finally start to come into being.” Gingerly, I ask him how he feels about that passage now.

“Obviously I’m devastated,” he says, sounding it. “But I was more insulated this time. I was more prepared for defeat, weirdly, even though we had higher hopes. We didn’t win last time, so we know that life goes on – but I shouldn’t say that, because it doesn’t for everyone.”

That ‘everyone’ feels pointed, as one of the key figures in the book is no longer with us, and narrowly missed seeing what he would’ve understood as “a crack in the façade of capitalist realism”: the pre-eminent cultural theorist Mark Fisher, a friend and colleague of Niven as well as an enormous inspiration for much of the British left, who took his own life in early 2017.

One of New Model Island’s many strengths is Niven’s constant questioning of received wisdom, his dialectical analysis of how England’s self-image has come into being, how it contradicts itself, and how it might be steered in a more progressive direction. It is through this critique that Fisher’s ideas echo most keenly; his concept of capitalist realism described a cultural malaise which made it easier to “imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, and so much of his work sought to galvanise us into building an alternative. New Model Island situates that same struggle within the geographical boundaries of the British Isles, and reflects upon the ways in which that alternative can begin to take shape via a radical reappraisal of how this archipelago’s inhabitants understand ourselves.

“It is quite grim now,” he says as we wrap up the interview, “but if you are still alive, you have to work around to a point where you’re positive again. Some people won’t be that lucky.”

New Model Island: How To Build A Radical Culture Beyond The Idea Of England by Alex Niven is out now on Repeater Books.