The National:

THE past few days have seen England in the news. There has been the success, inspiration and good news story of Gareth Southgate’s national men’s football team embodying a very different English identity from traditional politics and culture, alongside the open “dog-whistling” of Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and others invoking “culture wars”, calling taking the knee “gesture politics”, and refusing to condemn England fans booing England players.

All of which gives permission to the politics of the hard right, the so-called culture warriors and ultra-racists who have all been on manoeuvres since England lost the final on Sunday on penalties.

There are many Englands like there are many Scotlands. Tory England is but one version as is Brexit England; there are many others including those that are liberal, cosmopolitan, multicultural, radical and that challenge the status quo.

Historian David Olusoga noted that Sunday’s defeat brought forth “toxic racism and swaggering hyper-nationalism” which has been around and tainted the English game for decades, concluding: “We have no choice but to confront the very worst aspects of English football, and the ugliest strains of English nationalism.”

There has been progress. Sunder Katwala of British Future has rightly talked about the decline of an ethnic-based, exclusive version of Englishness, but notes the small, vocal, even defiant, minority who reject this.

Not only are this group very noisy, disruptive and even take pleasure in being condemned, they feel they have been given permission by the Tory government, Brexit and mood music of much of the right. He also added that Gareth Southgate has by his example and leadership spoken “about an inclusive Englishness. Politicians should join in”.

Yet underneath this is something else, namely the failure of Labour and the left to talk about England. Yes there are honourable individual exceptions – Katwala, Anthony Barnett, Billy Bragg and a few others. But in the wider political landscape Labour and the main currents of the left have deliberately avoided the subject of talking explicitly about the largest nation by far in the UK.

Tory peer Danny Finkelstein made this point on BBC Newsnight this week when he said that the silence of Labour and the left was crazy, “inexplicable” and that this has had “damaging consequences for them”.

Why has Labour and the left been so cautious and nervous? While Tories talked of “England as Britain” Labour historically invoked an integrated Britishness – an all-British political project which aimed to deliver change through a strong central state dispersing and redistributing resources.

The National: Priti Patel has condemned so-called 'gesture politics' Priti Patel has condemned so-called 'gesture politics'

READ MORE: It's Boris Johnson and Priti Patel who are guilty of 'gesture politics'

This was a unitary state progressivism – in which power lay with Westminster sovereignty – and was at times pre-devolution even more centralising than the Tories. And since devolution and Brexit Labour has found it impossible to talk and identify a distinctive all-British language that has been able to accommodate devolution, deal with Brexit and address the fragmented union that is the UK.

Instead, Labour has tended to see England as an anachronism – an old, embarrassing relic from the past which was best subsumed in their great British project. This meant that the terrain of England has been gifted to the Tories and the right – ultimately leading to the rise of an abrasive, intolerant version of English/British nationalism, and the forces of Thatcherism and Brexit. And this is not an issue which will go away, but will only become more acute.

The “England as Britain” mindset allows the Tories to both articulate an English nationalism and to treat it as the equivalent of an un-nation – a country without a parliament, government, democratic politics, civic culture, and even national anthem.

Some people in Scotland fear a progressive England; some believe that a conservative, reactionary England is a foundation stone of “othering” England and emphasising the differences between the two nations. Another take is to pose that a progressive England is the SNP’s worst enemy – and with it the forces of self-government; this being the argument put by Kenny Farquharson in The Times this week.

This is a mistaken, narrow take on the dynamics and relationships between the two nations. Rather, an England that talked about itself, that dared to discuss and debate what kind of England it wanted to be and aspired to be – and that aspired to emerge from the shadow of Westminster – would be a major positive for England and English politics. But it would also – by having the potential for England to become a more modern, progressive, democratic nation – have consequences for the other nations of the UK.

Thus a progressive England would be a political community which would bust the Tory folklore of “England as Britain”. It would be a place that Labour and the left would embrace, not be embarrassed by, and would thus challenge the Tory version and claim of ownership. And besides it would be an England more relaxed in the unravelling of the unitary British state, and about the journey of Scotland to greater self-government – as well as the journeys of the Welsh and Northern Irish.

The debate on Scotland has always been about more than Scotland. It has been about the nature of the UK and its inability to reform – economically, socially, democratically – to truly become a modern state of the 21st century. In this England’s debate and attempt to emerge from the twilight of the British state is a welcome and positive move – a first step in the road to self-awareness, self-understanding and moving to greater self-government.

These potentially historic shifts are not anathema to what is going on in Scotland – and Wales and Northern Ireland too – but are rather different expressions of the same debate: challenging the crumbling order of the imperial centre of the British state. In all this, a progressive England – if it can get traction and political expression – can be a friend and ally of a progressive Scotland.