England: the void at the heart of UK governance

I have written on many occasions, both in this blog and elsewhere, about the ways in which the government, the three main parties and the media seem to conspire to drop all mention of ‘England’ even when they’re discussing policies and topics that relate exclusively to England. This is most typically the case when they are referring to policy areas that have been devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliament / assemblies, where what are presented as national-UK issues now actually affect England only.

This refusal to ‘say England’ expresses not only a wish to suppress any aspirations to distinct nationhood on the part of the English, which, it is feared, would make England a potential rival to the supremacy of the British establishment; but it also reveals what you could describe as an inability to even so much as understand the notion that England could have, or needs to have, a national identity and legal personality other than those of the UK. Instead, terms such as ‘the UK’ and ‘the / this country’ are seen as adequate alternatives to ‘England’ because – from the establishment’s point of view – what some of us still prefer to call ‘England’ is merely a part (indeed, the ‘dominant’ part, supposedly) of the UK. Moreover, owing to devolution, ‘England’ is the part of the UK to which all of the UK government’s legislation and rulings apply without exception, making it – from the point of view of the government’s logic – more indivisibly and essentially the UK than any other part or country of that realm. For the establishment, then, there exists only the UK as a whole and parts of the UK whose governance has been partially devolved. This makes ‘England’ the ‘retained UK’: the only bit of the UK that is as the whole of the UK was before devolution – a unitary realm.

In logical, discursive terms, what results from this is a circularity of thinking from which the government cannot break out, even supposing it wished to do so. Given that there is only the UK and the UK nation / state, from the point of view of UK-national governance as a process, there is no need to refer to England as a nation because it does not exist at this level. So, as I said, it’s not just a case of a will to suppress England’s existence, but also that England’s existence cannot be articulated because the very terms in which the discussion is framed are those of the UK only: the UK subsuming and including England ontologically (relative to its existence) and epistemologically (relative to the ability to describe it in ‘appropriate’, official language). In this, England may be compared to the elephant in the room. Politicians at Westminster feel unable to discuss this beast that appears to think it deserves to be housed there because the room in question is the House of Commons; and one discusses only UK matters in the House of Commons. Indeed, such matters are the only ones the members of the House are competent to talk about; the elephant may exist, and may even be stalking the corridors of power, but it’s not MPs’ job to debate what to do about it.

Such a circularity of thinking and language was evident this week in the response from the Prime Minister’s Office to Gareth Young’s petition urging the PM to say England when he is talking about England, and not use the circumlocution ‘the / this country’. Here is the reply:

“The Prime Minister has been elected by the people of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath to represent them in the UK Parliament. As Prime Minister he heads the UK Government. It is in this capacity that he speaks when articulating his vision for the future of the country.”

This response seems reasonable enough in isolation. However, the examples Young quoted in support of the petition were when Brown used ‘this country’ when talking about the aims of his government to improve health, education and housing, which it can achieve only in England. So the Prime Minister was in fact talking about England not about Scotland, where his constituents live, and where health, education and housing are the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The government’s response to the petition makes no acknowledgement of this fact. Partly, this is indeed out of a refusal to acknowledge that, in the matters referred to in Young’s example, the Prime Minister could only have been discussing England. But partly, this demonstrates the circularity of the government’s thinking. The Prime Minister is the head of the UK government, and so he is qualified (only) to talk about UK matters; and while, in the case of health, education and housing, those matters relate to England only, they are still by definition UK matters: key parts of the retained responsibilities of the government for ‘the country’ known officially only as the UK – subdivision informally referred to as ‘England’.

On another level, though, maybe Gordon Brown does genuinely believe he is articulating a vision for the whole of the UK even when he’s focusing on these areas of England-only policy. One can have a vision or blueprint for the whole of the UK even if government in practice does not have the instruments and competence to deliver that vision in all four nations of the UK. So you could, at least partially, exonerate the PM here by saying that it is legitimate for him to outline his vision for the UK; just, when it comes to specific policies, he needs to make clear in which part(s) of the country they will be applied. Except, of course, Gordon Brown doesn’t even do that and persistently uses ‘the country’ and ‘Britain’ even when talking about quite definitely England-only policies.

Even so, it’s still questionable whether the prime minister and the government in general can actually develop and set out a credible vision for the UK as a whole so long as they carry on with the pretence that their competencies in social policy areas such as education and health still extend to all of the UK. This isn’t just a case of saying that this approach delivers inadequate and unaccountable government for England, because the policies are not articulated and put to the people of England as a coherent programme for their country – along the lines of the properly national-focused policies in those same areas put forward by the democratically elected governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s also the case that the UK-only pretence delivers inadequate and strategically ill-focused government for the UK ‘as a whole’.

Adequate, realistic governance for the UK must now take as its starting point the fact that, as a result of devolution, policy in these areas that are so vital for the wellbeing and economy of the UK as a whole is effectively fragmented across four different governments and polities. The UK government’s role should then be to try to work in partnership with the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and with any future separate elected English government) to co-ordinate (but not dictate) the development of policy in devolved matters in the light of a strategic plan for the whole of the UK. This strategic co-ordinating and planning could try to address questions such as: are the different education policies and systems of the UK’s nations really delivering the long-term skills that the UK as a whole needs to compete in the global economy? What are the economic and social effects of divergent healthcare provision across the UK’s four nations; and how can national policies be developed that will ensure that common healthcare inequalities and problems are dealt with most effectively – pooling resources, talent and knowledge? What kind of rebalancing of public and private housing provision, and house-building programmes, can be developed across the UK’s four nations to ensure that decent and affordable housing is available where it is needed (including in rural areas that have similar problems in each of the nations), and that the housing market (so vital for the economy of the UK as a whole) can become more sustainable in the long term, with prices reflecting true values?

Instead of this kind of joined-up, cross-UK thinking, the fact that the government acts as if its effectively England-only policies in these areas are UK-wide ones means that England’s education, healthcare and housing policies have to carry the whole burden of delivering on the government’s ‘vision’ – such as it is – for the UK as a whole. And that UK vision itself, by virtue of the fact that it can no longer properly mediate a plan for the social development of the different UK nations, effectively ends up concentrating on and prioritising areas of governance where the government has genuinely retained competence for the whole of the UK, particularly the economy. Along with New Labour’s infatuation with market economics, this ‘demographics’ of UK governance accounts for the way the present government has subordinated social policy to economics. The government has had full control only over the economy, and has been incapable of developing a new social vision for ‘the country’ as a whole because this would have be conceived and organised in a totally new way post-devolution: as a partnership with the three (preferably, four – yes, or even five, Cornwall) separate national administrations in keeping with a shared vision (as much as this is still possible) for our nations’ long-term future and mutual strategic interests.

As a consequence of this lack of any true cross-UK strategic focus and vision under New Labour, there’s been an erosion of the government’s ability to articulate policies for education, health and housing that either have any great degree of consistency or co-ordination across the UK, or which truly address the concerns and priorities of English people in these areas. Instead, everything in England has become geared to reflecting and enhancing the economic needs and efficiency of the UK ‘as a whole’: public-sector health and education provision becoming increasingly ‘marketised’, because market forces are supposed to be more efficient, and are certainly more ‘economic’ in both senses. There’s been little if any attempt to develop policy in these areas that English people can support because they concentrate English resources where they are most needed; to create a system of healthcare and education that English people feel is fair and effective; and to construct an integrated, coherent plan for the kind of country we want England to be, which involves improving people’s quality of life and fostering working, healthy communities, alongside promoting economic growth and prosperity (regardless of the social costs), which has been the one abiding obsession of the Labour government. In a sense, New Labour’s faith in the market as a / the driver of social progress was an abrogation of its responsibility to put together a social plan for England, and for Britain with England at its heart. Instead, social investment in England was de-prioritised and revenue-generating economic (or rather, monetary) growth was favoured, so that England could bankroll the kind of social programmes in Scotland and Wales that England itself needed.

The irony of all this is that, by evacuating England from the process of UK governance that thinks it has no need to refer or relate to England as such, New Labour has lost its ability to develop a vision for both English and British society, such as it had in the past when it pioneered the NHS, council housing and a decent standard of education provision for all. England is not just the UK, and certainly not just the economic powerhouse of the UK: it’s a society and a nation, with deep-running problems that New Labour simply hasn’t addressed because it just couldn’t articulate the vision and so missed the elephant in its midst. Devolution offered the potential of a whole new start for Britain of perhaps equal significance to the great Labour transformation of the country in the post-war period. But the vision had to be one for a UK of four nations, developing social policies in line with the culture and priorities of their people; and co-ordinated across Britain for mutual benefit and enrichment. But New Labour held on to an Old Britain that it had itself abolished; and refused to see the England that was crying out for responsive, socially concerned and patriotic government that actually cherished the people and nation whose interests it was there to protect.

And so New Labour lost the vision. And ultimately, there can be no viable vision for the UK that fails to see, hear and say the name of the nation at its heart: England.

And while we’re on the subject of petitions, my ‘England Nation’ petition did get the required number of signatures to force the government to reply. So thanks to everyone who signed it. I may have to use a freedom of information (FOI) request, as Gareth Young did, to get the government’s answer, though!

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2 Responses

  1. Yes, devolution was supposed to be a new beginning. In recently published Monitoring Report by the Constitution Unit there’s a revealing passage under ‘Intergovernmental Relations’:

    “The most important headline event was the first meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee since October 2002. This was held in London on 25 June 2008. The meeting was chaired by the Lord Chancellor and UK Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, although it was described as a ‘plenary’ meeting (Straw was ‘representing’ the Prime Minister) … The meeting appears to have been relatively low-key (there had been concern among Whitehall officials that it might degenerate into argument, and there had been concerns on the Scottish side about some aspects of the protocol, including the chairing by the Justice Secretary not the Prime Minister). The fact that a meeting happened at all can be regarded as a form of progress; the fact that it went smoothly and did what it was supposed to do – discuss substantive issues where there are differences between governments – as further progress still.”

    There has been a mechanism for the sort of policy discussion on a UK-wide basis you describe but New Labour has repeatedly ignored it.

    It’s interesting to note that ‘McCavity’ Brown wasn’t present but that Whitehall officials have now been reassured that when you invite these Celt-types up to London they can almost be civilized! There may be more progress but I wouldn’t hold my breath…

  2. […] and the (four) NHS(’s), across the four nations of the UK. (See my discussion of this elsewhere.) And this sort of co-ordination is especially critical with respect to stillbirths and neonatal […]

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