“England is a nation”: now what?

I was bowled over by the government’s response last Monday to the ‘England nation’ petition that I posted on the Number 10 website, and which so many of my readers signed – for which, many thanks.

To remind you, the petition asked: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to state whether he recognises that England is a nation.”

The further details of the petition were as follows:

“The present Prime Minister’s predecessor once characterised Scotland as ‘a proud historic nation’: sentiments which the Prime Minister would doubtless share. Under devolution, the people of Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland are reaffirming their historic nationhood and taking pride in their new national governmental institutions. England, too, is a proud historic nation; and a great many people living in England – perhaps the majority – view their national identity as English in the first instance, and British only secondarily. In the light of these trends, we believe the government should state explicitly whether it regards England as a nation in its own right or not. It goes without saying that any acknowledgement of nation status, however qualified, for England should be accompanied by the acknowledgement of nation status for Scotland and Wales, at least – Northern Ireland perhaps being a special case. Equally, if England is not to be regarded as a nation, the same should apply to Scotland and Wales.”

And here is the reply:

“England is a nation within the United Kingdom. The Union comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government believes that the Union benefits all parts of the United Kingdom. Within the framework of the Union, devolution allows different policies to develop in different parts of the UK, meeting the democratically expressed preferences of the people, adapting to specific circumstances and issues, and allowing public services to meet needs more effectively. All parts of the United Kingdom benefit from a strong economy and share critical common interests, in respect of national integrity and security, in facing global challenges which are played out on an international stage. People in the UK share common citizenship rights, which express in political, legal and social terms what it means to be from the UK. The rights and freedoms that are associated with our citizenship, expectations of mutual support and solidarity, and common institutions and cultural ties, bind us together and continue to unite us. The Government believes that we are stronger together, and weaker apart.”

I’m not intending here to carry out a detailed, sentence-by-sentence analysis of this reply but want rather to draw out some of its implications. First and foremost, I thought I’d never read these words from the government: “England is a nation”. This is a very important statement that should not be underestimated. The petition asked the prime minister to either acknowledge or deny that England is a nation; and what we got was an acknowledgement. I really do think we should all draw a huge collective sigh of relief here: the government has gone on record as accepting that England exists as a nation, and is not just a collection of ‘British regions’ or a mere territory within the UK that is indistinguishable from it in political and national terms. They are much less likely now to try and get away with quietly abolishing England as a nation; and if they do try to do this, we can call them much more effectively to account, as there has now been an official UK government statement that England is a nation.

Having said that, this is a very qualified statement. I use the term ‘qualified’ intentionally, because I put that very word into the details of the petition: “any acknowledgement of nation status, however qualified, for England should be accompanied by the acknowledgement of nation status for Scotland and Wales, at least – Northern Ireland perhaps being a special case”. I included this caveat in order to allow the civil servants drawing up this reply the latitude of conceding that England is a nation without necessarily having to concede everything else that could be implied by that. My aim above all was to get nation status accorded to England, and then we can all argue about what it means. But so long as the government refused to even utter the word England or accept that the concept of ‘national English governance’ actually meant anything (which they didn’t), then there was no way we could even have a debate. But now we can actually say to government representatives, MPs, journalists and the like, ‘look, the government accepts England is a nation; and, if so, we say it’s our democratic right as a nation to decide how we govern ourselves’. Of course, the government won’t accept that there’s any problem with the way England is governed now; but they’ll be obliged to take seriously the proposition that England is a nation, because they’ve said so themselves.

The government’s response is qualified in two important respects. Firstly, it refuses to accept the idea that England is a sovereign nation: “England is a nation within the United Kingdom” is what it says. This picks up on the wording of the petition, when it said, “we believe the government should state explicitly whether it regards England as a nation in its own right or not [my emphasis]”. So, according to the response, England is not a nation in its own right: with the full sovereign rights that are generally attributed to that term; but the rights and freedoms of the people of England are established, defined and protected within the framework of the United Kingdom, which remains the sovereign state of which England is a part. The response to the petition is basically a defence of the present constitutional settlement, in which a sovereign UK devolves power in certain domains to the different “parts” of the UK while retaining those powers (the reserved powers) that are most fundamental to and characteristic of a sovereign state or nation: running the economy, social welfare, citizenship and citizen rights, constitutional affairs and law (at least, in England and Wales), and national security and defence.

But note this crucial phrase: “Within the framework of the Union, devolution allows different policies to develop in different parts of the UK, meeting the democratically expressed preferences of the people”. People have rightly reacted indignantly to this statement because ‘the people’ of England have clearly not had the opportunity to express their democratic preference about whether or not they wish to have the same form of devolved government as the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were able to choose in a referendum. People are angry about this because it’s inconsistent and unfair. Precisely: it is inconsistent, because this very statement appears to affirm that all parts of the UK should be allowed to have devolved government if that is their preference. The very wording, “Within the framework of the Union, devolution allows . . .” must logically apply to England as well, which was described in the opening sentence of the response as “a nation within the United Kingdom“. In other words, this can be read as an admission that England ought to be allowed devolution if it wants it, and this statement can be used to point up the inconsistency, unfairness and violation of the English people’s democratic rights that are involved in denying us devolution. The government has handed us a new argument and has hanged itself with its own words.

The second important way in which the response is qualified is that it does not explicitly accord nation status to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with England, which is what the petition asked: “It goes without saying that any acknowledgement of nation status, however qualified, for England should be accompanied by the acknowledgement of nation status for Scotland and Wales, at least – Northern Ireland perhaps being a special case”. Instead, what we get, in the second sentence of the response, is merely the elliptical statement: “The Union comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”. However, the fact that this sentence comes immediately after the sentence “England is a nation within the United Kingdom” does at least strongly imply that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to be regarded as nations as well, especially in the context of what was asked in the petition. By not spelling this out explicitly, the government is avoiding the thorny constitutional issue of the different claims to or refutations of nation status for the other ‘parts’ of the UK; e.g. is Northern Ireland actually a nation, or part of a nation (Ireland or Britain?), or even just a province?

But also, more importantly for England, the unwillingness to declare whether the other ‘nations’ of the UK are truly nations in all the senses of the word is a way not to fan the flames of Scottish nationalism – which was actually one of the things I would have liked to achieve if the government had answered the petition by acknowledging Scotland as a nation. The point is that Scotland has a different notion of sovereignty, which is both national and popular (sovereignty of the Scottish people); whereas UK sovereignty is parliamentary (the sovereignty of the monarch as exercised and expressed through the democratically elected UK parliament). If the response had stated that Scotland is a nation, this could have been interpreted as the government conceding the principle of popular national sovereignty to Scotland, especially as several members of the Labour government were signatories to the infamous Scottish Claim of Right, which enshrines this principle – notably, the prime minister himself, who was the recipient of the present petition.

However, if the principle of popular sovereignty is accepted in Scotland’s case, then we could have argued that it should be admitted for England, too. But to make this argument, the response would have had to acknowledge that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all nations with equal rights and constitutional status. The government’s response therefore stops short of acknowledging explicitly that Scotland is a nation in order to pre-empt this line of attack, while at the same time strongly implying that Scotland can legitimately be regarded as a nation, in order not to enrage the Scots by explicitly denying nation status to Scotland.

But where does that leave England? Specifically, what does England’s nation status consist of? This is a very complicated question, which I aim to explore in more detail in a subsequent post. But one way of thinking about what the answer could be is to think about how the description of the UK as a union comprising (the nation of) England together with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as territories with equal political and constitutional status to England) relates to Gordon Brown’s now infamous description of the Britain he wanted to bring about as one of ‘nations [Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] and regions [the former nation of England]‘. One reading of the nations and regions concept is that it turns the UK / Britain into a sovereign nation in its own right (not just a state); and that devolution was fundamentally about splitting the nation of the UK / Britain into regions. Under this set-up, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are effectively really devolved British regions equivalent to the ‘English regions’ the government has created and in which it wanted to establish devolved government. But this process of regional devolution was combined by New Labour with the process of according nation status and limited rights of ‘national’ self-government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So, through the combination of these processes, England was replaced by Britain as the national-level entity (England becoming Britain) while, at the same time, the ‘regions’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were able to affirm themselves as nations.

If, now, England is described as a nation – and if, as I have interpreted the government’s response correctly, this does not mean a sovereign nation – does this mean that England’s ‘true’ official status is to be seen as just a very large semi-autonomous region or super-region, of equivalent constitutional status to the ‘regions’ that are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? In other words, if the four ‘parts’ of the UK are really regions (but the government calls them ‘nations’ to placate the people), then this means that the UK / Britain can continue to ascribe and abrogate nation status to itself, which is the present position, as the petition strongly implies: the UK is the sovereign power with properly national-level, national-type responsibilities, including ensuring, as it says, the “national integrity and security” of . . . what? The national integrity and security of the different “parts of the United Kingdom” (as nations) or of the United Kingdom itself (as a virtual nation, or nation in all but name)?

This is the danger of demanding only devolution for England on a par with that which has been accorded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under devolution, real, sovereign power is retained by the UK state; and the power that is exercised by the devolved parliaments remains an expression of the sovereignty of the UK state, which has merely been delegated to the devolved bodies. This means that, if we were eventually to secure a devolved English parliament (on the present basis for devolution), this would mean we were accepting that England was not a sovereign nation in its own right (as the petition asked) but only as a function of the rights and prerogatives defined by the UK state. The UK would remain the sovereign, national-type body; and England would be a nation in name but without full sovereign nation status: a ‘nation-region’ on a par with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This is the risk. But what is the opportunity? The opportunity that this response hands to us is that of insisting that England, as an officially recognised nation within the UK, be accorded the same right to decide whether it wants a devolved national parliament and government as has been accorded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The response recognises this as a right. Let’s now the press the case, because the government can no longer wriggle out of its responsibilities by denying that England even is a nation.

We’ve established England’s nation status. Let’s now demand a referendum on an English parliament with even greater conviction and authority than before, because the government itself has declared that England is a nation – and what officially recognised democratic nation anywhere in the world is denied a democratically elected parliament of its own? Only England. Once we have a parliament and can take pride in being a self-governing nation, then we can decide among ourselves whether we want to be a sovereign, independent nation; or whether we want the UK to retain sovereignty over us; or whether we want to be sovereign but pool our sovereignty with the other UK nations under a federal solution, as previously discussed in this blog.

The point is: England is a nation – it’s official. Next step: a parliament.


13 Responses

  1. Terro mastermind Yasser Arafat was asked during peace talks whether he recognised Israel’s right to exist, he stated ‘Israel exists, everyone can see that’ It was lauded by the media as recognition however it wasn’t he simply stated the obvious , he refused to accept the right of Israel to exist. What I would like to know is what Gordon brown means when he refers to the nations and regions of the U.K. good effort tho.

  2. I’m sorry. I don’t quite see your point. We live in the United Kingdom. (key word: United) The United Kingdom of Great Britain. The British Isles.

    Would you like to clarify exactly what part of the phrase “United Kingdom” you don’t quite understand?

    Try actually reading legislation that applies to Scotland and Wales, and you will see that there really isn’t a great deal that can be done without the say so of Westminster.

    • Actually, songspirit, if you’re going to be pedantic about it, it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not just the UK of GB. The British Isles also includes the Republic of Ireland along with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Which country do you live in? More importantly, which nation, which is not the same thing? Is the UK a nation at all? No, of course not – it’s four, or five if you count Cornwall separately, or six ditto the Isle of Man. Great Britain? Even less so.

      No, the UK consists ‘officially’ of four nations, if that’s a correct reading of the response to the petition. And I live in one of them: England. Which, yes, is in the UK. But the UK is a state and a territory, not a nation. And that’s the point.

  3. Having re-read your post, I still am at a loss with regard to your point. I am interpreting your post to mean that you basically want England to stand alone, and not be part of the UK. In fact, it would seem that you don’t really want there to be a UK at all. You wish England ( and the rest) to be little individual self governing bits of land. Am I right?

    If so, have you any idea how ridiculous this is? Don’t you think there is enough trouble in the world, without getting all righteous over the political implications of a self governing country? Don’t you think its more important now than ever that we stand together as the United Kingdom?

    Also….you never did say whether you had read the legislation surrounding Scotland and Wales.

    • Songspirit, I would indeed like England to be a self-governing nation: nation, not ‘bit of land’ or ‘country’. Do you really think it’s ridiculous for a nation of 50 million people (more than the population of Spain) to be self-governing? More, say, than a country (not a nation) of 60 million: the UK? I don’t see your logic at all.

      My own preferred solution would be a federal UK, the outlines of which I discussed in a previous post. Currently, what we have is a disunited kingdom, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland free to set their own democratic priorities in social policy while England is denied that choice and is governed as the UK, with the participation of MPs not elected in England and therefore democratically unaccountable to the people of England. So, at the very least, I would like some sort of democratic fairness and consistency: if you’re going to let the other nations of the UK govern themselves in the devolved areas, why deny that choice to England?

      I haven’t checked out those links you sent, and I notice they seem to have disappeared from your comment: not my doing. Could you send them again, and I can look at them. I’m aware that devolution is not the same as full autonomy: that the devolved powers can be taken back to the UK parliament at any time, and that bills passed in Wales need the approval of the Wales Office, or whichever government department it is. But the UK government is unlikely to recall the devolved powers now other than in a dire national crisis such as a war. I wouldn’t have minded had things remained the way they were pre-devolution, with a unitary system of governance for the whole of the UK – even though it would still have needed reform, such as PR and a more relevant and democratic second house. But that isn’t what we have now: in practice, as opposed to theory. In order to return to a situation in which we all “stand together as the United Kingdom”, would you advocate abolishing the devolved parliaments and governments? Good luck to you!

  4. I didn’t send links in the original post. Its available at the government website. Go check it out.

    • Songspirit,

      Sorry, there must have been some links at the bottom of the page containing your original ‘unapproved’ comment, which, in my haste, I mistakenly registered as links to the legislation concerned. I’m not proceeding from a position of total ignorance about this; so unless there are specific parts of the legislation you think I should look at, I don’t want to go hunting around for stuff I already know. I’m aware that Welsh legislation has to be approved, or at least not vetoed, by the Westminster government. But the Scots do have primary-legislation powers in quite wide-ranging areas. Clearly, the UK government could decide to take away those powers at any time, meaning that it retains sovereignty – which is perhaps what you’re thinking of. But while the Scottish Government is exercising those powers, UK sovereignty has effectively been delegated to it in those areas of policy and law.

      If you disagree with the above, perhaps you could point out where you think I’m going wrong.

  5. Im with David, england needs to be self governing. But also Wales is a principality not a country and is Nireland not a province? Without meaning to offend I am onoy interested in england and English independence feelings are growing stronger by the day I think

  6. Tomy3Lions:

    Yes, you are quite right. England does need independence. Perhaps then the rest of the world will see the english for what they really are, and stop lumping them in with the rest of the UK. I rather think that people abroad need to to be quite clear on what being English means, and what being normal means.

    Thank you.

  7. Very good piece of work may I say.
    I never had any doubt that England is a nation, only it’s sovereignty is enshrined constitutionally within a United Kingdom (which includes it), and it’s sovereign powers have been handed to Westminster, which combines elected MP’s from all quarters of “The Union”. What this simply means is “shared governance”. Shared between 3 other ‘nations’ which have done the same. That doesn’t make England (or any other) NOT a nation, it just means we have combined our sovereignties with one another.

    I take your points very seriously and support your notion that if nationhood in the sense of self-government can apply to one, then it can rightly apply to all. Thus, devolution in a way ‘retracts’ some of the sovereign rights. i.e. (devolves them back to the particular nation). Englan could certainly ask for the same ‘devolution’, but keep the integity of a union in place for all other ‘shared’ areas of government. Treaties would remain the same for example on foreign matters which would continue to effect the whole union.

    I also wanted to mention this arrangement exists elsewhere. Take a look at native American Indian reservations. The Sioux for example have their own government, cash etc., yet are still governed over all by the Federal Govt (United States). However they ARE a nation.

    Also, take a look at the United Nations declaration of Universal Human Rights. This clarifies that ‘nationhood’, culture, and a whole host of things which signify “who you are”, are INALIENABLE RIGHTS. i.e. They are inherent within you and cannot be removed. To seek to do so would be deemed to be in breach of International Law. Thus, our Englishness and our England is ‘protected’ by International law which is universal and above all other laws.

  8. songspirit, on January 24th, 2009 at 10:12 pm Said:

    “Yes, you are quite right. England does need independence. Perhaps then the rest of the world will see the english for what they really are, and stop lumping them in with the rest of the UK. I rather think that people abroad need to to be quite clear on what being English means, and what being normal means.”


    The English Claim of Right

    “We declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations the interests of the English people shall be paramount.

    We further declare and pledge that our actions and deliberations shall be directed to the following ends:

    To assert the right of the English people to live in a sovereign nation state of England, free of foreign control;

    To agree a scheme for a Parliament for England;

    To mobilise English opinion and ensure the approval of the English people for that scheme;

    and to assert the right of the English people to secure

    the implementation of that scheme.”

    Ah Spirit, someone must be interested in this issue.
    1 – 10 of about 27,000,000 for the english claim of right . I hope that doesn’t make you as mad as England beating scotland, i.e. Rugby union

    What being English means and what being normal means? Oh yeah spirit, you certainly sound normal. Define what normal means spirit. I’ll look forward to your reply.

  9. Yes I agree with David and would like to see a self governing England and the break up of the UK. Incidentally, plenty of hot air about MP’s expenses, but not a whiff of a mention about the profligacy of our pampered royals?

  10. Too many people outside and inside the UK seem to assume the UK Gov is the English Gov., and that we somehow hold responsibility for good and ill. Devolution is a funny thing – had the other 3 really been interested in changing the overall balance of power that the UK Gov has, they would (if bright enough) had got England on board, instead of treating us like vermin. The UK Gov., to me, is more like a copy of Monarchy, constructed in an older time. There is nothing wrong with wanting it to be more of an umbrella than a top-down structure. This would neither prevent the independence of the 4 parts, nor promote it. That choice would lie with each part. If most of our legis. comes from Brussels, then such a bureaucratic UK Gov. is out of date, anyway. Here, here to the modern world. No, no, to wacky nationalsitic madness. A conversation from Labour is…not happening, is it? Bye, then, I waited too long for your philosophy to emerge. I found you lacking.

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