How should national-UK parties present their English policies?

On the Waking Hereward blog, there’s an interesting reply from Nick Clegg to some questions raised by the author. The first of these was why, in his speech to the Lib Dem conference in September, Nick Clegg never once mentioned the word ‘England’, even though many of the policies he outlined related to England alone. Clegg fails to answer the question, merely describing the difficulty in separating out purely English aspects of parliamentary bills, where some clauses can indeed be exclusive to England but others might apply to England & Wales; England, Wales & Northern Ireland; Great Britain; or the whole of the UK.

But the question wasn’t about the structure and geographical extent of UK legislation: it was why can’t you say ‘England’ when you mean England? And Clegg basically avoided answering that question, even though the whole premise of the Barnett Formula, to which he alluded, involves the separation of spending – and hence policy making – in England from that in the other UK nations: “it’s worth bearing in mind that the level of bloc grant in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is automatically linked to total ‘English’ spending”. Note, however, that Clegg couldn’t resist putting ‘England’ in inverted commas. This is almost a typographical analogue of his failure to refer to England as England in his speeches: as a real nation and not the portion of the territory of the United Kingdom to which all UK-parliamentary legislation applies, and for which ‘England’ is merely a historic name of convenience.

But Clegg’s response does raise some interesting questions in its turn about the nature of policy making by the national-UK parties. The implication of Clegg’s remarks is that the Lib Dems and, by logical extension, the other parties cannot formulate policy for England alone because, in any actual policy as set out in a parliamentary bill, different parts of it relate to different parts of the UK. This was in evidence in the recent Queen’s Speech where the BBC, for once, excelled in picking out the parts of the UK to which the proposed bills applied. E.g. Children, Schools and Families Bill: “Whole bill applies to England. Other parts cover Wales and extends in part to Northern Ireland”. Or the Crime and Security Bill: “Most aspects of the bill apply to England and Wales only”. Etc.

These are all UK bills; it’s just that different bits of them relate to different parts of the UK, though all of them, without exception, apply to England. They relate to different parts of the UK not only because of the different sets of powers that have been devolved to the various UK nations, but also because they cut across government departments, some of which are now England-only, and some of which still have responsibility for some or all of the UK nations. For instance, despite the fact that the competency of the UK-government Department for Children, Schools and Families is limited to England, parts of the bill of the same name – referred to above – relate to crime and policing, where the UK parliament’s responsibilities presently extend to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So, technically speaking, it is indeed highly complicated to disentangle the England-only bits from those affecting one, two or three of the other UK jurisdictions as well. But on another level, it’s extremely simple: as all UK legislation relates to England, you could simply make a distinction between English legislation, on the one hand, and UK-wide legislation, on the other. Then, instead of picking out the England-specific bits, it would be a case of saying, where relevant, ‘parts of this bill also relate to Wales and Northern Ireland’ or ‘parts of this bill also apply to Scotland and Wales’, etc.

It comes down to which country the politicians actually think they’re governing. Institutionally and legally, they’re legislating for the UK; therefore, it’s technically correct to set things out as they are done at present: UK bills, parts of which relate to different parts of the UK. But this also entrenches and expresses the establishment mindset, which is that the business of the UK Parliament and of national-UK politicians is to govern a homogeneous ‘nation’ called the UK or Britain – irrespective of the fact that perhaps the majority of what they do relates to only one part of that nation (England), and all of it applies to England alongside one or more of the other UK nations. So in their mind, the politicians think they’re governing Britain; but in reality, they’re governing England
plus.

However, the consequence of adjusting their language to more adequately reflect the post-devolution realities of UK governance would be revolutionary and would blow apart the pretence that the UK is a unitary polity. If MPs thought and, more importantly, openly said and acknowledged that the country they are really governing and legislating for, in all genuinely non-UK-wide matters, was England, this would in effect involve describing the UK parliament as a combined English and UK parliament, whose remit in English matters was occasionally extended into the other UK countries. Of course, this would be unsustainable in the long term and would inevitably lead to an increase in calls for a separate English parliament and further devolution for the other countries involving a clear, consistent separation between the powers devolved to each national parliament and purely UK-wide matters.

This is the real reason why Clegg and the other establishment politicians can’t say England. They’re stuck in a British mould many parts of which have now been chipped out leaving just England, but which they continue to think of as Britain. And they’re afraid that if they start calling it England, the whole thing will fall apart. But in reality, this is what’s needed to free them to create a new politics that is genuinely accountable to the nation – England – it actually represents. Only in this way, perhaps, will the Liberal Democrats finally realise their 1980s predecessors’ ambitions to ‘break the mould of British politics’.

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