AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.


The national dimension to constitutional reform

I’m a supporter of the Power 2010 initiative that is attempting to keep radical constitutional and parliamentary reform on the political agenda. However, I have serious qualms about the organisation’s ‘British’ dimensions and the way in which it conceives of constitutional reform, ironically, in rather conservative terms: within the framework of the present United Kingdom state. For example, it has grouped the suggestions for reform of Parliament it has received from the public into categories that leave the current status of Parliament as the combined legislative body for reserved UK matters and all English matters fundamentally unchallenged:

  • Fixed-term parliaments
  • Normal holidays and working hours for MPs
  • Elect the second chamber by “sector”
  • Abolish party whips
  • Charitable representatives in the second chamber
  • A second chamber selected by lot
  • Accommodate MPs in the Olympic village
  • Give backbenchers control of parliamentary business
  • Limit government’s use of whips
  • Reform consultations
  • A class of MPs who won’t serve in government
  • Fully elected House of Lords
  • Local councils to nominate MPs
  • Lords to represent organisations
  • Independent Parliament watchdog
  • MPs accountable to their constituency

How about ‘prevent MPs from non-English constituencies from voting on English bills’, or ‘replace Parliament with a new body responsible only for reserved UK matters’? Indeed.

You won’t see ‘Establish an English parliament’ in this list because it appears under the heading of ‘Devolution and local government’ rather than that of ‘Parliament’. In this list, an EP appears third (although I assume these suggestions are listed ‘in no particular order’, as the reality-TV shows say) after ‘A stronger Parliament for Wales’ and ‘More power to regional government’ [in England, you understand]. The way these things are presented creates the impression of a smorgasbord of tasty options that could be mixed and matched according to individual preference, without thinking through their implications and the cross-overs between them. In particular, what would be the implications for England of a Welsh assembly or parliament with powers to enact primary legislation? And what sort of changes to the constitution and structure of the UK – and to the governance of its other nations – would the creation of an English parliament make necessary; in particular, how would the role and responsibilities of the UK parliament need to be modified?

In part, this pick-and-mix character of Power 2010’s options for reform is the product of the way it has been put together: out of a total of around 4,000 random suggestions from the general public, including mine, which was for an English parliament (surprise, surprise). But what is of concern to me is the UK-level process that Power 2010 is proposing in order to whittle the suggestions down to a short list of the five most urgently needed reforms, which prospective parliamentary candidates will be asked to commit to at the election:

“All of the ideas submitted are being looked at as we speak. They will be fed into a representative assembly of 200 citizens from across the nations and regions of the UK – people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.

“The assembly will meet in London in the new year to distil the ideas into a manageable shortlist for the public to vote on, weeding out irrelevant and weakly supported proposals.

“It’s then up to, you, the British public to choose the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”.

I have already commented on the Power 2010 website (under my David Rickard pseudonym) about this use of the odious ‘nations and regions’ phrase and all that it implies. My main issue is that a UK-wide ‘representative assembly’, followed by a UK-wide public vote, is not really qualified to come up with constitutional recommendations for England, such as an English parliament. On the other hand, it is not justified in excluding an EP, either. Basically, it can’t make, pass or reject proposals about the governance of England, because only an English citizens’ convention and referendum is qualified to do that. Anything else is just replicating the West Lothian Question, if anything in an aggravated form: Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish representatives laying down England’s constitutional future.

By contrast, I feel sure that Power 2010’s proposed 200-strong citizens’ assembly will not take it upon itself to make recommendations about the ongoing process of transferring ever greater powers and sovereignty to the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. Indeed, on Monday (St. Andrew’s Day), to coincide with the SNP’s launch of its ‘Your Scotland, Your Voice’ white paper on the options for the governance of Scotland to be included in a possible referendum, the same Power 2010 website published a contribution from Canon Kenyon Wright – one of the leading architects of the 1989 Scottish Claim of Right – outlining the ongoing work in Scotland to establish a written constitution for Scotland and the UK, and to reform the Scottish parliament. This work is going on entirely independently, as it were, of Power 2010; and there’s no suggestion from the Power 2010 team that it should be integrated with the broader UK-wide movement for constitutional reform that it is trying to steer. Nevertheless, Canon Wright himself is of the opinion that the work of the Constitutional Commission in Scotland, of which he is the honorary chair, can help to inform and drive the process of overhauling the decaying and defunct UK constitution and political system.

My question is this: if the ongoing progress towards full Scottish self-government, founded on the sovereignty of the Scottish people, is truly consistent with the aim of arriving at a “written constitution which creates a truly constitutional monarchy, and sets standards and principles which are above the common law, and redefine the sharing of power [and which] would be the basis for a very different and radically reformed Union” (in Kenyon Wright’s words), then why does the Scottish Constitutional Commission not make common cause with Power 2010 and other movements that are campaigning for radical UK constitutional reform?

The answer, I believe, is that Canon Wright’s movement is not primarily concerned with UK-constitutional reform at all: it is a Scottish-driven, Scotland-centred process focused on the Scottish national interest, which – in addition to the principle of popular sovereignty – was the other key pledge that the signatories of the Scottish Claim of Right committed themselves to: “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a movement for Scottish self-rule putting the Scottish national interest first: that’s only what you’d expect. However, what I object to is the pretence that this is consistent with a joined-up approach to comprehensive reform of the UK constitution carried out in the interests of all its nations and not just one of them. The Scottish Constitutional Commission is basically out to procure a form of government that is both genuinely autonomous and in the Scottish interest, something which Canon Wright elsewhere terms ‘Secure Autonomy’ – a position similar to the third of four possible options presented in the SNP-government’s white paper: a sort of independence within the Union, with Scotland managing virtually all of its own affairs (including taxation) apart from things like defence and foreign affairs. In other words, this is having the cake of independence and eating the cake of security within the Union. Quite what the impact of these new constitutional arrangements would be on the remainder of the Union – if, indeed, anything remained of the Union at this point – is not spelt out by the Canon:

  • “The powers of the autonomous Scotland would certainly include constitutional matters, and full fiscal autonomy, though much more work needs to be done both on powers and on the implications for the Union.
  • “Links with a reformed Union, probably of a neo-federal nature, would be retained”.

Well, yes, a lot more work does need to be done on the implications for the Union. But that’s not Canon Wright’s concern. Scotland will get it wants, and the rest of the Union will just have to accommodate itself to Scotland’s wishes. As the Canon puts it: “Much can and must be negotiated, but sovereignty is non-negotiable”.

That’s all well and good; but this is not constitutional reform carried out in a way that shows much care either for the complex fabric and history of the UK’s unwritten constitution, nor much concern about the damaging impact on other parts of the Union of piecemeal reform to individual pieces of the jigsaw, motivated by partisan interests, that then loses sight of the bigger picture. This exemplifies the cavalier and short-sighted approach to constitutional reform that has characterised New Labour, and in particular the asymmetric devolution settlement designed to see off the nationalist threat in Labour’s Celtic heartlands without any thought for its impact on England. And I see a danger of more of the same being perpetrated through the Power 2010 initiative: the UK-wide representative assembly and vote will not impinge on the evolving devolution / independence processes in Scotland and Wales; but it will make decisions that affect every aspect of English governance by virtue of the fact that the UK parliament has the ultimate sovereignty over all English affairs. Will UK-parliamentary sovereignty simply be replaced by the sovereignty of the British, not English, people in matters of English governance?

I don’t see anybody in the Power 2010 movement rushing to acknowledge the principle of English popular sovereignty, in parallel to the principle of Scottish popular sovereignty of which Canon Wright is such an eloquent exponent. The reason why they do not embrace such a principle is that it would undermine the Power 2010 movement’s assumption that it can serve as the unified vehicle for a ‘national-British’ popular sovereignty and an integrated reform of the whole UK political system – or, as it puts it, “you, the British public [choosing] the 5 reforms our democracy most desperately needs in a nationwide vote”. So it’s not ‘we the English people’ deciding on the forms of governance best suited to our needs, but ‘we the British public’ once again making decisions on England’s behalf. The choice of the word ‘public’ here makes me think that my earlier comparison of Power 2010’s approach with the process of picking TV talent-show winners through a ‘public vote’ was not altogether misplaced. This is like a talent show of original reform ideas, in which the winners are those that are most ‘popular’ with the British public. But this sort of popularity does not necessarily correspond to a genuine exercise of popular sovereignty by and on behalf of the people (the English) who will be most affected by the decisions; nor does it automatically equate to real merit, as we know only too well from the mediocrity of so many talent-show winners.

So what I fear we will get from Power 2010 is a campaign for UK-wide constitutional reform that is meant to be adequate for England and yet will foster a piecemeal approach that allows Scotland and Wales to continue on their own paths to greater autonomy without considering the coherence of the Union as a whole or the rights of the English people to also exercise their sovereignty. Instead of rushing to come up with five glittering, vote-winning competition ‘finalists’ ahead of the general election, what is needed is a much more joined-up, deliberative approach that genuinely seeks to reconcile the currently opposing national interests and aspirations that otherwise risk breaking the Union apart altogether. If the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people that aspire both to greater national autonomy, and to a continuing and revitalised Union inspired by common principles of democracy, solidarity and liberty, are unable to bring together their different national projects and perspectives, then there is no hope for the Union. A sustainable United Kingdom cannot be based on a multi-track, multi-system set-up where the different nations have different degrees of independence from the centre; and where England is governed as the UK, in the interests of the other UK nations, by UK-wide structures that ignore the will of the English people.

For these same reasons, there’s simply no point coming up with a list of the top-five options for constitutional reform if these are not linked in a logical way that sets out a coherent path towards real change. Certain pre-conditions need to be laid out and satisfied in order for the reform process to be genuine and to stand a chance of long-term success. In brief, here is what I would have as such a list of the five most important principles and objectives, without which the whole exercise lacks coherence:

  1. Formal recognition of the fundamental human right of national communities to determine their own form of government (popular sovereignty), and to decide whether they wish to constitute a national community or not
  2. On this basis, a formal process to determine which actually are the national communities of the United Kingdom, including, for instance, a referendum in Cornwall to decide whether Cornwall should be considered as a nation or not; and an even more contentious process for the Northern Irish to decide whether they regard the Province as a nation in its own right. If the people of Ulster chose not to become a nation, the Province could probably be considered as a self-governing British region, which would not be very different in practical terms from being a self-governing British nation
  3. Following this, referendums in each of the UK’s nations about membership of the EU. Based on the possibly divergent results (e.g. England voting ‘no’ and the other nations voting to remain in the EU), recognition that the UK’s nations may need to have separate responsibility for their international relations. The EU question needs to be resolved first, as it sets the parameters for the amount of genuine sovereignty each nation can have over its own affairs
  4. A genuinely multi-nation, cross-UK consultative and deliberative process to establish the core principles of a new written constitution for a new UK state. Creating written constitutions tends to arise when new nations and states are being established; and the process of constitutional reform in the UK should be no different: any written constitution for the UK must set out details regarding the relationships between the UK’s autonomous nations, and between each nation and the UK state
  5. A series of referendums in each of the UK’s nations to decide on the answer to two questions: a) Do you accept the core principles of the proposed new constitution?, and b) Do you wish those principles to apply to a new (con)federal UK or separately to your own nation as an independent state? Such a combination of options allows for a unified constitutional-reform process for all the UK’s nations as well as keeping open the possibility that some or all of them may seek to go their own way, albeit on the basis of common principles worked out in collaboration with their fellow-British nations.

These are the type of fundamental question that any meaningful process of constitutional reform for the UK must deal with if it is to do justice to the divergent and competing interests of the UK’s nations. The alternative is simply to carry on with the same fundamental identity and structure of the British state as it is now, requiring any idea of English popular sovereignty to be suppressed. But this is neither just nor sustainable in the long run, particularly if the other UK nations are allowed to pursue their own destinies and preserve their influence over England via the Union out of increasingly self-interested motives.

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

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’.

English Democrats: Are the BBC taking the monkeys; or do they just not give a monkeys?

Watched the TV interview with the English Democrat chairman Robin Tilbrook on the Daily Politics yesterday. Effectively, he was given about half of the five minutes allotted to the item, with the remaining half being given over to a couple of panellists. I thought he held his own quite well against some fairly tough questioning. He explained the party’s core aims calmly and clearly – an English parliament and greater fairness towards England in the allocation of public expenditure – and was just about allowed enough time to state that the EDP did have policies on ‘non-devolved’ matters before the panellists were brought in. Incidentally, the interviewer Anita Anand displayed her ignorance by referring to ‘crime’ as such a reserved matter. On the contrary, criminal law, justice and policing are devolved matters in Scotland, if not in Wales.

Tilbrook also talked effectively about the EDP mayor in Doncaster, describing the area as “the largest metropolitan borough council in England”, over which the EDP were now “effectively in power”, making the party a credible alternative to Labour at the general election.

By contrast to Tilbrook’s restrained, if somewhat wary and uncomfortable, dignity, one of the panellists (Gaby Hinsmith, I think it was: never seen her before) duly resorted to insinuations and mockery, implicitly comparing the EDP with the BNP (she also referred to it, in a Freudian slip, as the “English National Democrats”) and comparing the EDP mayor in Doncaster with the monkey that was re-elected mayor of Hartlepool, which “didn’t translate to a simian victory worldwide”. (What a p**t!) All of which is ‘taking the monkeys’ out of the people of Doncaster, to say nothing of the people of Hartlepool who, as Robin Tilbrook subsequently pointed out, voted for the man in the monkey suit (a local independent and Hartlepool FC mascot), not ‘the monkey’ as such.

In any case, this had nothing to do with the question of an English parliament; and Gaby was effectively dismissing the EDP as just one among several ‘fringe’ parties that worried the mainstream parties enough for them to occasionally tailor their policies to reflect people’s concerns, citing the example of tough talking on immigration whenever the BNP appears to be doing well. Well, I haven’t heard Labour talking tough on immigration recently, let alone mentioning the English democratic deficit.

The presenter then brought in one of the other panellists, the Scottish editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson. He seems to be something of a darling of BBC TV and radio producers these days, having appeared on BBC1’s Question Time only the previous night where he was evidently riled by the failure of his co-panellists to remember his name correctly, calling him ‘Nelson Fraser’! Nelson – surname – recently wrote a somewhat ridiculous article in his own rag claiming that Tory support for the Union is draining, evidently in an attempt to goad David Cameron into making more of a stand in defence of the Union. So I was expecting a dollop of unionist tripe served up with a dash of Nelson’s usual sneering and self-satisfied ridicule. However, he was surprisingly sympathetic, merely referring to the unfair electoral system that makes it impossible for smaller parties to achieve a break-through in general elections.

Then it was quickly back to Tilbrook who, after dealing with the monkey point, claimed that it was a reasonable objective for the English Democrats to win one parliamentary seat at the election, which was where the SNP were at in the mid-1970s; and once they were elected, they became “established”.

All in all, quite a creditable performance against a backdrop of ignorance, sarcasm and thinly veiled contempt on the part of two of the other participants. But absolutely no discussion about the merits of the case for an English parliament. Could it be that, as well as taking the monkeys, the Corporation doesn’t give a monkeys about democratic fairness to the people of England? (Incidentally, I also caught Tilbrook on Radio 4’s six o’clock news, which – to my astonishment – carried a brief article on the EDP conference, indicating that they’d obtained the seventh-largest share of the vote in England at the European elections. Tilbrook was given the opportunity to explain the party’s two different models for an EP: either a separate, devolved parliament à la Holyrood, or a restructuring of the present British parliament, with the House of Commons becoming the English parliament and the House of Lords being transformed into a UK-wide upper house or senate.)

So again, sympathy in unexpected places; this time on the 6.00 o’clock news. Maybe the lunchtime and evening crews at Radio 4 are a bit more professional and conscientious than the lot at the Today programme. It was an email dialogue with a ‘duty editor’ at Today called Dominic Groves that prompted me to make the above statement about the BBC not giving a monkeys about democratic fairness towards England, as well as being downright, wilfully ignorant about devolution.

I say that because, yesterday, I received a reply to an email of complaint I had re-sent the programme back on 6 September, having received an inadequate reply when I first sent it on 4 September:

“Dear Sirs,

Please find below the text of a complaint I sent to the programme on Friday 4 September regarding your programme of the previous morning. I received an automated reply from you. However, given the nature of the complaint, and the fact I previously sent you a complaint on the same subject that was neither acknowledged nor addressed, I feel a more personal response is required. Here is the text of my original complaint:

Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to complain about the article on the NHS on yesterday morning’s programme immediately after the 8.00 news.

The entire discussion and interview made absolutely no mention of the fact that the NHS in question was the English one, as it is only the English NHS that Westminster politicians have anything to do with; and it is only the English NHS that will be debated about at the next general election.

To discuss options for reducing expenditure and cutting jobs in the NHS without mentioning that it is only the NHS in England that is being talked about represents a regrettable lack of editorial rigour and journalistic accuracy. Surely the options for the English NHS cannot and should not be discussed in isolation from the various solutions and priorities, and the funding, for the NHS’s in the countries with devolved governments. For example, do we in England actually want more privatisation and market mechanisms in the health service, along the lines already introduced by New Labour, while the NHS’s in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue along more traditional public-sector lines, thanks in part to the greater per-capita expenditure their systems enjoy by virtue of the Barnett Formula?

And what will the impact of the proposed real-terms increases in NHS funding in England be for the other UK countries? Could it be that they may result in or require decreases in spending elsewhere? And how will the devolved administrations continue to maintain the generous funding they have received to date? This would be a discussion about the NHS in Britain as a whole. If we’re talking about England, on the other hand, we should say so. Then the English people might realise they have a choice for what they want in England and should not feel beholden to a spurious notion of what the UK as a whole can afford or to a misleading idea that the NHS is a single cross-UK organisation where only one model of health-care delivery can be implemented. Once people in England are adequately informed about the diversity of current approaches to health care, not only between the UK and other comparable countries, but within the UK, they can then begin to make informed decisions about which party’s policies for the English NHS they wish to back.

I recently complained to the Today programme on this same issue but have received no reply or acknowledgement. The substance of this complaint is related to an ‘Open letter to the BBC on reporting policy debates at the next general election’ I have posted on the ‘English Parliament Online’ website, and which I forwarded to the BBC Trust. I also copied the present complaint to the Trust, from whom I subsequently received a response inviting me to re-submit my complaint via the standard online complaint forms, which I have done.

This is an issue that the BBC must address. Its reporting of English political affairs and policy discussions is woefully incomplete and misleading at present. The English people deserve to be better informed on the policy issues that affect them.

Yours faithfully,

David Rickard”

Below is the text of the reply I received yesterday [my comments in square brackets.]:

“Dear Mr Rickard,

Thank you for your email. You raise a number of interesting questions about the relationship between spending in England and those [that] in other devolved administrations [what does ‘other devolved administrations’ mean?]. However I would take issue with your suggestion that our discussion on September 3rd related only to one part of the United Kingdom [he means England]. Devolution has given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland limited – or no – tax raising powers [nor does England have tax-raising powers; so in fact, the ability of Scotland to vary the income-tax rate by 3p relative to the rest of the UK represents greater tax-raising powers than England]. That means the budget deficits at the heart of the debate over NHS spending will affect those areas as much as they will affect England. It would therefore have been misleading to have suggested that the debate was confined only to England. [See his trick: the debate about health-care funding as such isn’t confined to England; but the policies debated at the general election will be confined to England. All the politicians on the programme were Westminster ones.] That said, I would acknowledge that there are issues over the way central money is distributed (the so called Barnett formula) [so-called Barnett Formula?].We have looked at this subject before and will no doubt return to it in the future.

Yours sincerely

Dominic Groves

Duty Editor”.

Obviously, I wasn’t content to let the matter rest there; so I replied to Mr Groves in the following terms – rather restrained in the manner of Mr Tilbrook, I thought:

“Dear Mr Groves,

Thank you for your reply to my complaint. I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to look into the matter and respond.

I suppose it will not be surprising to you that I disagree with most of what you say, however. My main grievance was that the whole roughly five-minute article made no mention of England, whose NHS is the only one that Westminster politicians can make decisions about. Many listeners, not necessarily all of whom are politically uninformed persons, will have come away from the discussion with the impression that it related to the whole of Britain, which it did not.

I take your point that budget cuts will also affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; but they will do so only indirectly: Westminster politicians will not have the power to decide in which areas of public expenditure the cuts will be made in those countries, even if the overall level of expenditure will need to fall. For instance, the Scottish government could decide that it will not cut spending on what they call NHS Scotland. It would be able to do that by making greater cuts or savings elsewhere; or by increasing income tax via the 3p variable rate (or 10p if the Calman Commission recommendations are implemented).

Therefore, at the next election, it will be necessary for the media to make clear that when the parties are debating how they are going to cut costs and reallocate spending on public services, they are not talking about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Otherwise, people in those countries might get the impression that if the party they vote for wins the general election, then the policies discussed before the election for things such as education, health, local government, etc. will be implemented in their countries, which they won’t. They will therefore be voting on a false prospectus.

It’s as simple as that: some policy proposals relate to England only, and some relate to all or other parts of the UK. The people of the UK deserve to be informed about which is which.

Yours sincerely,

David Rickard”

It seems somewhat ridiculous to have to be having dialogues of this sort with news editors at the BBC, or to watch reputable political shows in which the presenters and contributors display such ignorance and contempt for important issues of fairness and democracy in the UK. Ten years into devolution, they ought to be more aware about which matters are devolved (and hence relate to England only in the context of Westminster politics) and which are genuinely relevant to the whole of the UK.

Apart from the political reasons for this (i.e. defence of the British establishment, of which the BBC is a major part and symbol), this blindness towards English nationhood and England-specific policy areas is another illustration of what I describe in an OurKingdom article as the establishment’s would-be assimilation of England and Englishness to ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ in the wake of devolution. This is done in the attempt to suppress the emergence of a distinct English national identity that would then demand separate political and civic institutions (too late; the cat is already out of the bag). If everything that is really English is called and thought of as ‘British’, then the powers that be can pretend that there is no distinction between English and British matters (which is a total denial of the facts), and hence no need for a separate ‘English’ parliament. But it’s not only the case that the BBC, media commentators and politicians are deliberately deceiving the English people in glossing over the differences between what relates to England and what relates to the UK; but also the politicians and journalists concerned are in part taken in by their own fiction and their own fabrication of a homogeneous, unitary Britain that does not exist in practice. It’s like Orwellian Newspeak (or, as we should perhaps put it, ‘news speak’), as in the novel 1984: if you tell yourself a conscious, deliberate lie often enough – e.g. calling England ‘Britain’ – eventually, you will come to believe it

Hence, in the case of Dominic Groves from the Today programme, I think on one level he genuinely believes that when politicians are talking about painful spending and job cuts in the ‘British’ NHS, they actually mean ‘Britain’; but in reality, ‘Britain’ is Newspeak for England. However, Grove and his like are so taken in that they think ‘Britain’ means ‘the whole of Britain’. Hence, when he says – and I paraphrase – ‘because Britain faces a budget deficit, spending on the British NHS will have to be reduced, and that will affect all parts of Britain’, what he really means is: ‘because the UK faces a budget deficit, spending on the English NHS [England having been re-named ‘Britain’] will have to be reduced; and, concurrently but separately, spending on the NHS’s in the “British nations” will / may also have to be reduced’. In short, ‘Britain’ is being used fallaciously to refer to three quite distinct entities (the British state (the UK), England and the devolved nations) as if they were a single, homogeneous nation to whose governance Westminster politicians and London-based parties somehow have an input in a unitary fashion; and Groves believes his own fiction.

A similar point could be made about Gaby What’s-her-name off the Daily Politics. Her inability to engage with the English Democrats’ actual agenda (English self-government) was connected with an inability to perceive ‘England’ as in any way distinct from ‘Britain’. Hence her mental confusion regarding the distinction between the EDP and the BNP, as if to be an English civic nationalist was not polls apart (pun intended) from – in fact, diametrically opposed to – being an ethnic British nationalist.

So we’ve got quite a mountain to climb to even get people to consider the possibility that English political affairs could be governed separately from UK ones: because even many politicians and media have become blind to the difference between them. But we have to keep pushing them to see that when they say ‘Britain’, that can mean either the UK, England or the devolved nations; and it’s rather crucial to bring out the distinction if we’re going to have any sort of meaningful political conversation.

Otherwise, those three Britains will be like the three wise monkeys: seeing no evil, hearing no evil, doing no evil – or rather, blinding themselves to their woeful governance of England because they’re incapable of seeing England itself and hearing the English demands for fairness and democracy. But if they think they can carry on making monkeys out of us indefinitely, they might find they’re dealing with a species made of sterner stuff.

Real Change: Britain or England?

Introduction: Deliberations on British-constitutional reform must factor in the national questions

I recently signed up to ‘Real Change‘. This is a grassroots movement that aims to set in motion a nationwide debate, at local level, about fundamental constitutional reform, culminating ultimately in a citizens’ convention to collate and deliberate on all the options, and to come up with proposals for a new written constitution.

This is something that is urgently required in my view, and which I’ve supported in numerous posts on this blog, as the British government and parliament have lost much of their legitimacy as democratic institutions, especially as far as the governance of England is concerned. Real Change also correctly places the emphasis on popular sovereignty, or bottom-up reform: citizens coming together to decide on the ‘form of government best suited to their needs’; as opposed to Parliament-led, top-down reform, in which the Westminster Parliament will inevitably seek to retain its privileges, particularly the notion that it – and only it – is the sovereign authority in the land.

The inevitable question I have about Real Change, though, is whether it is, or should be, predominantly a UK-wide or England-focused movement. At the moment, it is effectively both, in a way that replicates the dual nature of the current Westminster model of governance. Real Change presently articulates its aims in relation to Britain / the UK: the British people forming a nationwide (UK-wide) movement culminating in proposals for a new British constitution, a (British) Bill of Rights and / or a radically re-shaped (British) parliament. But at the same time, unless something is done to rectify the situation, the would-be reformed British political system would also remain the vehicle for the governance of England: the English Question is an integral part of the British-Constitutional Question, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.

My own question about this is in fact twofold: 1) can a unitary, UK-wide process and set of objectives such as Real Change possibly succeed if they do not explicitly, and from their inception, factor in the different debates around and aspirations towards self-government in the various nations of which the UK is composed? 2) are the campaign and movements for reform of the British constitution and parliament not in fact already primarily English movements: made up of English people who think of the present constitution and system of government as essentially theirs and make no fundamental distinction between which bits of the whole edifice are British and which English?

In other words, Real Change is in danger of becoming another Anglo-British movement: believing that it is possible to implement a new unitary-British system of governance that would be the product of ‘British’ popular sovereignty exercised in a consistent and coherent manner across the whole of the UK; and which, indeed, would represent the expression and consolidation of a redefined ‘British nation’. Such concepts are expressions of the traditional English conflation of England and English government with Britain as a whole. It is highly debatable, to say the least, whether a perpetuation of the fuzziness regarding the overlaps between British and English / Scottish / Welsh / Irish [/Cornish] identities (which it has arguably been one of the main purposes of the present constitutional settlement to keep fuzzy) is feasible and acceptable any more, for any of the nations concerned – even for England. Each of the UK’s nations has embarked on an irrevocable process of defining and reaffirming its distinct identity; and this process is inextricably bound up with the search for the appropriate type and degree of national self-rule: the search for the ‘form of government best suited to its needs’.

This search, in England, is still wrapped up for many – including, arguably, for Real Change – in the forms and structures of British government that have evolved out of centuries of English political history, of which they are the continuation today. In other words, the people who conceive of constitutional reform in ‘this country’ in terms of the British constitution and parliament will tend to be English (or at least, Anglo-British) people who have still not dissociated the identities of England and Britain. No such problem for the Scots and Welsh, who view their own conversations regarding the forms of national self-rule they would like to have as quite distinct from – though bound up with – considerations about the British constitution. Surely, at a ‘constitutional moment’ such as this, where we have a unique opportunity to redraw the whole framework defining the relationship between the UK’s nations and its political centre, it is time to separate out those parts of the picture that relate to the government of England from the elements that may still be able to form the basis for a trans-national British system of government of some sort: to set apart the foundations of a new English-national politics and consciousness from those of a completely re-worked ‘United Nations of Britain and Ireland’.

New British Parliament, or separate English and British parliaments?

The pinnacle and centre of the agenda of constitutional and political reform is the demand for fundamental change to the operation, structure and accountability of Parliament. Notice how the word itself, ‘Parliament’, is so often ‘hypostasised’: turned into a sort of Person or legal personality in its own right, rather like the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in Christian doctrine, by means of capitalising the word and treating it grammatically as a personal subject of sentences: ‘Parliament does this’, ‘Parliament intends that’; and, if I’m not mistaken, I’m sure I’ve heard the use of the personal pronoun ‘she’ for Parliament, rather than ‘it’. But the effect of this is also to reinforce the thinking that there is and can be only one Parliament, i.e. the British Parliament which, it is said, is a perfectly adequate vehicle for the government of England, in both senses of the word ‘adequate’: ‘sufficiently good / good enough’ and ‘appropriate / commensurate’ – and this for the fundamental reason that the traditional political identities of Britain and England are merged and are one – like the Holy Trinity, indeed, with ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ being replaced by ‘Britain, England and Parliament’.

Constitutional prescriptions that take the British Parliament as their sole object and prize are therefore bound up in the traditional non-differentiation of Britain and England. But this model and this view of ‘the country’ (a term that is generally deployed to avoid specifying whether one means Britain or England, or to express the ambiguous conflation of the two) have already begun to radically break down, and they cannot be carried forward into a new, remoulded British parliament. Not ‘should not’ be incorporated into a new parliament, but ‘cannot’. It is quite inconceivable, in fact, that a radically new parliament, designed with the express intention of eliminating the democratic deficits and lack of accountability of the present system, should perpetuate the most glaring example of the present system’s injustices: the fact that MPs for non-English constituencies can legislate for England, which they have not been elected to represent; while neither they (nor English MPs) can make legislation or decisions for their own countries in policy areas that have been devolved.

Once a new constitution is written down, it could not possibly embody an asymmetric structure such as this, which is wholly without any justification, either logically or democratically. Indeed, one of the main reasons for not coming up with a written constitution – and some would say one of the benefits of not having one – is that you would have to address anomalies such as this that have arisen as a result of Britain having a constitution that slowly evolves through successive statutes, rather than a single, largely immutable, set of fundamental constitutional principles.

Devolution as introduced by New Labour in 1998 effectively also created a distinct English layer of governance: those areas of responsibility of the UK government that now apply to England only because the devolved administrations deal with the same policy areas for their own countries. A new UK constitution – or, indeed, a constitution for a new kind of UK – would, one would think, have to rationalise and systematise the devolution arrangements: certain areas of government to be carried out by the respective national parliaments and assemblies (including one for England), and the remaining reserved matters to be handled by the new UK parliament. It is unimaginable that a written constitution would seek to set in stone something along the present lines: ‘Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland have their own parliamentary bodies to deal with matters x, y and z; but for England only, the corresponding matters are dealt with in the parliament for the whole of the UK by representatives from Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland alongside English representatives’.

So a new written British constitution and parliamentary framework would have to deal with the English Question and the relationship between the UK’s nations and central government. The most logical and fair solution for England, in this context, would appear to be to create an English parliament to deal with England-only legislation and policy, whatever overall UK framework this was incorporated within: devolution, federation or confederation [and below, I discuss the possibility that a British constitution could devolve power either within or to England but, at the same time, still deny England an identity as a sovereign nation in its own right].

It is still of course possible that the politicians might seek to circumvent the eventuality of an English parliament by promoting a regional model of devolution, as New Labour attempted to do, with regional assemblies in England supposedly serving as an equivalent to the national bodies in the other UK countries: the infamous ‘Britain of nations and regions’ model. But as this very designation implies, this would be just as asymmetric as the present devolution settlement: England only denied nation status and a national representative body. It’s also a highly unpopular idea as the referendum on an assembly for the ‘North East’ region and numerous opinion polls since then have demonstrated beyond all doubt. Therefore, if the constitutional-reform process is genuinely bottom-up and takes account of what English people actually want, the regionalisation of England will be dismissed out of hand.

The kind of radical reform of Parliament that groups like Real Change and others are pressing for cannot therefore avoid thinking about at least the possibility of an English parliament as a means to redress the English democratic deficit; although, given the unionist and Anglo-British habits of thought that still seem to pervade the constitutional-reform movement, attempts will no doubt be made to ‘accommodate’ the England-only tier of governance within a supposedly unitary British parliament; e.g. through some variant of the English Grand Committee model, with English MPs only being permitted to vote on England-only matters. But this is a highly messy compromise solution that certainly would not satisfy very many English voters and would miss the opportunity that a new written constitution presents: that of setting out which parts of government the people of England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland [and Cornwall] wish to be handled by separate national parliamentary bodies, and which bits (if any) they wish to pool together in a continuing UK government.

It may not be possible to produce a ‘one size fits all’ solution, with all of the nations having the same degree of autonomy from the centre, and the same set of devolved responsibilities. And the constitutional framework that was devised would need to be flexible enough to accommodate further change, such as popular demand for independence in Scotland or progression towards a united Ireland. Ultimately, in my own mind, I think we are witnessing the slow break-up of the UK into its constituent national parts, one manifestation of which is this very constitutional crisis. But it’s equally possible that this may not be a one-way process that will inevitably destroy any common ‘UK’-wide system of government or pooled sovereignty between the UK’s nations. The most effective way to ensure that this does become a process that shatters the UK beyond repair would be to try to deny it and attempt to perpetuate a unitary framework of government, one of whose pillars then becomes the denial of any distinct English layer of government and even the denial of England’s distinct nationhood. Similarly, and more fundamentally, if constitutional reform is truly to be driven from the grassroots, then the new structure that is put together will need to be the expression of the different nations’ visions for their future and blueprints for their governance. We should not necessarily presuppose that enough common ground can be created to continue with the UK, certainly in its present form. On the other hand, if the ‘nationwide’ process of debating and attempting to reach consensus on constitutional reform in England does not see itself as being part of a process leading to the establishment of a new national-English politics and government, but rather as a ‘British’ process in the old Anglo-British mould, then it will lose the legitimacy it might otherwise have had as an expression of English popular sovereignty.

British sovereignty is parliamentary; English sovereignty is popular

Real Change and the broader movement of which it is a part are bound to consider the English Question not only on the grounds of logic, fairness and democratic accountability, but also out of what might be termed basic structural considerations. By this, I mean, to what notion of sovereignty does the whole constitutional-reform exercise appeal, and on what national foundations is this sovereignty built upon? As I stated at the beginning of this post, the Real Change project appears to presuppose some notion of ‘British popular sovereignty’: the people of the whole of the UK coming together to redefine the terms under which they are governed. But it is far from obvious that the ‘British people’ as such exist as a sovereign nation of this sort. By this, I don’t just mean that British sovereignty has always been defined in terms of the sovereignty of the UK Parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people; but rather that popular sovereignty itself has tended to be conceived of as being the property, if at all, of the various UK nations rather than the British people as some sort of unified collectivity.

This certainly is the case for Scotland, where the principle of popular sovereignty was (in)famously re-stated in the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1988. This body issued the Scottish Claim of Right, to which I have already alluded in one or two places above, that asserted “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”. It is on the basis of this constitutional principle that devolution was enacted, and to which any further extension of devolution or right of Scottish independence effectively appeals.

Insofar as it has historically been constitutionally and politically assimilated to the UK, England has not maintained such a strong tradition of popular sovereignty but has tended to accept the legitimacy of UK-parliamentary sovereignty. But it is nonetheless arguable that the legitimacy of UK-parliamentary sovereignty relies on the more fundamental and historically more enduring principle of English popular sovereignty. Without going into all that history, I would argue that English people – at least, since the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights – have tended to believe in the proposition that the sovereignty of first the English Parliament and subsequently the British / UK Parliament derived from the democratically expressed sovereign will of the people: the English people, that is. Freedom and democracy, on this view, reside in the free will: that of the people who elect the representatives of their choice; and that of those representatives, the MPs, themselves who, if they are truly to re-present a free nation in parliament (if they are the parliamentary ‘instantiation’ of the people), must also be free to vote as their conscience and free intellects dictate – making them representatives of the people, not mere delegates or party-political pawns. This is the English model of parliamentary democracy that the British Parliament – after the Acts of Union with Scotland in 1707 – took on in its essentials, with the consequence that the English people have always regarded Parliament as still an English parliament in all but name, even though its geographic remit was extended to Scotland and Ireland. That is, UK-parliamentary sovereignty, in the popular imagination of the English, was sovereign by virtue of continuing to express and represent the sovereignty of the free English people.

Devolution introduced a radical break with this, at that time, nearly tercentennial, unwritten set of assumptions; and much of the popular, English sentiment that Parliament has lost its legitimacy and that politicians have lost touch with the people derives, in my view, from this schism whose effects in the national Anglo-British psyche are far-reaching and traumatic, and will ultimately tear apart the unified Anglo-British consciousness itself. Putting this in logical form: if UK-parliamentary sovereignty derived its legitimacy from the popular will, and if the people whose will is in question were the English people, then once Parliament no longer feels it has to reflect the will of the English people, it has lost its legitimacy.

One clear example of this is the West Lothian Question, discussed above: the fact that Parliament believes it can still legislate for England alone despite not being a representative body for England, elected by and accountable to the English people in its decisions on England’s behalf. But in addition to this particularly blatant example of disregard for England as a nation, many of the other examples of Parliament’s assaults on our traditional English liberties can be seen as an expression of the fact that, post-devolution, Parliament has effectively abrogated sovereignty to itself alone, i.e. sovereignty has become divorced from the very wellspring of its legitimacy: the will of the English people. How many of the infringements of our liberty that Parliament has enacted since 1998 would have been accepted by the English people if they had been given the chance to have an informed public debate and vote on them in a referendum: detention without charge; weakening of the principle of innocence until proven guilty; restrictions on jury trials; etc., etc? Probably very few, if any; and the fact that these measures, undermining historic English freedoms, would not have been ratified by the English people is almost the very form and frame through which their illegitimacy is to be viewed and understood.

The point I am making is that the UK parliament has lost its legitimacy because it is no longer a valid English parliament; and the reason why this is so is that parliamentary sovereignty has become divorced from the English popular sovereignty that once informed and supported it. How has this happened, and what is the link with devolution? This is an extremely complex and, as I said, far-reaching and traumatic question. But in essence, what I am saying is that Parliament severed its organic link with popular sovereignty because – as a result or precondition of devolution – it lost its profound identity as the English parliament; and as Parliament ceased to identify with the English nation, so the English nation increasingly no longer sees Parliament as an institution that represents it. Under the unitary system before devolution, Parliament could safely be at once the English parliament and the British parliament: English in its traditions and ground of popular legitimacy; British in its administrative and legislative remit.

After devolution, the ultimate ground of sovereignty throughout the UK could no longer be said or thought to be the will of the English people. Redirecting English popular sovereignty into a separate English parliament similar to the new bodies in Scotland and Wales would have explicitly broken up the long-standing organic identification of the English with Britain and British parliamentary democracy. The fear was that once that Anglo-British national identity had dissolved, so would the Anglo-British parliament and state that depended on it. So, in order to maintain the pretence of a supposedly still unitary British state, run from the Westminster centre, that state had to recast itself as a monolithic Britain / UK whose sovereignty, authority and national identity was conceived as having no fundamental reference to, or dependence on, their traditional foundations: this became British-parliamentary sovereignty as a self-validating thing, not popular English sovereignty as validating Parliament; Britain and Britishness superseding England and Englishness.

More than any other factor, it is this fundamental occulting and suppression of England from the heart of the British state, which the English people previously regarded as their own, that has led to the huge disenchantment with politics felt by the English; whereas polls reveal that Scottish, Welsh and N. Irish people generally feel that devolution has brought more accountable and more effective government to their own nations. This ‘de-anglicisation’ has also been the basis for New Labour’s and Gordon Brown’s efforts to assimilate (English) national identity to (British) citizenship, involving the mobilisation of a huge political and cultural machinery in attempting to reinvent and re-describe everything that has historically been English as ‘British’, and in referring to every governmental and political action that relates to England only as if it affected the whole of the UK – if only by omitting the key fact that it concerns England alone.

Why is English nationality replaced by British citizenship in this way? Because the sovereign will of the English people has been suborned by the British state-in-Parliament, which then becomes the sole founding, sovereign, national entity: the embodiment of the ‘national identity’ of its citizens, indeed. And, as I have just described above, this has manifested itself through a massive project to create a new ‘British Nation’ replacing England. Producing a brand-new written constitution also partakes of this sort of nation building: constitutions make claims concerning the identity and values of the people whose forms of government they are setting out. Constitutions define and create new nations as much as they reflect pre-existing nations. Real Change and its fellows must resist playing into the drive to establish a new, England-denying British Nation – if only because the English people do not want it. But one suspects that many of the advocates of the Real Change movement, initially at least, supported New Labour’s drive to create a New Britain.

New constitution: British or English?

Creating and writing up a constitution involves placing ‘the nation’ on a new foundation, then; if not establishing a new nation altogether. What kind of nation do we want it to be? And, more importantly, do we want the nation to be Britain or England?

This question relates to another fundamental problem that has prevented the UK from formalising its constitution in a single master document: states with written constitutions tend to also consider themselves as nations. The uniqueness of the UK is that it is a state comprising four [or five] national communities: not a nation in its own right but having all the unitary state apparatus and external identity of a nation state. Setting and writing up a ‘British constitution’ potentially establishes the UK as a nation state for the first time. It says: ‘This is what Britain is and who the British are [as a whole]; this is our founding law; this is our system of government; this is what we regard as ‘British rights’ [and responsibilities], etc. In this way, an overarching ‘national-British’ unity would formally and officially subsume the separate national identities, values, legal systems and institutions of the different UK nations, unless the distinct status and sovereignty of those nations were explicitly guaranteed in the constitution. We’d then all be just British. Full stop. Citizenship and nationality united in one kingdom.

No wonder, then, that so many of New Labour’s leading lights and acolytes have supported ideas such as a written constitution and a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. In his recent speech in favour of constitutional reform in the wake of the expenses scandal, Gordon Brown tried to make out that the idea of a BBRR was a response to the ‘public’s’ indignation at what MPs had been getting up to; but it’s been a pet project since the inception of the Brown premiership. Brown even started uttering support for the idea of a written constitution. But you can bet your bottom euro that if such a document ever saw the light of day, this would not so much as include the word ‘England’, other than in the sense of ‘the part of the UK traditionally known as England’ or in the names of ‘British regions’, such as the ‘East of England’ (traditionally, in fact, known as East Anglia – but ‘East England’ confers existence on an entity known as ‘England’, whereas ‘East of England’ is just the easternmost part of a territory commonly referred to as England). Brown’s written constitution would be of the British type I’ve just described: creating a new Nation of Britain on the ruins of ‘England’. And, no doubt, it would all be decided on in a top-down manner by the sovereign British Parliament. Or, if we were offered a referendum, this would doubtless be a choice between the new constitution or the present asymmetric devolution settlement; and the results would not be counted separately in each of the UK nations, in case England voted against but Britain as a whole voted in favour.

But what kind of constitution does Real Change want: British or English? Support for a British constitution – and a preference in general for a de-anglicised ‘Britain’ over either the old anglocentric UK or a new, distinct, self-governing England – is often predicated upon an assumption that ‘British’ identity and values are more progressive, inclusive and universal, whilst ‘English’ identity and values are seen as conservative, ethnically exclusive and insular. The reasons for this cultural trope are many and varied, not the least of them being the general repudiation of the English popular consciousness and identity in the wake of devolution: England being associated as the (formerly) dominant and oppressive national power behind the British Empire and the pre-devolution UK; England, and English popular sovereignty, needing to be denied in order for a new ‘inclusive’ (multi-national, multi-cultural) Britain to emerge.

This sort of dualistic thinking is of course profoundly flawed, stereotypical and insulting (if not on occasions downright (inverted) racist); but it continues to inform much of the thinking about ‘Britain’s’ identity and future not only in government circles but on the part of the ‘chattering classes’: the educated liberal middle class (‘Guardian readers’) and the class from which the ‘political class’ is drawn, who see themselves as the ones best qualified and most entitled to set the direction for the ‘nation’. I have the sense that Real Change is headed up predominantly by people of that sort, although I am conscious that I am stereotyping them in my turn. But what gives me that feeling most of all, apart from personal prejudice, is that Real Change does indeed appear to conceptualise the new constitution towards which it is striving as a British constitution. British constitution; British nationality. Bye bye England.

Am I exaggerating the risk? Possibly, yes. The one guarantee that Real Change will not end up producing proposals for a British constitution that confines the nationhood of England to the dustbin of history is that it is (supposed to be) a genuine process of popular consultation and participation, in which there should in theory be sufficient scope for the merits and demerits of establishing a distinct English-national tier of governance to be properly debated; and, if they are, I can’t see what rational and just alternative could emerge, given that Scottish / Welsh / N. Irish devolution are here to stay and the English are also entitled to a parliament that represents them and speaks on their behalf.

But the stakes are very high because it is not just people’s national identity (and the identity of ‘the nation’) that is at play; but also fundamental philosophical values are typically (and by no means always fairly) aligned with either the British or English side of the equation:

  • Britain: republicanism; secularism; multi-culturalism; liberalism
  • England: monarchy; Christianity; ‘ethnic’-English culture; conservatism.

Of course, this is just another nonsensical example of simplistic oppositional thinking; but the supporters of a republic, of an ‘officially’ non-Christian (disestablished) state, of multi-culturalism and of liberal progressivism do tend in the main to pin their flag to the mast of Britishness rather than Englishness – even though, as a fact, the increasingly secular, anti-monarchical, multi-cultural and liberal society that exemplifies their values is primarily England, rather than, for instance, more socially conservative Wales and less multi-cultural Scotland. Britain is a global consumer brand, and its brand values are ‘secular-liberal-progressive-multicultural’; but the nation that is in danger of being sold out under that brand is England.

Real Change: Time for a new England to come into being

But there doesn’t have to be a stark black-and-white choice between modern, secular Britain and supposedly atavistic, Christian England. However, the choice is between Britain or England. We can debate our values once we know who we are. This is an existential choice as much as it is a constitutional or philosophical choice. Who are we; who and what is our nation; and what do we wish to become?

A choice for Britain is a choice for an Anglo-British past that has gone for ever: the UK is no longer, and can never again become, a unitary state in which British power and institutions rest on the foundation of unerring popular English support. The other nations of the UK have embarked on a journey to discover their own sovereignty and the forms of government best suited to their needs. England alone remains as the rump of the unitary UK, governed not by its own people but by a ‘sovereign’ parliament that no longer needs to command the support of the English people and does not look to it. It is time for England to embark on its own journey, as a sovereign nation, to determine new forms of government for a new era.

Alternatively, another choice for Britain is the choice for a new, homogeneous British nation-state: the stuff of New Labour’s and Gordon Brown’s dreams. This might formalise the present devolution arrangements and institute some form of devolution, regional or local, for ‘England’. But the distinct millennial British nations that so many of us continue to cherish would effectively be a thing of the past: subsumed into a formalised British citizen-nationality. No England, just as in the first type of constitutionalised Britain described in the paragraph above; but also, no Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or Cornwall. Not in the same sense, that is: as sovereign national communities. Sovereignty would reside in the British state and its self-identification with its people.

The real alternative? England. Real Change in England becomes an exercise of English popular sovereignty, in which English people collaborate in working out the forms of government best suited to their needs. This process can then be dovetailed with similar processes and national conversations that are already much further advanced in the UK’s politically more self-aware, because self-governing, nations, as well as with the Real Change and other associated processes as they are rolled out across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From this process, which is clearly an ongoing, evolutionary one, should emerge distinct views on how each nation wishes to rearrange its constitutional and political affairs. There may just be enough consensus on which aspects of national sovereignty and areas of government to pool together in a new sort of UK; or there may not be. But at least, such a process will be a truly bottom-up one, in which the nations of Britain work out for themselves how they wish to be governed.

Sovereignty belongs to the people and to the nations. We the English people can and should deliberate only on the constitutional arrangements we desire for England. Whether those arrangements also include provisions for joint-British governance, in partnership with our island neighbours, is not ours alone to decide. But we can choose to be a nation in our own right and in our own name: England.

Now that’s what I call Real Change.

Calman Report: Constitutional reform on a plate

The eagerness of the main unionist parties to seize on the Calman Commission’s report on Scottish devolution, published on Monday, suggests how little they are interested in factoring the English Question into their constitutional-renewal programmes. The report offers nothing for England: it deliberately avoids addressing the West Lothian Question; it urges that the Barnett Formula should be retained until a more equitable system for distributing the UK’s tax revenues based on real need can be determined; and it does not discuss the broader English Question – the issue of how England as a nation should be governed now that most of the Westminster government’s responsibilities relate to England alone.

The report does, however, acknowledge that this is an issue that needs to be resolved:

“Devolution to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) created political institutions that exercise many of the powers of central Government for a significant proportion of the UK. That inevitably has meant that the governance of the rest of the UK [England to you and me] cannot continue unchanged.

“It is not sufficient for Scots (or indeed Welsh or Northern Ireland citizens) to dismiss this as simply a problem for the English: the internal arrangements of the Union are a matter for all of us. The UK now has a territorial constitution, and it needs, in our view, to be more fully and clearly set out.”

Indeed. But as the constitutional-reform agendas of none of the three main parties, as set out last week, contain any reference to remedying the post-devolution anomalies in the way England is governed (i.e. the said WLQ and the absence of proper democratic accountability to the English people), or indeed make any reference to England at all even when talking about it, what hope is there that they will pay attention to this recommendation in their haste to be seen to be doing something – anything – to deliver constitutional reform?

Clearly, Calman is a safe reform, handed to them on a plate by a Commission that’s been at work on it for a year or so. It’s safe because it doesn’t put into question the fundamental assumptions of UK governance and the structure of the UK itself: UK-parliamentary sovereignty and the supposed right of the UK parliament – including members elected outside of England – to make laws and decisions affecting England alone.

In short, Calman perpetuates asymmetric devolution, indeed entrenches it still further, with greater powers for the Scottish Parliament to set the level of taxation and public expenditure in Scotland, while the power of Scottish Westminster MPs to vote through relatively lower per-capita spending for England remains unchallenged.

The commitment of the parties and of Parliament to deliver meaningful constitutional reform for England, and not just perpetuate a discriminatory, asymmetric Union, will be measured by the extent to which they are prepared to engage with these questions of democratic accountability and be honest about the English downside to Scottish devolution.